Tiny Groups are the basis for innovations

Nothing happens without people talking with each other. But not all talking will help your team innovate. High-performing teams achieve closure by seeking and drawing on coordination opportunities. This is measured through closed triads.

The mantra is clear: Without innovation, may it be technological progress or progress on other fronts, we get stuck in the past. But innovation isn’t possible without humans. Even proponents of e/acc and the Techno-Optimist Manifesto have to agree: It’s (still) humans behind innovation.

Innovation happens when disparate knowledge collides. How can you make this happen? Two choices:

  • Option 1: Sit back, relax and wait for serendipity to act.
  • Option 2: Talk with people, look for common grounds between them and bring them together. In short: Form tiny groups.

Not surprisingly, my advice is to go for option 2. You don’t have to think on huge, life-changing, mind-blowing scales. Innovation doesn't have to be radical and you don’t need a village to get it started. Begin with a tiny group.

Tiny dictionary

a triad is a group of 3 people.

Triads can be open or closed. To understand the difference, we need to take a detour to geometry. But not too far. Just think about a triangle. In this triangle, every corner represents one person. Each line represents a link between the two people (aka corners of your triangle). Two people who are linked, are two people who are talking with each other. In an open triad, one line is missing. So it’s not a triangle anymore, but just a line. In a closed triangle, there are three lines.

When a triad moves from open to close this is called closure. Just like when you find closure in a friend or experience or place and feel "at home and protected". A triad that moves from open to close gives the same feeling to the involved people.

Triads, closed triangles, and vibes

Effective collaboration requires communication. Nothing happens without people talking with each other. This means that there are patterns of interactions that teams develop over time. Some of these patterns are helpful, while others are detrimental.

This article is based on two research papers investigating communication patterns in tiny groups: Triads. I love triads for their simplicity. It’s only three people. But three people in a group chat is an immense improvement compared to a series of 1:1 conversations between these three people. Just visualize it: 1 group chat with three people versus three 1:1 DMs.  Whenever possible, steer clear of 1:1 DMs and lean toward group chats instead for maximum information flow.

Paper 1: David Obstfeld (2005). Social Networks, the Tertius Iungens Orientation, and involvement in innovation.

Paper 2: Özgecan Koçak and Massimo Warglien (2020). When three’s a crowd

Close triads feel like a unit

In our world dominated by online interactions we've grown familiar with back-and-forth emails or chats. Yes, it might sometimes feel as though other priorities land on your to-do list, you still control your response. Replying signifies coordination and people adapting to the ever changing circumstances of their work. Replying to emails ("reciprocating") is a sign of adaptation to the current demands of the environment. To sum it up, replying is the first sign that your team is working well together.

Just to be clear, I'm not advocating for an always-on-culture where you have to reply within less than 24 hours. The point is that teams in which reciprocal connections emerge, demonstrate that their members are adaptive to whatever is happening. Instead of sticking to a rigid to-do list or roadmap, members reply to requests from others.

An even stronger sign of adaptation to the ebbs-and-flows of team activity is closure. Closure is when three people form a closed triangle. Communication closure demonstrates the team’s ability to activate and deactivate complex coordination mechanisms based on the acute demands of their task or environment.

For example, a writer, designer and editor can organize their work like a conveyor belt: Writer drafts the content, and hands it over to the editor who makes some minor changes, who then sends it to the designer for the art work. In this example, the editor only receives input from the writer and passes their output to the designer. I don’t think you’ll have to be a writer to see flaws in this system. What if the writer doesn’t like the art work? Or if the designer has questions about the message of the article? And God forbid the editor gets sick. The whole system breaks down. Clearly, shifting from an open to a closed triangular coordination pattern would benefit this team more, as there would be a communication line between the designer and the writer.

Closed triangles not only enhance team coordination but also signal a robust team spirit. Teams that rely on reciprocal relationships and do not form these more complex communication patterns lack a common vibe. Just think about the complexity of finding a time to meet with one other person who lives in different time zones! It can get pretty frustrating. Add another person, and the resulting coordination dilemma increases exponentially. Hence, voluntarily increasing the complexity of your work by coordinating a time slot with two people instead of just one shows that the involved people are willing to endure the pain for the greater good of the team.

The third that binds

For me, the most frustrating type of conversation are seemingly endless back and forth exchanges. Especially if several people are involved in this chain, and every back-and-forth is just between two people hidden in a private message.

I was in one the other week. We were trying to organize a Twitter space. After three agonizing switches between apps and people, I decided it was ridiculous. Got the handle of person 2 for app 1 and passed it to person 1 with whom I communicated on app 1. Twitter space turned into an amazing panel on data grants. If I'd kept passing messaging back and forth, this would not have happened. Too high coordination costs.

Coordination costs are a real dilemma for innovation. When you are trying to build something new, you often need expertise from different areas. This can be hands-on expertise for coding, design, growth and so on, but also advisory expertise. All this comes at the cost of coordinating a group of people to be working towards the same goal.

But before you can get people to work together towards a shared goal, you need to get them into the same room. With everyone stuck in their bubble, it is easy to miss links and opportunities for innovation. But there are people who are ideally placed to create these links. They are like linchpins. David Obstfeld  in his excellent research paper calls them "the third who binds" (tertius iungens), to contrast them to those who do not connect people but enjoy the strategic advantage of keeping everyone in their silo (tertius gaudens).

Two drivers behind successful triads

Individuals adapt at uniting others stand out among their peers due to their enjoyment of making connections and their extensive social knowledge. Those who are very skilled in bringing others together are set apart from their peers by two factors: They enjoy connecting people, and they have a lot of social knowledge.

The first factor, enjoying connecting people, combines different skills and activities. It  is about understanding an issue and being able to explain it in such a way that disparate groups see the benefit. This isn't easy given the unique language and strategic interests of every group. The framing of the opportunity is important for members of the disparate groups to see the point in talking with each other. It’s essential to point out the common ground and what each party brings to the table. The case for collaboration needs to be clear for everyone, and to convince each group different arguments are necessary.

The second factor, social knowledge, refers to access to behind-the-scenes input. That's everything that touches upon areas that aren’t yet well documented. In a way this is about a person's social capital as it taps into their access to people who are influential because of their expertise or their official role.

It is very difficult, may I say close to impossible, to grow your social knowledge if you are not good at listening. Often when we listen, we are wondering what we should say next, looking for a segway to say something about us. Listening turns into this annoying activity we have to do before we can speak about ourselves.

But to be able to connect people, you need to know them. Triads stay together if they have a common purpose. This common purpose is built on shared interests, world view, principles, or problems. When the sharedness disappears, the triads dissolve. Without listening properly to others, you’ll struggle to discover how to connect people.

To get people to start collaborating and innovating, someone has to have social knowledge and the skills to connect strangers. That's the first place where tiny groups (aka triads) are crucial for innovation to happen. The second place is when the newly formed group begins working together. This newly formed group needs to develop a shared language. The easiest way to achieve this is to remove barriers: No DMs or other forms of 1:1.

Every time a 1:1 conversation occurs in private, (e.g., direct message, video call), the people who don't have access to it, lose a bit of context. It’s like slowly chipping away at a sculpture. Those people who were part of the conversation got an opportunity to talk about the project, form opinions about each other, and what needs to be done. This all adds up to the "projects mental model", i.e. the team’s sculpture representing their shared goal. Private conversations destroy the team’s sculpture by increasing coordination costs.

What’s next?

The key take away from this article is that there is virtue in forming closed triads. Go out and actively introduce people to each other, making it clear how they can benefit from talking with each other. Remember to listen with the intent to learn. And if you find yourself in a back-and-forth between two other people, create a group chat. And if you work remotely: Stay clear from 1:1 conversations in DM.

Do you want to know how good your team is at collaborating and innovating? Let me know by replying to this email.

Thank you to the editors at Foster for your comments and feedback.

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