The Importance of Connectors

“The point about connectors is that by having a foot in so many different worlds, they have the effect of bringing them all together.”― Malcolm Gladwell

If you want to change something or spread ideas you need to mobilise people – and that’s often through identifying those individuals who have influence outside their position on an organisational chart. Whatever big consultancy says, change doesn’t happen because of a Gantt chart, a slick PowerPoint, or a change readiness programme.

In his book The Tipping Point, Gladwell outlines key roles in spreading knowledge and ideas: the maven and the connector.

The maven is a person who accumulates subject matter expertise and is willing to distribute that knowledge on request.

A connector is a well known person connected to multiple groups in an organisation.

The maven knows lots of important stuff, but the connector knows lots of people. Because they circulate in different worlds with different crowds they can connect them and join the dots between any silo.

I’ve had a few conversations with people over the past couple of weeks about the importance of connectors within organisations and their role in spreading ideas and good practice – so I thought I’d rework a previous post on this subject.

My take is that the fixation on leadership, bordering on worship at times, impedes progress as it undervalues the role of connectors, or even ignores them completely.

Nearly 10 years ago Shirley Ayres and I experimented with an alternative way of measuring influence. What if we measured influence by digital presence rather than position in the hierarchy? Perhaps influence, if not power, was shifting away from traditional management and leadership? As Jules Birch noted at the time it appeared that “many relatively junior staff have more ‘power’ than their bosses. Networked power could be displacing hierarchical power.”

Ten years on, I think I was fanciful, or even naive, to believe that the hierarchy would cede too much power to the influencers. Indeed at the time Jules did express concern about the “sometimes blind assumption that social media democratises organisations”.

There was though the tangible beginnings of a movement and Shirley and I termed these people super-connectors, those who seem able to move effortlessly between sectors and connect with those aligned with their interests.  Increasingly they were circumventing artificial and created barriers to facilitate change.

Talking with the CEO of an organisation last week I suggested we need more of these connectors and less traditional leaders and managers – as the connectors are those who can help us break out of our existing paradigm. They exist in numerous worlds, therefore, they are best placed to help create a new one.

The point I made was that in most organisations, these connectors are not only under-utilised, but employers are not even aware of their existence.

They are usually well networked, but don’t show a lot of ego.

They demonstrate a high degree of curiosity.

They are less likely to want to climb a traditional career ladder and are often more purpose driven.

They may not fit into the traditional idea of leadership, in fact they are very likely not leaders at all. Rather they work within organisations and across sectors to spread ideas.

Social networks play a vital role in the spread of ideas. Connectors, those individuals with extensive social networks, help bridge different social circles and facilitate the transmission of information.

The challenges we face today require less fixation on the leader and a greater focus on leveraging the community at every level of our organisations. Indeed we really need to think less about organisations and more about entrepreneurial ecosystems.

Shifting from a focus on individual organisations to an ecosystem perspective is critical for driving effective social change. Ecosystems acknowledge the interconnectedness of various stakeholders, encouraging collaboration, holistic approaches, and adaptability. Ecosystem thinking recognises that social challenges are multifaceted, requiring diverse entities, including communities and grassroots organisations, to work together. It’s relational, not organisational.

Viewing things from an organisational chart perspective ignores all the internal connectors, and the entire external ecosystem. Working across health, the criminal justice system, mental health, housing, social care, or education requires us to take an ecosystem view. If we don’t – we fail.

Connectors are now starting to enable the things that sector leaders have failed to do – the removal of silo thinking , the rapid dissemination of information and the mobilisation of people into action.

Maybe it’s time for leadership to take a backseat.

Related: We Should All Delete More Work