Innovation Requires Breaking Out of Your Network

Innovation Requires Breaking Out of Your NetworkRecently @JuhaLipponen shared his post on how gathering people from diverse backgrounds to brainstorm breeds new and fresh insights. This idea of bringing in outsiders to shake things up isn’t new, but it’s definitely one that you don’t find being practiced more widely.

And this brings me to an important point about innovation: Where all think alike no one thinks very much.

You can’t start seeing this on the web where the tools we use to communicate and find information (Facebook, Google, Twitter) play into our biases of familiarity. The more we use them, the more they know us and become personalized for us.

If in the past you hadn’t thought about this, today it’s even more imperative that you do. Why?

Because as @elipariser argues in his book The Filter Bubble, these tools use algorithms that ‘personalize’ your experience. And the more you use them, the more familiar they become. In other words, they’ll box you in.

Watch his TED Talk is you haven’t already:

Familiarity breeds contempt

This doesn’t work well for finding new ideas, new points of view. It doesn’t work well for protecting you from getting outside the box, getting out of your own way.

For example, I haven’t used Facebook consistently for the last 3 years. Ever since I started noticing that my news feed was being manipulated by an algorithm, I stopped using it. Another reason why I don’t use Facebook is because it’s meant to connect you with people who you already know. Not with people who you would like to know. That’s what Twitter is for.

It’s not that I don’t like my friends, it’s just that I already know how they think and they don’t really challenge my thinking.

Because what Facebook does is it further reinforces your box. The box that provides comfort and familiarity. Your family and close circle of friends all contribute to your support system, a place where you can find comfort. It’s a system that reinforces your world view of things.

New insights are not found in the mainstream

The network that you have and have had for awhile is already locked in to the mainstream. Letting algorithms control your experience means you’re already missing important insights. And these insights are found outside your immediate network of family and friends. When was the last time you talked with your family about how the internet is like a living organism and how it compares to how organizations are traditionally run?


You want to hang out (at least for a little bit) with people who are not like you. You want to break that pattern of familiarity before it becomes an echo chamber of nonsense.

On Twitter you follow interests, on Facebook you friend people you already know. Still Twitter has the same problem…

Step out of the echo chamber

Because on Twitter it’s very easy to find people with the same interests, pretty soon you’ll accumulate a long list of people who tweet the same stuff. It’s becomes repetitive. And if you pay close attention you’ll see people adopting other people’s views rather quickly.

As humans we are hardwired to like familiarity. We like confirmation that whatever it is that we’re doing is right. But if all you do is talk to the same people all the time, we get more of the same ideas. We’ll be constantly reinforcing our views and our perception of things will remain the same.

This not only happens online, it happens at networking events and at industry conferences too. It seems like every other industry conference is talking about the same thing…

It’s not just people who need to break out

When an organization starts out, it starts building a network of customers, suppliers, partners and other institutions to help it succeed. This network promotes predictability of operation, repeating a tried and true business model over and over again.We become successful because we have strong relationships with business partners, because we understand what our customers and employees want from us, because we share many of the same goals as our company or institution, and because we have learned from departments and colleagues what it takes to succeed. These relationships become deeply integrated into a tight network supporting similar values.

Clayton Christensen calls these types of networks ‘value networks’. And it’s why we build networks in the first place. But it is this same network that holds companies back when they want to pursue non-linear ideas.

You network will promote, support and highlight ideas that are valued within it. And it squashes and removes ideas that are not. If you want to see what nobody sees, you need to break out of your network.

That’s why you see SkunkWork teams work outside a companies boundaries and operate freely. They have to build a new network, one that takes created with a different set of assumptions about the future.

If we go back an look at the personal characteristics of innovators we find that:

  • we need to free associate.
  • we need to network with people who are different that us.

Both these qualities are related very closely because if you don’t expose yourself and talk to people who are different than you (network), the less likely you are to find new unrelated connections to make (association).

In order to innovate we have to generate new connections between ideas. We can’t do this if all of our routines only expose us to viewpoints that are very similar to our own.

Hopefully I’ve helped make it a little more clear to you why it’s important to get uncomfortable and seek out ideas from outside your box.

Bottom line: Take advantage of the filters that exists, but filter that yourself. This is important because getting spoon-fed knowledge is easy these days, but breaking it down and synthesizing it is a skill that is in high demand.

Think for yourself, make up your own mind.

A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing

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Jorge BarbaJorge Barba is an Innovation Insurgent and is the Creative Strategist at Blu Maya, a San Diego based Digital Marketing Firm that helps organizations build their online business with strategy development for new products and services. He’s also the author of the innovation blog Game Changer. And lastly, you can follow him on Twitter @jorgebarba.

Jorge Barba




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No Comments

  1. Paul Hobcraft on June 13, 2011 at 9:36 am

    This is a terrific articlem helpful, insightful and making me want to start a movement to stop algorithems.
    As for your echo chamber- I’ve been in this for some time and it has been giving me a real headache………..
    Breaking it down and synthesizing it is a little like applying a bio-degradable innovation technique perhaps.

  2. Jorge Barba on June 13, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks. I agree, this is a problem that isn’t going away anytime soon. The more boxed in we get by these algorithms, the more advertising revenue these guys generate.

    No doubt the echo chamber has a pull dynamic that’s difficult to get out of. I think that’s why there’s so much content curation going on as nobody’s really figured out (yet) how to break it down and synthesize. Hopefully I’ve done that with this post 🙂



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