It’s who you know knows…

It’s not what you know, and it’s not who you know; it’s who you know knows that is most important for insight and innovation.

Contrary to what we might expect, numerous sociologists [e.g. R. Dunbar, R. Burt, M. Gravenotter etc] have now shown that we don’t learn as much from our friends as we think we might. Rather our friends tend to reinforce our knowledge than bring us new knowledge. Our friendships are borne, to some extent, of repetition of experiences and anecdotes, that strengthen the ties that bind us, rather than creating new ideas and knowledge.

Whilst I am a strong advocate for the power of networks I’ve struggled for some time with understanding why the power of networks today is qualitatively different to the old boys networks of yesteryear. I’ve concluded recently that it’s down to the inbreeding of ideas.

Old boys networks are (sometimes quite literally) too closely connected so their friends already know each other and they look out for each other. This scenario lacks perspective and creates echo – exaggerated opinions or reputations that are not held sufficiently to account. Conversely these days it is the cross-fertilisation of cultures and therefore also of ideas that is much more common and much more important.

We play a little game towards the end of larger events and workshops called 2 degrees of separation that I’ve blogged about previously here which works really well once people have built up trust in us (as facilitators) and in each other (as fellow delegates). Bascially the objective is to get to a named person or organization through the social networks already in the room, and it’s not as difficult as you might think though only works once people have built up a level of trust and openness.

Yet when we were recently asked the question who will be the editor of the future. We thought about it and concluded that the answer is relatively easy – namely it is the friends of our friends (by which we mean friends in it’s broadest sense including personal and professional contacts).

However simply knowing that our friends friends are important to innovation is not enough. Communicating with them effectively is the conversational equivalent of walking on a pair of bendy stilts. It’s similar to walking but also much more difficult. It requires you to be simultaneously very controlled and also very relaxed. And once you’ve mastered it, the view can be fantastic.

Through some of the work we are doing we are essentially learning the art of communicating with the friends of our friends, which is very different to merely communicating with your friends. Firstly you must have something compelling to say that your friend may voluntarily choose to repeat, and almost certainly modify in the retelling.

And even more important is to be open to the stories and anecdotes from further afield. That is where all the really interesting stuff really is, if only we are tuned to really listen out for it. I normally subscribe to a law of threes here, namely when I first hear about somebody or something interesting I log it but don’t act on it. At the second independent recommendation I pay attention and perhaps do a little light research. And with a third recommendation (if I haven’t already felt compelled to do so) I will act on it.

So how do you engage with and communicate with your friends friends? How do you make the most of your networks to spot new opportunities and insights. And what tools and tips do you use to cast the net wider? As ever, I’d love to learn more about who you know knows, and what we can do about it.

By Roland



  1. So we have have the “navigating the unknowns”, now followed by the “knows know” and I begin to think you must be interviewing for the US Defence Secretary Roland

    I liked these when I wandered off to explore known knowns and unknown, unknowns. I like this:

    “To those things Clausewitz wrote about uncertainty and chance, I would add a few comments on unknown unknowns – those things that a commander doesn’t even know he doesn’t know. Participants in a war game would describe an unknown unknown as unfair, beyond the ground rules of the game. But real war does not follow ground rules, and I would urge that games be “unfair” by introducing unknown unknowns. This made me think “Innovation is made up of unknown, unknowns and we spend the time to make the end result “unfair” or that unique compelling advantage”.

    Maybe you should also explore these next Outside In Context Problem
    Relevance paradox

    Or even better touch on the Black Swan- the impact of the highly improbable (book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.)

    For those who have missed Donald Rumsfields famour quote “… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
    There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.


    The honest answer is “who knows”.

  2. Hah! Thanks Paul. Yes I think that job might not be necessarily the best fit with my skill set.

    Taleb I like (was a good interview with him on the world service recently) though I’m not a fan of his ego/attitude.

    Don’t know the Outside in Context Problem Relevance Problem but will check it out.

    Anyway, I find in a lot of the work we do the original brief is overspecified and actually what becomes clear quite quickly that the real issue lies elsewhere, often poorly understood or defined.

    Thanks for your comment,

  3. ” Anyway, I find in a lot of the work we do the original brief is overspecified and actually what becomes clear quite quickly that the real issue lies elsewhere, often poorly understood or defined.”

    So it is the unknowns needed to be known then.

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