Innovation Superpower: Networking for Innovation

I have a friend owns a restaurant and he organizes weekly meetups, so last week I went and met new people. I usually don’t do a whole lot of networking events, but this time I said ‘why not!’. I met a bunch of people there. But, one contact stood out among the many. Everyone else was there to pitch their stuff, this guy was there to learn and expand his perspective.

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Networking. We all do it. Most people network for resources. But the best leaders also do it to expand their perspective. In the book “The Innovator’s DNA,” authors Clayton Christensen, Jeff Dyer, and Hal Gregersen identify networking as one of the five key skills that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs and executives from ordinary managers.

In this context, networking is not about socializing for personal gain or merely expanding one’s set of professional contacts. Instead, it is about purposefully engaging with individuals from diverse backgrounds, industries, and perspectives to generate new ideas.

Networking for innovation is different from networking for resources. But before I compare both, here’s a summary of the skill of networking for innovation:

  • Diverse connections. Innovators actively cultivate relationships with people who have different viewpoints or expertise. These connections often extend beyond their immediate industry or professional circle.
  • Purposeful engagement. Networking, for an innovator, is intentional and aims at acquiring new knowledge or perspectives. It is not about casual socializing, but purposeful conversations designed to challenge one’s thinking and spark new ideas.
  • Idea exchange. Networking provides innovators with a platform to exchange ideas. They use their network to test, refine, and improve their ideas based on feedback and insights they receive.
  • Collaboration and partnerships. Innovators use their networks to find potential partners for collaboration. They understand that their ideas can benefit from the skills, resources, or perspectives that others bring to the table.
  • Learning from failures and successes of others. Innovators leverage their network to learn from both the successes and failures of others. This allows them to understand different strategies and avoid potential pitfalls in their own endeavors.
  • Cross-pollination of ideas. By networking with people from various backgrounds and industries, innovators can combine disparate concepts and approaches in novel ways, leading to breakthrough innovations. This is sometimes referred to as “associational thinking” – making connections between seemingly unrelated problems or ideas.
  • Building a support system. Networking also helps innovators build a community of supporters who can help them when they encounter challenges. This network can offer moral support, strategic advice, or tangible resources.

With that said, networking for innovation and networking for resources are both important aspects of professional networking, but they serve different primary objectives and involve distinct approaches.

Below, I’ve outlined and compared these two types of networking, highlighting their key differences:

Networking for innovation

  • Objective. The primary goal is to stimulate new ideas and perspectives that can lead to innovation. It is more about learning and growing intellectually.
  • Diversity of contacts. Involves connecting with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and industries, often outside of one’s immediate professional sphere.
  • Nature of conversations. Engages in deep and meaningful conversations that challenge thinking and stimulate creativity.
  • Outcome focus. Seeks to generate new ideas and solutions to problems, which may or may not have immediate commercial value.
  • Long-term perspective. Relationships in this context are often nurtured over a long period and are not necessarily tied to immediate gains or transactions.
  • Risk tolerance. Networking for innovation often involves a higher tolerance for ambiguity and risk, as it’s about exploring uncharted territories and novel ideas.

Networking for resources

  • Objective. The primary goal is to gain access to resources (such as capital, talent, or information) or to sell products/services. It is more about transactional or tangible gains.
  • Targeted contacts. Involves building relationships with specific individuals or groups who have direct access to desired resources or are potential customers.
  • Nature of conversations. Engages in focused and often strategic conversations aimed at achieving a specific outcome, like closing a sale or securing a partnership.
  • Outcome focus. Seeks immediate or short-term benefits, such as sales, partnerships, or investments.
  • Short-term perspective. While long-term relationships are always beneficial, this type of networking might involve more short-term, goal-oriented interactions.
  • Risk management. Networking to access resources and sell often involves a careful assessment of potential risks and rewards, as the focus is on securing tangible assets or making sales.

Summary of Differences

  • Networking for innovation is driven by the quest for new ideas and knowledge, while networking to access resources and sell is more focused on achieving specific, often tangible, outcomes.
  • Networking for innovation involves a wider diversity of contacts, whereas networking to access resources and sell is more targeted towards specific individuals or groups.
  • Networking for innovation is generally characterized by a long-term perspective and higher tolerance for ambiguity and risk, while networking to access resources and sell is often more short-term and risk-averse in nature.

In practice, these two forms of networking can overlap and complement each other, as relationships built for one purpose can sometimes yield unexpected benefits in other areas. Nonetheless, the mindset and strategies employed in each type of networking are notably different.

Most people network for resources; the best also network to expand their perspective and get new insights.

Bottom line: For innovators, networking is a strategic and proactive effort aimed at learning and idea generation. It involves engaging with diverse individuals and groups in a way that challenges one’s own thinking and allows for the cross-pollination of ideas, ultimately fostering creativity and innovation.

Also published on Medium.