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Working on the next big innovation? Make sure to build up your network first

June 8, 2020

Professor Bill McEvily’s research explains why teams that develop extensive and diverse networks have a competitive advantage in the innovation space.

Though innovation is a team sport — we know it takes multiple great minds to turn one great idea into a reality — not all teams are created equal.

According to a new paper co-authored by Professor Bill McEvily and his colleagues at Imperial College Business School in London and the University of Bath, teams that found success with innovation projects tended to amass extensive and complimentary networks. The study provides new insights on what practitioners across all sectors might want to consider when constructing their networks.

In this study, McEvily and his co-authors wanted to better understand why some teams operating in the innovation space found success, while others didn’t.

“We know that so many viable ideas never see the light of day. At the same time, developing an innovation of any significance doesn’t happen in isolation,” says McEvily, who is a professor in the Strategic Management area at the Rotman School. “We wanted to get at how some communities manage to successfully bring ideas to market.”

In their study, the researchers studied operations at a global firm that partners technical experts with business managers on projects. These working duos were asked to define their individual networks and how they interacted with contacts — including who they sought advice from and bounced ideas off of in the course of their work. Additionally, the researchers carefully analyzed HR records evaluating innovation performance for these teams.

A pattern quickly became apparent: the pairs that thrived and had the best record for bringing their ideas to market maintained intertwined, extensive, non-overlapping networks, also known as ‘dual networks’.

Specifically, the researchers found that in high-performing innovation teams, the business-minded partner interacted regularly with technical experts while the technical-minded partner was in regular contact with business professionals. Importantly, both partners interacted with different people and people at the senior management level.

How, exactly, does dual networking give pairs a competitive advantage?

“It comes down to having a good sparring partner,” explains McEvily.

“Behind every great inventor is a great network.”

—Bill McEvily, Professor of Strategic Management

“With an expansive network, you are exposed to a rich set of ideas and information that you would never acquire on your own. You could imagine how business managers might be able to use the knowledge acquired from conversations with senior scientists in their network to intelligently challenge ideas of their technical counterpart, and vice versa. It makes ideas stronger and more robust.”

This approach goes against the trusted divide-and-conquer practice to innovation, where one partner focuses only on business matters (such as attracting investors, marketing) while the other partner specializes in the technical aspects.

“That’s not always the best path. Too often, partners become polarized and it can feel like they are speaking different languages. Individuals need to have diverse networks so that they are able to appreciate areas outside of their expertise.”

Another benefit of developing extensive and far-reaching networks is that teams are in a better position to garner support and influence when it comes time to market their ideas.

“We know that many companies generate dozens of good ideas every year, but they don’t have the finances to support all of them. The difference in whether your idea makes it or not might come down to how wide your team’s network is and how many of those contacts might be willing to stand up and speak up for your idea.”

What's more, this dual-networking effect extends beyond innovation. McEvily believes that it could apply to creative projects, movie sets and startups — basically, any environment involving multiple collaborators with unique skill sets.

The research also shows that there are things individual practitioners can do, regardless of their industry or role.

“Work on becoming a good sparring partner for your teammates. That means taking the time to cultivate an expansive network, interacting with people outside of your usual circles, and finding out about what they are doing and thinking about,” he says. “I like to think that behind every great inventor is a great network.”

Written by Rebecca Cheung | More Rotman Insights »

Meet the Researcher

Bill McEvily

Professor of Strategic Management