Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, May 27, 2019
Six degrees of separation is the theory that any person on the planet (yes, the planet) can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries. (No place to run, no place to hide.)
The progenitor and namesake of this theory is of course known as “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” or “Bacon’s Law.” (It’s also a game.) When I was in Hollywood, I think I once wrote a television treatment that his uncle’s brother’s agent’s driver may have sent to his housekeeper (that makes five), so I am definitely good to go with Kev.
And now there is some legitimate seriousness to this theory. Rembrand Koning, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, makes the case that startup incubators — and by extension all the various events at which the usual suspects show up in full regalia — have the problem that “attendees tend to network with people they already know.”
I recently attended the San Diego Venture Group “Cool Companies” soiree. It was loud, packed, exciting and filled with cool companies indeed. I either knew 70 percent of the people there or they knew me, so I was not expanding either my social network or my intellectual network. I was comfortable, hanging with my homies, which Koning’s research suggests is not conducive to any real growth of ideas or real innovation. (Very good appetizers and beer, so maybe the professor could cut me some slack).
Koning makes the strong point, “like party guests who refuse to mingle, entrepreneurs tend to gravitate toward people they already know, and this diminishes the learning potential.” Your nearest neighbor can have the greatest influence, “scientists work side by side at lab benches.” But to foster real innovation, maybe the entrepreneur needs to not only go where no man has gone before — but also where he doesn’t know anybody else on the island.
Koning studied 112 aspiring entrepreneurs who were participating in a three-week software boot camp in New Delhi, India. He concluded, “Participants with more prior ties (with people they knew in advance, before they got there) were more likely to miss out on the benefits of learning from those with stronger skills.”
Our community deeply supports startup focused events — there are at least a couple per week — but “the potential positive peer effects will likely decline over time.” Koning argues that you need different teams with different backgrounds brought together in different locations. Now, I remind you that this is still research, and not gospel. But I am strongly inclined to give it some credence. I know that in my own little world, I am often more enlightened and energized when I am at events (theater, civic events, lectures etc.) that have no connection with my embedded startup pals.
One place you see this adverse effect of homogeneity is when you hire people who you know and who know you, so Koning argues in that case, “employers have to work harder to get these candidates to collaborate with people they don’t know.” However, on the flip side, I have a small team of geniuses at my software company who have previously worked together for 10 years, and to find and build a cohesive technical team with those skills would have been challenging. It is like a string quartet, or a jazz ensemble. They know and trust each other and the results can be magical.
When we are in a comfortable situation, we are subject to what Koning calls “the gravitational pull of sameness.” Same stories, same punch lines. This sense of comfort tends to impede innovation. You need some friction, like the stone in your shoe — annoying until dealt with. But Koning also understands that “leaders must strike a balance” between teams with close bonds versus the potential value of disruption.
In the end, Koning contends that if you are going to participate in the hackathon or attend the meet and greet the gang event, “you’re better off going alone.” His bottom line is this: “If you are trying to make new connections and learn from other people, I wouldn’t bring your posse.”
If you know what you know and who you know, it is less likely you will learn anything new since you will, in effect, be talking to yourself in a mirror.
Rule No. 611
“You talking to me?”
— from the film “Taxi Driver”