Superconnect: Harnessing the Power of Networks and the Strength of Weak Links

Superconnect: Harnessing the Power of Networks and the Strength of Weak Links

by Richard Koch, Greg Lockwood

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The practical guide to discovering the rules of our superconnected world through the science and sociology of networks.

In Superconnect, Richard Koch and Greg Lockwood show that success is less about who you are than how you connect—a chance meeting with an old colleague leads to a swanky new job; two businessmen collaborate online and cofound a

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The practical guide to discovering the rules of our superconnected world through the science and sociology of networks.

In Superconnect, Richard Koch and Greg Lockwood show that success is less about who you are than how you connect—a chance meeting with an old colleague leads to a swanky new job; two businessmen collaborate online and cofound a successful start-up; a friend introduces a promising entrepreneur to a millionaire looking to invest. But why do these lucky breaks always happen to other people?

Personal and professional networks shape everything we do, but simply knowing that they exist won’t help you harness your connections for maximum success. With an eye toward business applications, Superconnect outlines the new rules of our densely linked society. At the core of the analysis are three simple network components—strong relationships, weak relationships, and hubs—that interact in surprising, counterintuitive ways. Understanding how these components mesh, and connecting unrelated people, is the way to achieve in today’s hyper-connected world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Entrepreneur Koch (The 80/20 Principle) and investor Lockwood break down the three types of connection--strong links: long-lasting relationships with friends and family; weak links: relationships with acquaintances; and hubs: the junction of several strong and weak links, such as businesses, social circles, schools, nations. The rock stars of social connections and networking are the eponymous "superconnectors"--individuals and businesses who are disproportionately connected (and significantly more successful as a result)--and their specific talents hold far-reaching implications for market structure, strategy, and industrial policy. Through lively case studies and stories, the authors explore how the Internet has changed links, the new rules and characteristics of a hyperlinked society, and how firms and individuals can benefit from the all-important weak links. Weak links, or casual contacts, are a crucial resource; requiring little work or effort, these relationships "deliver enormous dividends," and this smart and thought-provoking analysis explains how individuals and businesses can harness their power for almost any kind of professional advancement. (Aug.)

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and the unsettling discovery that outside forces may determine success
Maximise the serendipity around you.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Hollywood, 1936
If you wanted to protest against the dehumanising effects of the Industrial Revolution by projecting a single striking picture of its oppression, how would you do it? In the movie Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin came up with a timeless image – he placed himself within a great revolving cog, as if inside a giant clock, part of a great mechanised factory, and showed himself buffeted by the wheel’s endless revolutions.
Although it was a new and powerful portrayal, Chaplin stood – or rather, lay – in a great tradition of the ‘romantic’ railing against industry and its enslaving machines, stretching back to William Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’. Writers such as Blake contrasted the smelly, sordid slums of Manchester with the contented cows and peasants painted a few years earlier by Thomas Gainsborough against a bucolic background of haystacks, green fields and gently rippling rivers.
But the romantics were better at poetry and painting than they were at history. The truth was that very few British agricultural workers in the eighteenth century enjoyed much freedom or what we would today call ‘job satisfaction’; theirs was a hard life in which they did what they were told, rarely had enough to eat, and faced famine and starvation at regular intervals. That was why so many people fled their rural slums to find work in the cities. Nobody forced them to go. They went in droves because, however awful life was in the mill towns, it was a great deal better than in the countryside. Karl Marx knew this – he said that industrialisation rescued workers from ‘the idiocy of rural life’.
Even so, Chaplin’s fate in 1936 was essentially the same as that of a mill worker in 1836, or a peasant in 1736, or at any earlier time in human history. The ordinary person – a category which includes the huge majority of humans since time began – had a horrid, tedious, unsatisfying existence, with precious little say in how to run his or her life.
This is very different from our experience today – so when did the big change occur? Some say the Beatles reflected this change in society, but the landscape had actually shifted a decade before they arrived on the scene, with Hollywood marking and magnifying the upheaval. In 1953 Marlon Brando played motorbike rebel Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, and throughout America movie audiences were electrified by the young star’s raw charisma and assertiveness. Mothers, intoxicated and paralysed by Brando’s animal magnetism, let their small children run up and down the aisles, shouting, ‘Vroom-vroom!’ Two years later, Rebel without a Cause introduced James Dean as high school gang leader Jim Stark, portraying a teenage world of knife fights, drag racing, stolen cars and death by speeding. The picture indelibly presented young people at the centre of their own universe, existentially responsible for their own destiny, heroically deciding how to live . . . and how to die.
This really was something novel – individualistic youth culture. And it happened not just in America, but in Britain and Europe; and it cropped up in music, plays and books as well as films. The Beats of the 1950s – with their poetry, long hair and propensity to drop out, go on the road and experiment with drugs – prefigured the hippies and punks of later decades. John Osborne’s ferocious 1956 play Look Back in Anger transformed English and American theatre, introducing the foul-mouthed working-class antihero, the ‘angry young man’. Colin Wilson’s book The Outsider came out in the same year, highlighting the impact on society of many influential outsiders, including Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka and Jean-Paul Sartre.
The golden age of youthful individualism came to full fruition in the sixties, with psychedelic drugs, music and lifestyles, student revolts, and rejection of authority in every part of life. That spirit of personal liberation was eventually transmuted by baby boomers not just into new creative spheres but into business, which became much more radical, decentralised, individualised and personally rewarding. The grey-suited, white-shirted, conformist ‘organisation man’ gave way to colourful semi-hippy entrepreneurs, doing their own thing, running their own show. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple Computer and launched the Macintosh during a famous advertising slot in the 1984 Baseball World Series, in which the new computer was touted as the rebel alternative to Big Brother IBM. This was an explicit reference to George Orwell’s 1984, in which Big Brother, the dictator modelled on Stalin, crushed the spirit of Winston Smith, the ordinary citizen whose sole crime was to explore his individuality. Steve Wozniak later used the fortune he made from Apple to subsidise his favourite rock bands, before starting another high-tech venture.
Individualism – painful and pointless as it could often be – replaced the image of the hapless victim crushed by the heartless organisation. Since then the view that everyone can take charge of their life, realising their own success and happiness, has had a good run, becoming pretty universal. Don’t you feel that you have a self, that you have inner depths, in almost the same way that you have arms and legs? Don’t you feel that your personality can be developed in any way that you choose, that you can rise above whatever your parents achieved or strike out on new, personal paths? In our society, ‘I did it my way’ is not just a line from a song but the title of endless autobiographies, because we feel an automatic identification with the individualist, the maverick, the rebel. Everything has become personalised – we have personal computers, personal trainers, personal iPods. This is a universe away from Chaplin’s revolving wheel, and the fate of humanity generally down the ages.
But here’s the thing. Just as control by society was replaced by control by the self, another huge change is coming – indeed, it is already here, but we are only beginning to appreciate it. Consider this for a moment – when youth culture catapulted around the world, often in highly subversive ways and without the help of official media, how did the same dirty jokes and sexual lore suddenly turn up everywhere, decades before the Internet had been invented? How, in 1968, did identikit student revolts spread from California to Paris to Tokyo and, in paler imitations, to thousands of other campuses within a matter of days? The following year, how was it that several hundred thousand young people suddenly converged on the muddy fields of Woodstock, in the middle of nowhere, when there was no advertising, no promotion, no television coverage? What is the paradox of identical individualism, of feeling pressured to do your own thing, of ‘groupthink’ masquerading as personal discovery? How do fads – from hula-hoops to hoodies – explode and then fade away?
The search for individual expression is genuine enough, but it takes place within groups and it is spread by networks. And, in many ways, networks are the antithesis of the lone individual. Even when they are spontaneous and anarchic in origin, networks favour big concentrations and bind people together in ways that no individual intended or can control. The World Wide Web may be democratic and open to all, but a few websites get the lion’s share of its traffic, and a very small number of people get most of the financial rewards, usually to their immense surprise. Nobody intended that to happen; and nobody can prevent it. It’s just the strange way of networks.
So it’s pretty clear that complete individualism is something of a delusion. It’s important, it’s valid, it’s liberating and it’s changed the world – mainly, in our opinion, for the better. But it’s not the full picture. It’s not a reliable guide to how the world works. To understand our world, we need a new way of thinking – which is what this book aims to provide.
This time the academics – a new type of scientist – have already done the heavy lifting for us. Now we should follow them into a world where our individual efforts are only part of the picture, a place where our success and happiness are determined by far more than our own talents and achievements. This is still a world of individuals, but it’s also a world of networks – the hidden background that shapes our lives. It’s a strange land, puzzling and confounding, but it’s also very exciting. Whereas the heroic individualism of Dean and Brando gives us the illusion of determining our fate, the new territory we’re about to explore shows the strings that are tugging us this way and that. By understanding the real nature of our world, by cooperating with the network forces around us and harnessing them to our ends, we can swap the delusion that we can control the world as individuals for the reality of creation, in collaboration with other people. When we understand our century’s network society properly, we can run our lives slightly differently and benefit enormously. For example, we’ll see that maintaining a large circle of casual acquaintances who come from different backgrounds with contrasting attitudes and lifestyles, or who live a long way from us, can provide knowledge and insights that have the potential to change our lives. We’ll also see how vital it is to choose the people we collaborate with much more carefully than most of us do. And once we understand the insidious way that groups can operate, we’ll be much more cautious about thinking in the same way as our colleagues, or about staying in an organisation (or a relationship) that makes us unhappy.
So the new perspective comes from thinking about networks. But what does ‘network’ mean?
A network is a set of interconnected people or things that can communicate with each other, share information and achieve results that would not be possible if the network did not exist. Networks confer benefits – as well as costs and obligations – on members; meanwhile, non-members are excluded. Every part (or member) of the network is connected to all the other parts.
It helps to visualise a transport network that you know – the New York Subway, the London Tube, the Paris Metro, a train network, or an airline network. The stations or airports are the ‘members’, the fixed parts of the system, and they are all connected to each other by railway lines and trains, or flight paths and aircraft. On all underground systems, you can travel from any station to any other station – unless the destination is closed and therefore isolated from the links.
In network language, the people or things – such as stations – that are connected are called ‘nodes’, and the network consists of the nodes and the connections (or ‘links’) between them. Picture a necklace of precious stones – the jewels are the nodes and the string comprises the links. Or a telephone network – the individual phones are the nodes and the telephone lines or fibre-optic cables are the links.
The links between nodes in the system can be communications technology or social connections. Think, for example, of a group of friends who all know one another – they constitute a network, and they all share certain values or a common identity. Now imagine that these friends are all together, perhaps at a classical music concert, in a much bigger crowd. A stranger in the crowd has no barrier of technology or physical distance stopping her from talking to one or all of the group, but another type of barrier – a social barrier – is likely to prevent her from doing so because she is not a member of the network of friends. She cannot presume that she will share the champagne and smoked salmon, or the conversation.
Now consider any type of organisation – a corner shop, a hairdressing salon, a new venture, a medium-sized corporation, a gang of drug traffickers, a football team, the United Nations, Google, or the place where you work. They are all networks, with their own rules and values and ways of communicating. If you are inside the network, you give and receive in ways that those outside the network do not. If you are an employee of Exxon, for example, you can call up a fellow employee on the other side of the planet and expect some degree of cooperation, even if you have never met the person, because you are members of the same network.
The links between non-human networks are mainly technological, but those between human networks are mainly psychic or social. Yet, one of the fascinating things about networks, as we will see, is that they behave in their own characteristic ways, which are similar whether the network is human, man-made or natural, and whatever the nature of the connections linking the nodes.
When people are linked together in networks, it can make a big difference – a transcendent, sometimes bizarre difference – to them as individuals, and to their happiness and opportunities. Participation in networks has to change each one of us, because the network gives power to (or removes it from) the individual; and the network has its own logic and rules, its own ways of operating, that have nothing whatsoever to do with the individual attributes of the people trapped within or liberated by it.
We recognise this easily in romantic and other two-person relationships. A successful relationship enriches our life in wonderful and often unpredictable ways: we find and define ourselves by the relationship and are transformed by it; we become positive and creative. A destructive relationship operates in a similar but opposite way: we become embittered, constrained, limited, negative, fearful. A two-person relationship is nothing more or less than a miniature network. Unless we’re hermits, we live our lives in a large number of different networks, and the more people there are in a network the less likely we are to understand what is really going on, or appreciate the subtle but potent ways in which our fate is affected, happily or miserably, by the dynamics of the network.
Let’s be a bit more precise about the components of the networks we shall explore. From the individual’s perspective, there are three crucial ingredients of networks – two types of quite distinct links to other individuals or groups, and the groups (‘hubs’) in which we participate. These three network elements have been around in some form or another since our ancestors skulked around in caves, but their relative importance has shifted dramatically in recent decades, as have the means to benefit from them.
The first network element to appear on the planet comprised strong links. These are the strong relationships we have with individuals around us – typically the friends, family and workmates we see most days. These are the most permanent or long-lasting relationships we have, and the least changed in nature since Adam and Eve walked together in the cool of the morning, before that pesky serpent started to make life trickier and more interesting.
Strong links are essential for our emotional wellbeing; people who lack them are sad. So we all need strong links . . . but they are not enough on their own! And they can even be dangerous if we rely on them too much. They often give us a very poor return on our emotional and practical energy. Sociologists have proved that those people who are exclusively or largely reliant on strong links tend to be isolated, deprived of much valuable information, and unable to improve their lives. Poor communities everywhere rely on strong links far more than rich or middle-income communities do.
The second element, whose power has become apparent only in recent decades, consists of weak links. Forget about the common interpretation of the ‘weakest link’, because in the network world weak links are marvellous and among the most powerful and creative forces. These are the links we have with people who are more acquaintances than friends; although, to be effective, we must be on friendly terms with them. We see these people occasionally or rarely – they are friends of friends, our more distant or reclusive neighbours, people from the past who used to be among our strong links but with whom we have now almost completely lost touch, as well as strangers and acquaintances we happen to meet, or could meet, every day. They are the people who occupy the background of our lives.
The intriguing thing about weak links – some of them, anyway – is that the relationship with them demands little time or effort, yet it can deliver enormous dividends, sometimes in the form of casual information that can change our lives. As we’ll show, the right type of information at critical junctures can determine how much we thrive or reach our potential. Random encounters, often with people we barely know or have just met, are frequently responsible for our biggest breaks or our greatest happiness. In these pages you’ll find many such stories. Adrian Beecroft, one of the most accomplished venture capitalists in Europe, tells how his first, crucial break came from a casual contact at his local cricket club. Robin Field, a turnaround specialist, got the job that made his career through someone he knew only because the fellow had run off with his girlfriend. Chicago publicist Jane Graham met her romantic partner through an email from a former colleague. A huge number of such potentially serendipitous contacts present themselves to all of us all the time – yet we ignore the vast majority of them.
The third network element consists of hubs. We can visualise a hub as the junction of many weak and strong links. Human hubs comprise groups of people collaborating for some common purpose, including families, businesses, social circles, schools, churches, clubs and nations. We can think of life as an adventure where some of the most important decisions we make are which hubs to join or start. With whom should we collaborate for important purposes in our life, even if the objective is sometimes just to have fun?
With one important exception – the family we inherit of parents, siblings and others – we can choose which groups to cultivate and influence. For most of us, the mark we make in life and our degree of fulfilment depend to a large extent on the hubs we select and how adept we are at changing from one to another. Unlike Chaplin’s picture of life as something that happens to us, unlike the vast majority of people in history, those of us alive today and fortunate enough to live in wealthy countries will participate in many hubs during our lives; and, unlike most of our forebears, we have the privilege of being able to chop and change hubs, or start new ones of our own.
Yet few of us pick our hubs and the roles we play in them with much care; and few of us understand the strange and sometimes sinister ways in which hubs behave. Groups, whether large or small, are far more than the sum of the people in them; they have lives and characters of their own, and they follow peculiar scientific laws. If we want to get the most out of our hubs and therefore our time on earth, we have to treat hubs as experimental stages in our lives. We must progressively learn, by trial and error, which type of hub is best for us and for which type we are best. And we must be willing to move from one hub to the next before we really want to.
One final question in this chapter, which brings us back to Marlon Brando and James Dean: do you believe that, by and large, you determine your own success?
That was our view until recently. People who attain a degree of success nearly always believe it is due to their innate ability. But is this right? Do you have a niggling feeling that luck or some kind of sixth sense makes some people ultra-successful? What is so special about the rich and famous?
F. Scott Fitzgerald got it exactly right. ‘The rich’, he wrote, ‘are different. They have more money.’ That is the only difference. Wealthy or famous people are not more intelligent than a lot of other people who aren’t so lucky. Some high achievers might be highly determined and work very hard – but lots of other people who never get there are too.
In 2000, two physicists at the University of Paris, Jean-Philippe Bouchard and Marc Mézard, constructed a set of equations for a network of a thousand people and ran a whole series of simulations. Each person in their model was allocated a random amount of money within a narrow range at the start, and everyone was endowed with equal money-making skills so that differences would arise randomly, from luck rather than skill. Surely, in this egalitarian world, big differences in wealth would not arise? Wrong! Whenever the model was left to run for a long time, a small proportion of people ended up with most of the wealth, precisely in line with the 80/20 principle, which says that around 80 per cent of results (in this case, wealth) will end up with 20 per cent of the participants (in this case, people).1 Now, the physicists’ results were almost identical to the unequal patterns of wealth we observe in real life throughout the world. Their work suggested that the rich could benefit from a non-meritocratic process. We’ll see later that this is consistent with the tendency of networks to concentrate around only a few hubs – as scientists have observed in all manner of social and economic networks, and to reward those who are already ahead of the game.
In a curious way, then, the process contains a lot of luck for individuals, and there’s a great deal of randomness, yet predictable patterns also emerge.
Come back to the question. Why them – the rich, the successful – and not you? If it’s not intelligence, or dedication, or rare skills, what exactly is it? It could be pure luck, but it isn’t – which is just as well, for that wouldn’t be a very helpful conclusion, as it wouldn’t allow us to do anything differently. To jump ahead, it turns out that the very high performers in life, whether they excel in making money or in more difficult and useful pursuits, have a few tricks up their sleeves that are all related to networks. They achieve by instinct, without thinking about the network effects that are driving them forward. Yet those instincts follow a common pattern, which has everything to do with networks. If we understand how networks work, we stand a much better chance of achieving their sort of results.
Besides the healthy desire to get ahead, there are other reasons for exploring the hidden forces ruling our lives – it’s interesting, it’s fun, and it puts us in the charmed position of understanding more about what’s going on in our lives and why. In Chapter Two, we begin by looking at how easy or hard it is for us to connect with any other person or group in the world.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Meet the Author

Richard Koch has started several valuable network ventures and is the author of The 80/20 Principle, an international bestseller. He lives in Portugal.
Greg Lockwood is an investor specializing in network businesses. He lives in London.

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