It Takes a Network to Beat a Network

December 1, 2017

In his book Team of Team, General Stan McChrystal suggests it takes a network to beat a network. Al Qaeda in Iraq operated as a decentralized network that could move swiftly, attack abruptly, and easily disperse into the local community. While the allied forces had tremendous advantages in capabilities and resources, they had difficulty in both anticipating and responding to a new kind of threat. To defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, McChrystal and his colleagues had to pivot away from the conventional operating approaches and become a network; replacing silos with transparent communications and hierarchal control structures with distributed decision-making. McChrystal’s task force had to become faster, flatter, and more flexible to beat Al Qaeda.

 

In today’s hyper-competitive business environment, organizations need to more fully leverage their network capabilities like McChrystal’s task force to drive their own disruptive innovations. Today, many large, complex organizations face a similar threat, external disruption. Operating in a highly networked world where a free-flow of information provides the ability for would be disrupters to create, connect and adjust in rapid fashion. The result, virtually every major industrial sector is facing some form of potential disruption; be it healthcare from PillPak, telecom from WhatsApp, financial services from companies like Square and RobinHood, or automotive from ride-sharing companies like Uber or Lyft. It appears as if many organizations are ill prepared to respond to these networked threats. 

 

Historically traditional research on innovation has focused on aligning formal processes and structures. Organizations have been taught to hire smart people and to separate them out into R&D labs, skunk-works and incubators to drive innovation. More recently organizations have been encouraged to think and act like startups by leveraging such methodologies as Lean Start-up and design thinking. Successful startups focus on developing deep market insights, testing beta solutions and iterating in response to user feedback. While such practices can have a tremendous impact they ignore one major reality; most large, complex organizations do not operate as meritocracies. That is, the best ideas do not always rise to the top. Fact is, in large, socio-political organizations innovation is more of a social phenomenon. Therefore requiring a comprehensive understanding of the network structures so that they can respond to emerging threats. 

 

Two primary aspects of network structures—brokerage and group cohesion—are particularly relevant to innovation and adaptation. Brokerage connects or bridges from one group to another. Brokerage creates the conditions to facilitate discovery and introduction of novel ideas and helps amplify them for scale across a system. Group cohesion is how connected an individual is with others in a group. Group cohesion provides a safe environment for pressure testing and iterating ideas to make them more impactful and amenable for scaling.

 

Research shows that because brokerage provides individuals with early access to new and diverse information regarding things that are happening in other areas, it helps spark creative solutions and allows opportunities to influence how this information is distributed. Brokerage enables individuals to think more boldly about what is possible by creating a richer set of possibilities. Group cohesion on the other hand, enables agents to quickly share information under conditions of high levels of trust. Research shows that when ideas are introduced in cohesive groups, they are more likely to be adopted and enhanced.

 

Organizations that leverage the benefits of brokerage and cohesion can create an influx of novel ideas, along with the capacity to implementing these ideas. While, rigid organizations like General McChrystal traditional task force stifle out these network dynamics. In today’s hyper-competitive business environment, it takes a network to disrupt a network.

 

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