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How to Diversify Your Professional Network and Foster Innovation

Diverse networks can foster new ways of thinking by connecting you to people whose viewpoints, insights, resources, and lived experiences differ from your own.

Consider a 1985 study by Carnegie Mellon researcher Robert Kelley and Janet Caplan, who analyzed the characteristics of exceptional engineers at Bell Labs. According to their research, IQ didn’t explain the difference between top performers and average ones; star performers approached their jobs differently. The most-productive employees proactively developed relationships with other experts — and these networks were significantly more diverse than their average-performing colleagues’.

More-recent research supports the notion that people who are connected across heterogeneous groups and who have more-diverse contacts come up with more creative ideas and original solutions. Author Frans Johansson explores the idea of “intersectional thinking” in his book The Medici Effect, proposing that the best ideas emerge from the collision of different industry insights. Despite these clear benefits, however, most people tend to connect with others whose perspectives, backgrounds, and cultural norms are similar to their own.

Rethinking what it means to network, and acting accordingly, requires ongoing work and intention, as I’ve learned firsthand. Throughout my career — In Consulting, in technology, and in media production — I’ve fostered a professional network that spans industries. Networking is central to my work as a board advisor and investor; it’s my role to connect great people, identify partnerships, connect visionaries with resources, and cross-pollinate ideas.

Whether or not your daily work requires engaging with many different kinds of people, you can benefit from developing a network that inspires new ideas and challenges your beliefs. Here’s my advice for making this shift.

Get uncomfortable. Take a small step by meeting someone new and asking about the things you don’t have in common. Try new experiences, especially ones you fear you’re bad at. Trying something new could be as big as switching industries or as small as taking a dance class.

Make space in your day and in your list of priorities to expand what you think of as comfortable. If you need more accountability, write down specific goals. These could include things like spending two hours each week developing a skill that doesn’t fit in with your current career path. (Remember, it was the calligraphy class Steve Jobs sat in on during college that later inspired Apple’s typography.) You might ask five friends each month for introductions to people in their extended networks; think about people at different levels and in completely different spaces.

I make a point to push myself beyond my comfort zone by saying yes to things that feel uncomfortable. Try it for one day (you’ll have more time to do this if you also say no to other things).

Make mindfulness part of your networking approach. There are a number of studies about the benefits of mindfulness for work performance and overall well-being, and mindfulness can extend to the way you approach networking. When you seek out meetings, brainstorming sessions, or even email exchanges with people outside your traditional work circle, it can be very inspiring. But it can also be difficult to put inspiration into action and process new ideas from so many different directions.

When your mind is quieter, you’re in a better position to recognize when you’re slipping into your comfort zone, so you can course-correct. You can also connect the dots between seemingly unrelated ideas, resulting in smarter solutions.

Seek out “Radical collaborators.” People from different roles, business units, and backgrounds (gender, race, ethnicity, age, thinking style) who come together to solve tough problems. The purpose of these groups is not to come to consensus. Instead, they serve as a space for healthy debate and divergent thinking, finding ways to reframe a problem and come up with multiple solutions, the best of which may not be obvious.

Create your own group by reaching out to people who think differently than you do and whose perspectives have been shaped by distinct experiences. You’ll likely create these groups outside your office space and traditional career network, so a shared agenda or activity can give these meetings a greater sense of purpose. Unite people around a charitable cause completely different from their day-to-day roles. A monthly book or article club can give you the chance to hear the perspective of someone who doesn’t share your opinion, as well as a chance to read authors you wouldn’t normally pick up.

It is one of the ironies of our time that we have greater access to information but often find ourselves in echo chambers of people who share our opinions and worldviews.

The digital age poses more opportunities than ever to carve out interesting, fulfilling careers by extending our networks beyond our comfort zones. So, let’s go out of our way to get uncomfortable. Let’s find the people who help to challenge our assumptions, call out our biases, and surface new ideas.

Let's Ignite a positive revolution!

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