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Build Yourself a Better Sounding Board

Remember, generating new ideas and making difficult decisions require completely different teams


by Sarah Mahoney

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Anyone in the midst of a life change can tell you how important good advice is—and how irritating bad counsel can be, no matter how well-intentioned. Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology can help you draft the right kind of people to your sounding board. When you’re looking for new ideas, listen to people far outside your everyday experience. But when you’re faced with a very difficult decision? Rely on your closest pals.

These insights come from an analysis of three million financial decisions, says David Shrier, MIT’s managing director of connection science and engineering. “People who didn’t listen to anyone had low idea flow, and a low return on their investment,” he says, speaking at a recent 4A’s CreateTech conference. “But people on the other end of the curve were so networked that they were living in an echo chamber, hearing the same opinions over and over. The sweet spot was in the middle. They had maximum idea diversity, but without the echo chamber effect.”

Additionally, he says that extensive analysis of the way people use social networks finds that for new ideas, it’s important to reach beyond your close-knit circles, and the people you see every day. “Those people know the same things you know. But when you are trying to do something difficult? Your closest friends are the ones who lead to your greatest success.”

Close ties are also key to more productive relationships at work. MIT research has found that close bonds between team members are the only thing that affects how well a team performs, trumping individual IQ, how much networking team members have done, or even the technical abilities of the people involved. “The stronger the ties,” the researchers write, “the better the team does in just about any measure of productivity.”

That means that it pays to form and nurture those relationships, whether they are friendships formed by water coolers, in employee lounges, or commiserating outside of work. “Structured meetings don’t build that trust,” Shrier says. “It’s when you run into people face to face that those bonds form.”

Photo Credit: Martin Barraud/OJO/Getty