Here Comes Everybody – The Social Origins Of Good Ideas
(One in a series of posts about Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations.)
In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky borrows an insight from University of Chicago Business School Prof. Ronald Burt: “people who live in the intersection of social worlds are at a higher risk of having good ideas”.
The point is not that knowing a lot of people, or being a highly social person, helps one generate good ideas. The point is that knowing and interacting with people from different circles, with different experiences and talents and responsibilities, helps generate good ideas.
Shirky calls this “bridging capital” (as do others). Burt’s research was done at a major US electronics firm, studying where good ideas came from for improving performance in the company’s supply chain. Burt found that those employees and managers who had regular contact and interaction with people from outside their own department were the ones who tended to come up with the most, and most useful, ideas.
This, by the way, may help explain two persistent weaknesses in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign: the dearth of good policy ideas, and the candidate’s own difficulties connecting with voters.
In both foreign and domestic policy, the Romney campaign has a distinct “let’s get the old band back together again” feel: John Bolton is a key foreign policy adviser, and the domestic policy agenda has largely been outsourced to Paul Ryan and the House Republican caucus. The increasing ideological rigidity of the Republican Party means that the party, including its presidential candidate, is at a lower risk of having good ideas, particularly as it confronts new situations.
With the exception of his two years of missionary work in France over 40 years ago, Mitt Romney has lived most of his life within the narrow confines of a businessman who is wealthy enough not to have to deal with people he doesn’t want to deal with. That doesn’t make him a bad person. It just means that Romney has relatively little experience as a “bridging” person—someone who crosses freely, regularly and comfortably among multiple social worlds. (By contrast, his opponent may have more experience “bridging” between different worlds than any previous major presidential candidate.)