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Warm and sticky: the kind of connections we need

Connections are at the heart of a strong social network. Like cinnamon buns, they’re best if big, warm and sticky.

It’s hot out and maybe you’re feeling something like the title of this article. Or maybe you’ve experienced cinnamon buns like the ones my grandmother used to make. They were gigantic, gooey and attracted a crowd the moment they came out of the oven. Grandma was great at bringing people together and it was only later in life that I realized that her baking did more than feed us, it provided a great metaphor for how to create the kind of networks that promote change. This is all about being warm and sticky.

Networks solve a lot of problems by connecting people together and leveraging the knowledge of many for solving problems and creating social benefit. Simply put: networks allow us to do more.

But more can also be a problem.

It is not just that there is a lot of information out there, which creates its own set of problems, its that there is also so much to DO with this information. Even with good filters, the wealth of information available on even very narrow topics can be remarkable. I find this creates a temptation to try and get to it all. How often have you heard people lament about not being able to catch up on all of their blogs, tweets, magazine articles and beyond — let alone your conversations with friends, colleagues and loved ones?

Strong and weak ties: Depth vs. breadth

While sociologist Mark Granovetter’s concept of the ‘strength of weak ties’ has been promoted vigorously in the social sciences and business to justify the potential for social networking, the value of the concept has some clear limitations that can get lost among the hype. One of the risks is that the time and energy it takes to invest in social networks broadly can take you away from creating strong ties. Think of how we socialized a generation ago: we had a close set of friends and family and associates, a few pen (and phone) pals, and those affiliates me might see at occasional events like family reunions and conferences. Now, we can“see” these people all the time: in our media feeds, inboxes, and phone messages.

There are many positives of digital life, but also more demands on our attention that come from all these connections to people, tools, and ideas. The technology tools that facilitate network connections also provide a means to distribute information. While social network platforms allow us to get simple messages out quickly, they are more problematic when dealing with complex information or messages with multiple layers and potential meanings. Yet, it is this kind of complex information that is needed if these networks are to be of benefit for influencing change. For those kinds of complex problems, we need tighter bonds and more meaning-making opportunities in our networks.

Mario Luis Small from the University of Chicago has explored the role of social networks and how they benefit those with little social capital. His book, Unanticipated Gains: Origins of network inequality in everyday life, looks at how social capital could be grown by looking at a community of low-income, New York City mothers. The experience is described below:

Social capital theorists have shown that some people do better than others in part because they enjoy larger, more supportive, or otherwise more useful networks. But why do some people have better networks than others? Unanticipated Gains argues that the answer lies less in people’s deliberate “networking” than in the institutional conditions of the churches, colleges, firms, gyms, childcare centers, schools, and other organizations in which they happen to participate routinely. The book illustrates and develops this argument by exploring the experiences of New York City mothers whose children were enrolled in childcare centers.

Unanticipated Gains examines why scores of these mothers, after enrolling their children in centers, dramatically expanded both the size and usefulness of their personal networks, often in ways they did not expect. Whether, how, and how much the mothers’ networks were altered — and how useful these networks were — depended on the apparently trivial but remarkably consequential practices and regulations of the centers, from the structure of their PTOs, to the regularity of their fieldtrips to amusement parks and zoos, to their ostensibly innocuous rules regarding pick-up and drop-off times.

Relying on scores of in-depth interviews with mothers, quantitative data on both mothers and centers, and detailed case studies of other routine organizations (from beauty salons and bath houses to colleges and churches), Unanticiapted Gains shows that how much people gain from their connections depends substantially on institutional conditions they often do not control, and through everyday process they may not even be aware of. (Original post here)

This last line is critical: There are many forces at play including those that are hidden from us but shape the way we meet people and build connections. Small’s case study shows how unanticipated gains come from our designs, whether intentional or not.

Creating Stickiness, By Design

Although Small was not intending to write about what makes a network ‘sticky’, to use Gabriel Szulanski‘s term, he winds up with a set of recommendations that do just that. Indeed, Small’s suggestions — create intimate, cooperative, active, stable, yet flexible and adaptive networks — make networks sticky (and resilient) while mitigating the effects of creating widening gaps between the well-connected and capital-rich and the rest.

Small suggests that there are 7 ingredients that help dampen harmful, unintended consequences of networks:

1. Create frequent opportunities for interaction;

2. Ensure frequent and regular interactions between agents;

3. Interactions must be long-lasting and exist beyond simple, quick exchanges;

4. Interactions are minimally competitive;

5. Interactions are maximally cooperative;

6. Intrinsic motivation consistent with that of the organizations or networks drive interactions and encourage engagement over time;

7. Extrinsic motivators must also be present to support the maintenance of ties over time.

This list highlights necessary aspects, but it comes across as cold and rational. When we consider our richest social connections that support our work, one thing that is missing from this list is warmth.

Warming things up

While sticky networks have been shown to increase the transfer of knowledge (see references below) there is a missing ingredient from this list: warmth. A recent post by Chris Brogan (someone who was at the forefront of thinking about social network strategy — both as evangelist and critic) wrote about the importance and power of warm connections.

Brogan writes:

Every time I end up doing business with someone I don’t really like much, it fails. Either I don’t give it enough love, or the other party treats the business relationship as transactional, and nothing good comes of it.

Stickiness is what keeps us together, warmth is what makes us want to stay together and to generate long-lasting value.

At a time when we are flooded with opportunities to connect to people, ideas, and things, we need means to derive real value from it all. Creating sticky and warm connections is the way to do it (and enjoy work and life much more). Sticky and warm connections are what allow us to have those difficult, complicated, and enriching conversations that can’t be done at a transactional level.

When we are looking to innovate and make real, substantive changes in our world, the ‘secret’ is not just information and knowledge, but relationships.

For more reading on the phenomenon of “stickiness”, consider the following:

Szulanski, G. (2000). The Process of Knowledge Transfer: A Diachronic Analysis of Stickiness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Szulanski, G. (2003). Sticky knowledge: Barriers to knowing in the firm. London: Sage.

Szulanski, G., & Jensen, R. (2004). Overcoming stickiness: An empirical investigation of the role of the template in the replication of organizational routines. Managerial and Decision Economics, 25(67), 347–363.

Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

Designer, evaluator, educator, & psychologist supporting people in making positive change, by design. Principal @censeltd @censeacademy

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