Sunday, 27 November 2011

Superspecialists and superconnectors

Screw liberal arts degrees, the new trend is super-specialisation. It's not enough to specialise in orthopaedic surgery any more, now you need to superspecialise in treating developmental dysplasia of the hip. An MBA is old school, to stand out, you need an MHROD (Masters in Human Resources and Organisational Development).

While I can see the benefits of superspecialisation (I'd much rather have my developmental dysplasia fixed by a doctor who's done hundreds of them), it presents a major problem: knowledge silos. In large corporations, departments become so focused on their own work that they shut everyone else out. Knowledge transfer is limited because each department has its own jargon and its own office space.

Societal enclaves
It's not just large corporations either. I see enclaves forming everywhere in society. Badminton players like to hang out with other badminton players, vegans like to eat dinner with other vegans, Chinese people like to spend time with other Chinese people. Linked by shared interests, they clump together in small groups.

A missed opportunity
Clumps are exclusive. They probably don't intend it that way but by forming such a tight knit group, you can't help but to keep other people out. After all, if you have to wear dreadlocks and eat mungbeans, why would you want to join those crazy vegans? It sounds almost as much work as doing an MHROD!

So what happens is the clumps remain separate. Even though the badminton players would probably love vegan food, they never try it because they are put off by the tall walls of the vegan faux-ivory tower.

The role of superconnectors
What if these clumps could be connected up? Not smoodged together into a blob, but linked by a thread of human energy. This is what a super connector does. A super connector is someone who belongs to multiple clumps. Take Tony for example. Tony is a vegan Badminton player with Chinese ancestry. He loves to connect up his friends from different clumps. Last Sunday, he took his vegan friends to the badminton court and they had an amicable chat with a staunch omnivore over the badminton net. Suddenly connection was sparked. The vegans stopped seeing badminton as some boring sport and the badminton players stopped seeing vegans as dirty hippies with poor hand-eye coordination.

Why be a superconnector?

Here are six of the key benefits to becoming a super-connector:

  1. Get insider knowledge
  2. Get high quality recommendations
  3. Get access to people and opportunities that would otherwise be off limits to you
  4. Increase your happiness
  5. Find mentors
  6. Make the world a better place

Get insider knowledge
In Australia, we have laws against ‘insider trading’. There’s a good reason for that. If you’re privy to restricted information about a publicly listed company, for example, you might catch wind of a plan to acquire one of their competitors, you can make better decisions that will put you ahead of all the other investors out there.

Now hang on, I’m not advocating insider trading! But can you see how having insider knowledge can give you a major advantage over people who aren’t in the know? There is a lot of important information that isn’t publicly available. It’s not necessarily that it’s hidden from the public, it’s more that people don’t usually talk to anyone they’re not friends with. It might also be that the information is public but it’s drowned out by all the other information that’s out there. You need people to help you tune out the noise so that you can hear the signal. You need people who can tell you what’s important and what’s not. And you need lots of people telling you these things so that you’re hearing a story from different angles.

Get high quality recommendations
Do you need a plumber? A math tutor? A real estate agent? A great restaurant? We’ve probably all experienced a time when a friend has recommended a product or service and it’s turned out great. The fact is that you can’t trust advertising. A tradesperson may claim that his work is high quality, but we won’t believe him unless someone else backs that up and someone else that we trust.

If you become a superconnector, you gain access to more people who can give you high quality recommendations. What that means is that if you need something, for example, let’s say you need your roof re-tiled, you don’t have to waste time and money experimenting with a bunch of roof tilers, you can just ask your friends who they’d recommend.

Get access to people and opportunities that would otherwise be off limits to you
CEOs have closed doors and closed phone lines. If you want to talk to Bill Gates, you won’t find his number in the phone book. He doesn’t want to be available to just anyone. He is only interested in talking to people who are inside his filter bubble, people who have been filtered by his gatekeepers – that is his secretary, his security guards, his chief of staff and probably even his guard dog.

That means if you do want to talk to Bill Gates, you need to know someone who can introduce you. The only way a mere mortal is going to get past those gatekeepers and get inside that filter bubble is to be friends with someone who’s friends with Bill Gate’s secretary’s wife’s daughter...and then use that connection. The more connections you have, the closer you are to people who can help you. It’s been said that the average person is only six steps removed from everyone in the world. If you’re a super connector, you can cut this down to three steps removed.

If you want to land a job, make a sale or buy an exclusive property, the solution is to expand your network to include people who can connect you with the employer, buyer or property owner. Super connectors have access to far more opportunities than the average person.

Increase your happiness
There is an enormous amount of scientific evidence to show that the more connections you have with other people, the happier you will become. It makes sense. As a species, we are safer when we’re in a pack. A lone human is vulnerable. A wolf could come along and rip his throat out. But when that same human is in a tribe, they’re far safer. They can appoint someone to act as a guard, to cry wolf (hopefully not someone called Peter!). There is safety in numbers. Evolution has shaped the human species to seek out other humans to form a tribe.

Although we generally don’t have to worry about wolves anymore, that evolutionary instinct to find other people and make friends with them, is still a deeply ingrained part of our psyche. Every time you make a new connection, your brain rewards you by sending a rush of endorphins through your system. Don’t fight it, become a super connector and fight off wolves.

Find mentors
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with
Have you ever noticed how you take on the mannerisms and the ways of speaking of the people that you spend time with?  There was a time when this became very apparent to me.  I was working as a data entry professional, quite a boring job I must admit.  I didn’t mind it because it gave me time to listen to my university lectures while I was working.  However some of my colleagues hated their job.  I enjoyed talking with them though they were very interesting guys.  I would go out for smoking breaks with them.  I didn’t smoke but I would sit and talk with them while they complained about what they hated about the job.  And at the beginning I would argue with them when they brought up something negative about the job.  I would focus on the positives.  However after a while of spending time with these two guys, I found myself becoming more and more negative.  I started to take on their attitudes towards work.  Before I knew it I was saying things like I hate that manager.

There came a point where I realised what was happening and I stopped spending so much time with these guys.  That was a big realisation for me that by osmosis I was taking on the attitudes of my coworkers have.  But it also gave me an idea.  If I was if I took on the a negative attitudes of these negative people then maybe I could take on positive attitudes from positive people.

I started looking for people who aspired to the same goals that I had, who had the same values that I had, and who were doing more than I was doing.  What I found is that I started to take on these attitudes more strongly than I had previously.  I strengthens my belief in my goals and ambitions and I started to work harder because these people were working harder to.

This observation is not reserved to me.  There is a lot of research into the way that some emotions and attitudes can be contagious.  Have you ever heard of the 'fat friends effect'? Wealth is also similar inpeople’s peer groups.  This seems to happen naturally that people with similar attitudes and values will gravitate towards each other. 

You can use this phenomenon to alter the way that you behave.  If there is a goal that you would like to achieve, based on this recommendation it makes sense for you to spend more time with other people who are achieving this same goal.

I really like what Arnold schwarzenegger has to say on this topic.  Arnie says that he goes out of his way to constantly find new mentors new people who will stretch him people who are just a bit further along the path to the goal that he ultimately wants to achieve.  This is very sound advice.  What it cuts out is the disconnect between the over ambitious goals that some people set themselves.  A lot of people like to set big hairy audacious goals.  The research suggests that setting these kind of goals is a recipe for failure because they’re just too far away.  There needs to be some kind of link between where you are now and where you want to go.  I’m not saying you can’t set big hairy audacious goals but what you need to be aware of is that if you only set big hairy audacious goals you’re probably not going to get their there needs to be some kind of intermediate step to allow you to achieve bite sized chunks.  That’s really what works went instead of only having goals that are too far away you also have intermediate goals that’s what works.

The same thing applies in networking if you make the goal to go out and meet Richard Branson it’s not going to happen it’s too far away I think a dose of realism in goal setting is very important.  I’m not saying don’t play big.  I am saying look at where you are now and focus on moving forward.  What I find is that people who set humongous goals are paralysed.  It just feels too hard.  You can set that huge goal but put it far into the future.  Work back from their.  Set some intermediate goals that will allow you to reach that tremendous vision.

Likewise when you are deciding who you want to network with look at the people around you who are doing slightly better than you are.  Model them make them your role models.  Spend as much time as you can with these people.  If you do that then you’ll gradually pull yourself up to the standard that they have reached.  At that point you then have a decision to make.  Do you want to be normal or do you want to be exceptional?
It’s easy to be comfortable.  It’s easy to just do the minimum.  It’s easy to say I’ve already done the hard work that’s enough for me.  But if you want to really succeeded in life, you need to change your attitude to one where you were constantly looking for more growth opportunities.  What I argue is that the way to ensure growth is to look at how you can spend more time with people who are ahead of you and to be constantly looking for people who are doing better than you and to start working with them.

Make the world a better place
The benefits of being super connector extend beyond yourself. If you know more than 1000 people, you are in a unique position to cross pollinate ideas. You might have a conversation one day with a permaculturalist friend who wants to start a garden but has no space because they live in a one bedroom apartment. The next day, you might have a chat with a friend who is always away and has a backyard that’s overwhelmed with weeds. Suddenly the connection emerges clear as a turquoise sea: your permaculturalist friend can offer to set up a garden in your travelling friend’s backyard. It’s a classic win-win scenario that the two would never have realised if you hadn’t been there to make the connection.

There are so many possible causes you can help if you’re a super connector. Recently a friend of mine asked for some help. She’s working on a project to cut the cost of constructing a house by 60% and she needed contacts in the construction industry. I loved the idea. I couldn’t help her myself but I do know quite a few architects and even a few people with construction supply businesses. I introduced her to them and new connections were formed, which will hopefully lead to cheaper houses for new home owners.

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