CXO

Connectional Intelligence: How companies can harness relationships to drive innovation

Author and business strategist Erica Dhawan offers leadership tips on how to spark innovation through harnessing the power of relationships.

"Where are we today in our connected world?" Erica Dhawan, asked a crowd at Leadership Summit in Louisville, KY. "It's not about the individual. It's not about the institution. It's about relationships."

Addressing a group of business leaders at the fourth annual Leadership Summit, Dhawan illustrated how the C-suite can harness the power of networks in today's connected world. Co-author of Get Big Things Done: Unleash your Connectional Intelligence, contributor to Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Fast Company, and graduate of Harvard, MIT, and Wharton, Dhawan has spent years helping businesses think outside of the box and drive innovation.

How can companies think differently? "It's about making everyone accountable," said Dhawan.

To do this, she said, organizations must harness "connectional intelligence." Connectional intelligence, she said, is not simply about having more connections—it's about being smart about connections. Dhawan defines the term as "The capability to consistently drive breakthrough business results and innovation by harnessing the power of relationships and networks."

SEE: Free ebook—A CXO's guide to digital transformation (TechRepublic)

Dhawan's research builds off of Malcolm Gladwell's "connector" concept from his book The Tipping Point. She expands on this idea, defining three specific types of connectors that are important to innovation: "Thinkers," "enablers," and "connection executors."

When building a team, said Dhawan, it's important to take all the different collaboration styles into account.

Dhawan gave some examples of how these different connectors can work together.

Turning to peers

When the CFO of a leading law firm noticed that the youngest associates were billing fewer hours than ever before, it raised questions about what was going on. How were they doing this? And why?

It turns out that the young associates had developed a peer-to-peer system to exchange information, which, in turn, increased efficiency. "The notion of getting promoted through billing hours was flipped on its head," said Dhawan. The young associates, she said, had leveraged the power of peers to "work smarter by informal networking."

Looking for answers outside the company

Another example is when Colgate needed to develop a solution to improve its product. Instead of using its own team, it turned to InnoCentive, a platform for scientists to address a specific challenge. It posed the problem anonymously, and quickly, a physicist in Canada came up with an answer: The problem wasn't chemical; it was physics.

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Image: Hope Reese/TechRepublic

The physicist wasn't someone Colgate would have traditionally turned to. And Colgate hadn't even turned to their own physicists to address the problem. "In today's world," said Dhawan, "you can access expertise outside of traditional talent."

Finding new ways to harness internal resources

"When solving a problem, are you going to the people you think have the answer?" asked Dhawan.

Sometimes, said Dhawan, you need to turn to less-obvious people at your company to come up with solutions.

Doritos did this with its guacamole-flavored chip. It wasn't the product development team that came up with the idea, she said. Nor was it the marketing department. The product, said Dhawan, was conceived by the Latino Diversity group at Doritos.

They were experts, she said. "It was common sense to them." So what began as a network for one reason ended up driving innovation for another purpose.

"Connectional intelligence isn't new," said Dhawan. But 21st century leaders must spread knowledge to networks, she said. In today's increasingly connected world, it's critical to harness the skills to harness relationships for innovation.

And, most importantly, she said, the Latino group didn't just stop by sharing the idea—"they helped the team all the way through."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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