August 2022 | 

It’s Who You Know: Leveraging Networks for Execution

It’s Who You Know: Leveraging Networks for Execution

A recent Google search revealed dozens of top tips, strategies, and secrets to solving the execution challenge. With failure rates hovering around 67 percent, as reported in a number of studies, it seems much of the advice is going unheeded. What really works? According to renowned strategy expert Nicolaj Siggelkow, academic director of the Effective Execution of Organizational Strategy program, there is no one perfect solution. Different organizations, teams, and leaders struggle with a range of issues, so one-size-fits-all answers rarely work.

Leveraging Social Networks

Instead, if you’re serious about improving your team or organizations’ execution abilities, you need a more nuanced approach, one that looks at the problem through a number of lenses. That approach must also be self-reflective: leadership, organizational culture, talent management, and capabilities all play roles that vary in size and importance depending on the company, team, and situation.

For management professor Exequiel (Zeke) Hernandez, the approach involves looking closely not just at the people involved, but how those people are connected. The social networks present in every company, when acknowledged, understood, and navigated well, can be an important part of your effort to execute strategies and see even the smallest initiatives across the finish line.

“Social networks are the ‘invisible structure’ of the firm,” he explains. “We all know that who you know matters, but most people don’t have a good idea about how they are positioned in their firm’s social network and how to navigate it. Whether you need to lead the execution of an initiative, or you need someone else to take the lead, it’s rare to think about execution in terms of networks.”

Hernandez makes those networks visible and tangible, offering the vocabulary and tools to better understand and leverage them. “We often think about getting things done in terms of a leader’s personality or of formal methods such as delegating, assigning, and incentivizing,” he says. “These are all visible solutions. But they often depend on what’s not visible, or even considered as a factor. Social networks and your positioning in them have an outsize effect on how good you can be at mobilizing resources, motivating others, and getting things done.”

Matching Networks to Tasks

How can you better understand and deploy your own social capital and find the right individuals and teams to achieve organizational goals? “Some have more and different capital [which he defines as the resources you are able to mobilize from your relationships] than others,” he says. “It’s a function of how you are positioned in your network.” One way to envision that position is central versus peripheral. “People who are more central can mobilize more resources, having greater influence, visibility, and clout,” Hernandez says. “But there are benefits to being on the periphery, too. Being aware of where you and others are helps you to then use that information to get things done.”

Hernandez describes two main types of networks: “hub and spoke” and “dense.” In a hub-and-spoke network, most of the people in it (represented by the spokes radiating from the hub) don’t know each other. “This type of network, where there is low redundancy, is great for getting different inputs and knowledge, and for innovating,” he explains. “The people in it have information and skills that others don’t, so everyone brings something different to the table.”

In a dense network, most people are connected to one another and know each other well. “In such a network, it’s easier to get tasks completed that require efficiency,” says Hernandez. “People know each other and share knowledge and skills, so there is a higher level of monitoring. You’re much more likely to get a collective task done in a dense network.”

If you want a simple yet accurate perception of your network, write down the top 15 people you get professional knowledge or information from, ranked by frequency. Then, draw lines to connect those who share knowledge and information with each other. Many lines between those names means you have a dense network. That kind of network is often an echo chamber — the similarities and redundancies mean you’re not going to get challenges to the status quo or a lot of innovative ideas from it. If most of the people you listed don’t have a connection to anyone but you, you’re in a hub-and-spoke network that you can leverage for new insights and projects that require new approaches. “This simple exercise gives you a pretty good understanding of who is in your social circle and whether it is a dense or hub-and-spoke network,” says Hernandez.

The big takeaway? Match the task you need to get done with the right network. To execute on a new creative task (perhaps designing a new product or process), you need a hub-and-spoke network. Leaders can and should reach out to a group of people with the individual skills and knowledge required by the task, but who on the whole aren’t familiar with one another. But if you need high levels of coordination and the ability to get things done efficiently, look to a dense web. “A lot of execution problems arise simply because you’re relying on the wrong network of people given the nature of the task,” says Hernandez.