Weak Ties and Creativity

Have you heard about the theory of “strength of weak ties” ? Weak ties are those people with whom you interact rarely. Your acquaintances and colleagues you only talk once a while. Their strengths come from exactly this limited interaction. As you don’t interact often with them, chances are high that they know things you don’t. It is your weak ties that can give you creative input.

That’s the theory, but what does practice say about weak ties and creativity?

Jill Perry-Smith has tested this theory in her paper Social Network Ties Beyond Nonredundancy. But she has taken it one step further. Creative ideas have two origins: First, creativity can be the result of getting access to information that is new to you and which you combine with your existing knowledge in a novel way. Second, creative ideas can arise if you are stimulated by a new perspective to an old problem. Both, information and framing, can give you creative input.

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Before going into detail in the results, I need to describe first another study. In an experiment by Katherine Phillips and colleagues they tested the decision-making quality of groups with congruent relationships, relationships in which unique information is shared by an acquaintance (weak tie), and shared information by a friend (strong tie). The argument used by these researchers is that individuals are more comfortable hearing unique information from acquaintances. If we hear unique information from a friend, this puts us off, it disturbs our balance. The reason for this is that we are friends with those that are similar to us (You might disagree, because on the surface your friends are all different. Think again, on a deeper level you are going to share common attributes). Katherine and her colleagues analyzed the quality of decision-making in congruent and incongruent groups. Congruent groups, groups in which unique information is shared by weak ties, outperformed incongruent groups, groups in which weak ties communicated shared information. Similar findings have been shown by others. For example, Melissa Thomas-Hunt and colleagues showed in experimental study that unique information provided by weak ties is evaluated more positively than if the same unique information is provided by your friend.

Back to Jill Perry-Smith’s study. In an experimental study, she showed that strong ties are more beneficial for creativity if they provide a new frame to look at the task, than if they provide new information. If strong ties provide new content, the resulting imbalance doesn’t impact creativity. No matter if new content comes from a strong or a weak tie, new frames have a stronger benefit on creativity than new information.

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Figure from Tabitha Blue (www.freshmommyblog.com)

In a follow-up study, she goes on to take decision-time into account. Her argument is that new content (may it be in the form of new frames or new information) received from weak ties is expected to be different, and individuals are ready to be flexible. However, when interacting with strong ties, individuals do not expect to be confronted with new information (content or frames). They remain entrenched in their current way of thinking. Once novelty is introduced, it puts individuals off their balance. What happens is that new information introduced by strong ties is discounted. After, maybe, limited consideration of the information, individuals put it aside. However, when strong contacts provide new frames this acts at a higher, more abstract level. Consequently, when strong ties confront individuals with new frames it will not be directly dismissed, but the individual will spent more time before making a decision. This is what Jill Perry-Smith showed: The decision-time is greatest when strong ties provide individuals with a new frame.

It seems that weak ties are always the best source of creative input. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Aimee Kane demonstrated that a shared social identity, thus the presence of a common category (e.g., same gender, ethnicity, expertise, department), increases the chance for new and hard-to-communicate information to be accepted and implemented. Also Gina Dokko and colleagues provided evidence that for new information to be implemented, it helps if there is a shared identity.

Whatever your source of inspiration, aim for new frames.

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