• Marisa Guerin

What's Your Connection?

Updated: Feb 18, 2019



Marisa Guerin, Ph.D. - February 16, 2019


The people in the room are your most unique resource! Below I suggest ways that you can gain visibility into the depth of contacts in a conference group or in your Board of Directors, drawing on social network theory.


Conferences represent great opportunities that are so often missed. Here's what I mean: Have you ever gone to a meeting with an ambitious agenda, attended by people who didn’t know one another very well, that was kicked off with an instruction along the lines of the following? “Don’t waste a lot of time in lengthy introductions in your small groups, we have a lot to cover! Just provide your name, where you are from, and maybe a short sentence about why you are here.”


Noooo! Big mistake; misplaced concern! Yes, it is true that sometimes self-introductions stretch into excessive stories of a life, and it is important to be ready to constrain that in the interest of time. But here’s the thing: the human beings are the key resource in such a meeting, and you can’t fully tap the best contributions of a person unless you know something about their experience. Perhaps even more important, you don’t know how to evaluate the validity of what you are hearing from someone without some sense of their qualifications.


This is why it pays to give some thought to a process for introductions that will provide the working group members with enough knowledge about each other to make the best use of their combined abilities. (It goes without saying that I don’t favor completely irrelevant icebreakers.)


For example, if the meeting is a neighborhood gathering to discuss concerns about proposed new development projects, a useful guide to self-introductions might be: “Tell us your name and 3-4 things about how you come to this discussion, such as where you live and how long you’ve lived in the neighborhood, where you work or if you have kids."


Alternatively, if the gathering is a professional conference convened to recommend solutions to a complex social problem, it will be helpful to say: “As we introduce ourselves to one another, please take 1 or 2 minutes to tell us the kinds of positions and experiences you have had that may be especially relevant to our discussion today.”


How much time you allot to this kind of information exchange depends on the total time involved in the meeting – a weekend conference allows for much more depth than an afternoon focus group. Another process that is helpful and perhaps more efficient in such a situation is to give participants in advance a list with brief information about their fellow meeting attendees, if that is possible to provide.


Either way, the advantage of the shared information is that people listen with a different kind of attention if they recognize that the person speaking has deep background and credentials about the point they are making. By whatever means, do ensure that people get introduced!


I’d like to call out a special case of the importance of getting to know the people in the room: it applies to Boards of Directors, especially of nonprofit entities. Such organizations are highly dependent on the advice, connections, and experience of their Board members, but they are usually extraordinarily “blind” to the actual reach of their Board, especially across differences of gender or race.


Sometimes, a well-organized Board recruitment and nomination process provides other Board members with a good overview of their new colleague’s background. But many Boards are less formal that that, and Board members may come to know one another only to the level of name, organization, role, and perhaps something about where they live or their prior connection to the organization. But that level of knowledge only scratches the surface of the potential bench-strength represented by the Board members. It’s truly dismaying to me to realize how poorly many Boards utilize the generous offering of time and talent represented by the presence of their members in a meeting.


To help Boards to go further, I developed a process that I used when clients asked me to facilitate either a Board retreat – for general development of the group – or a specific topic session aimed at generating plans on an important issue. I’ve also used this process when I was a member of a Board myself – you don’t have to be a consultant to do it.


The process is based on the concept of “degrees of separation”, and it engages the Board members in a fast and interesting process of tapping their access into their networks.


I'll describe the exercise below, but first, a short backgrounder on social network theory --

> The notion of degrees of separation is based on research that proposes that no one is more than 6.6 intervening contacts from anyone else in the world!


For example, if I, a Philadelphian, wanted to connect with a person living in a suburb of Beijing, I could attempt it this way: I know my local congressional representative (1). He knows the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (2). She knows the ambassador to China (3). He knows the Mayor of Beijing (4). He or she knows the local equivalent of a councilperson or district leader (5), who can connect directly with the local resident I am trying to reach.


> The actually useful refinement of this area of network theory maintains that there is something called the trust horizon that exists within two degrees. The first person in the chain would be someone I know and who knows me, and between us there is enough mutual positive regard that if I leave a message or an email, they will get back to me. The second person in the chain has the same kind of relationship, except it is with my friend.


> So, if I call a professional colleague – someone I know and respect and who knows and respects me – and I ask them for information that can help me as a I plan a career change, it is possible they will say “I actually don’t know much about that company, but I have a friend who works there. I’ll ask them to talk to you.” Most of the time, that second-degree connection will work; and in fact, that’s how a huge amount of informal networking gets done.


> The theory warns us, however, that it WILL NOT work as well if you try to extend it to the third degree. In other words, your friend’s friend’s friend will NOT feel any particular obligation to help you out, and may not get in touch at all. You are, in a way, “invisible” to them, because you are outside of their trust horizon.


> None of this is about the lighter-touch connections established via Facebook or Linked-In or other social media. Such connections work well for fast information flow, discovery, and for relatively neutral introductions, but they DO NOT carry the trust and credibility that flow through the trust horizon. In fact, ubiquitous social media, email, and text channels have only increased the barriers that many people erect to protect themselves from unwanted contact. The trust horizon is more important than ever!


So back to the Board of Directors exercise: If you want a general idea of how far your Board can reach for purposes of philanthropy or valuable partnerships, set aside 30 minutes or so with 4 or 5 large flip charts posted around the room. On each one, write the name of a person or organization that would be valuable to connect with.


For example: The governor of your state; a program officer of a major foundation; a local university president; an expert in website design; the head of the Chamber of Commerce; a celebrity who could headline a fundraiser, etc. Or, for a more generic approach, try “Bill Gates”, “The Pope”, “Meryl Streep”, and “Serena Williams” – you get the idea.


Then distribute post it notes and ask Board members to post on the respective charts the names of people they know who could get you closer to the desired contact, and how they know them. “My cousin works for…” Or “My pastor could call….” Or “A law school classmate of mine belongs to…”


To work the same idea from a different angle, put only one target person up on the chart (for example, the foundation program officer) then ask members to think of a name from each of the following domains that might help them reach this person: present or former co-workers; alumni classmates from college or graduate school; members of a church or synagogue; neighbors; relatives; professional organization colleagues; friends from a club, gym, or leisure activity, etc. This approach forces people to examine more consciously their own taken-for-granted network space.


When you’ve all finished, review what’s been posted and discuss what you are learning about your collective network reach. You may realize in this work that some Board members are “nodes” who are connected to many domains, and others are links in a narrower chain. How many have a trust horizon they are willing to deploy to help the organization?


As you can imagine, this type of exercise is easily customized and its purpose is to provide a fast and enjoyable way for Board members to learn more about each other in ways that are relevant to the purpose of a Board member to serve as a connector for the organization to resources of value. It’s also, of course, a valuable process in the workplace, since the informal networks in organizations support very influential relationships that most likely don’t correspond exactly to the formal org chart.


I’ll stop here, although social network analysis is a fascinating area with a ton of interesting publications. It's a valuable complement to formal organization design theory.


My main point for today? Here it is:

Whether it’s designing a self-introduction process that gets people connected to their shared task, or facilitating a quick round that opens Board member networks to greater visibility, remember: the people are the resource in group settings, so use your skills to draw out the best of their potential for fruitful collaboration.

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A network mapping exercise follows, if it is helpful to you. You have permission to use or adapt.