Influence is becoming more and more challenging. It’s hard enough to attract attention, much less retain it or use that attention to shape the behavior of others. And yet, in a world of scarce resources and mounting pressure, the ability to influence others becomes more and more central to the ability to set big things in motion.
In my last blog post, I talked about the increasing strategic importance of influence points for institutions. Now, let’s shift focus and talk about the changing nature of influence at the individual level – how do we achieve more influence as individuals?
The old way
In the old days, it was simple and straightforward. We built influence by having answers. The focus at that point was to master ways of communicating those answers so that we were able to persuade others that our answers were better than anyone else’s. We built influence by demonstrating strength, carefully crafting a presentation of our accomplishments and impact so that those answers we were trying to communicate became a lot more credible because we had a strong track record of being right in the past. Finally, we built influence by becoming the hub of an ever-expanding network of like-minded people who embraced our answers and helped us to persuade others of the value of our answers.
Those days are increasingly behind us. Sure, there are still some who are looking for reassurance and security. Those people may still be influenced by this conventional approach. But this is a very static approach to building influence in an increasingly dynamic world. Answers can be helpful but they only have a fixed value. And answers, no matter how good they are, tend to become obsolete at an accelerating rate. As conditions evolve, those answers that only a little while ago seemed so compelling and helpful now begin to seem stale and worn.
The new way
In an exponential world, answers have rapidly diminishing value. The greatest value in this kind of environment comes from questions, questions that no one had even thought to ask but that help to focus attention and effort on promising but previously ignored areas. Questions invite a different and more powerful form of participation. It’s no longer just about spreading the word and persuading others. It’s about inviting others to explore a new domain and help to generate new ideas and insights.
Framing the questions
In this context, not all questions are created equal.
- The questions that have the greatest potential to influence are broad ones that create space for many people across many different domains and disciplines to participate.
- They are questions where there’s a lot at stake, where enormous value and wealth can be generated by those who are most successful in generating insight.
- They are also deep ones that call for sustained effort over a long period of time to generate insight. They are the questions that will keep a growing number of people occupied for many, many years.
- But they are also questions that can be tackled without massive investment of funds and years of effort before any insight is generated. The best kinds of questions are ones where early “a-ha” moments can occur so that early participants in the questions can get positive reinforcement for their efforts and yet at the same time realize that there is so much more to be explored.
Questions like these do many things. They attract and excite a growing number of people who can see the opportunity for impact. They spur the imagination since the territory is yet to be explored. They invite experimentation, tinkering, innovation and discussion as people strive to move beyond imagination to test potential approaches.
Vulnerability and trust
But questions do something else that’s absolutely vital for influence – they rapidly build trust with the person posing the questions. The person posing these kinds of questions has just done something very important – s/he has expressed vulnerability. S/he has acknowledged there’s something really important that s/he doesn’t know and needs help to solve.
The fact that the person posing the question does this from the outset invites all those who are attracted to the questions to do the same. It’s OK to admit we don’t know something – in fact, it’s a pre-requisite to make progress. Expressing this kind of vulnerability early on builds trust and provides a strong foundation for trust-based relationships. Rather than showing strength, the most effective way to build influence may now paradoxically be to show vulnerability.
This is important for a lot of reasons but let’s just focus on one: it enhances our ability to access the tacit knowledge that each participant brings to the question. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that exists in our heads and that we have a really hard time expressing to ourselves, much less to anyone else. If we have trust-based relationships with others, we’re far more willing to make the effort and risk some embarrassment as we try to express this tacit knowledge. And, in new frontiers of exploration, that tacit knowledge is often the most valuable knowledge, containing far more insight than the stuff that’s already expressed in papers and books.
Mobilizing mesh networks
So, questions are really, really valuable in expanding influence. What are other mechanisms to build influence? In the past, as mentioned earlier, we were advised to aggressively build our networks of relationships, becoming a hub in a growing network of people who were persuaded, or at least could be persuaded, by the answers we were seeking to disseminate.
That kind of approach is less productive if we’re focused on new questions rather than answers. If the goal is to effectively explore and discover new insights, we need a different kind of network. We’d want to encourage much more of a mesh network where there’s a rich and complex set of relationships connecting all participants with each other. This kind of network increases the potential of all participants to connect with each other in unexpected and evolving ways as they embark on their exploration. We can become mobilizers, helping to draw in new people and creating environments where people can connect and explore an evolving agenda of questions.
If we insist on remaining the sole channel for all interactions within the network, we’ll soon become overwhelmed by the task. Very quickly, we’ll become a bottleneck to robust exploration of the terrain ahead. We’ll be far more successful in extending our influence if we create environments that encourage all participants to connect with each other and provide the mechanisms to facilitate both systematic search and unplanned serendipity. The most powerful networks would take the form of creation spaces that support the formation of tightly knit teams and then connect these teams in a broader space where they can seek out help from each other.
But what about the influence that comes from having privileged access to knowledge flows? Won’t we undermine that by moving away from hub and spoke networks to mesh networks? Not to worry, by posing the questions that excite and motivate everyone to embark on their exploration, we’ll still have privileged access to the knowledge flows occurring within the network. Whenever someone comes up with an insight that they think is important, they’ll want to reach out and vet it with us. And if we continue to refine and evolve the questions as new insights become available, participants will continue to connect with us to get the most up to date framing of the questions that matter.
Influence in action – the Santa Fe Institute
OK, now this can all seem pretty abstract. Are there any examples of influence being generated through questions and mesh networks? There are many, but let me point to one that I am personally involved in. It’s the Santa Fe Institute (SFI). SFI was founded 30 years ago by a group of leading scientists, notably led by a chemist, George Cowan, and including David Pines, Stirling Colgate, Murray Gell-Mann, Nick Metropolis, Herb Anderson, and Peter A. Carruthers.
They were all very prominent in their fields at the time but what brought them together was a set of questions about potential common themes regarding complex adaptive systems that cut across traditional disciplinary boundaries. They certainly didn’t have any answers, but the questions were exciting. Were there patterns that could help us to better understand everything from sub-atomic particles to the universe, with the human brain and society thrown in the middle? How do new elements emerge within these systems? How do these systems evolve? What are the elements that make some of these systems more adaptable and resilient than others?
They decided to set up an institute to pursue these questions. But they were careful from the outset to think in terms of catalyzing and growing a network of inquiry. Yes, they had a few resident researchers but they put much more emphasis on identifying and connecting with people from around the world and from many different disciplines – for example, archaeology, anthropology, biology, chemistry, economics, mathematics, physics, and sociology – who were intrigued by these questions.
They created programs that helped to connect these people with each other and shared the research that these participants were pursuing. Early findings led to even more questions and SFI has evolved as an orchestrator of inquiry, expanding and evolving its network as the questions evolved. In the process, it has had influence far beyond its core staff, penetrating virtually every academic discipline. The influence also extended out into the business world as businesspeople began to explore how their firms and their markets might demonstrate the behavior of complex adaptive systems. What had begun as a few curious scientists meeting over lunch at Los Alamos has evolved into a highly influential global network of people excited and motivated by a common set of questions.
Influence can be amplified by passion and distributed learning. These in turn can set into motion powerful increasing returns dynamics where, the more people who join in, the faster everyone learns. Traditional approaches to influence are diminishing returns games where we have to work harder and longer to get that next increment of participants to embrace our answers.
By focusing on questions rather than answers, showing vulnerability in the process and helping to connect people together in ever richer mesh networks, we have an opportunity to exercise influence far beyond our initial domains or resources. We can draw out the potential that resides within all of us so that even modest resources can quickly cascade into movements with ever increasing impact. Small moves, smartly made, can indeed set very big things in motion.
Resist the temptation to fall back on conventional approaches to influence that were more suited to a linear world. Step out to a promising edge and see what questions surface. Use these questions as a catalyst to pull in others who are excited by the opportunity to pursue these questions. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.
Ask the following questions:
- What are the two or three questions that most excite me and that have the potential to excite others?
- What have I done to make others aware of these questions and the potential impact that they might have?
- How could I become even more effective in reaching out to and mobilizing others in exploring these questions?
- Are there ways that I could help to connect these people with each other so that they can increase their own effectiveness in seeking answers?