Creating Social Value Blog / Food

Structural Holes

My breakthrough read of 2014 was written in 2004, but “Structural Holes and Good Ideas” has done more to validate my wacky way of operating in the world than anything else. Author Ron Burt explores the neighborhood of social capital occupied by “between-group brokers… the people who stand near the holes in a social structure.”


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Deliberate, designed multicultural mashed-ups have been Food Sol‘s domain since we began. Those who like and subscribe to what we do recognize the power and utility of opting into conversations that span structural holes.

Any farmer will tell you that before planting seeds, you must come to know your land. Similarly, real innovators scrutinize the existent system and stakeholder groups first, before setting out to build anything. They know that to be sticky and relevant, such a “soil study” is imperative.

Here’s what a “soil study” is not:  it is not a sterile, isolated, vacuum-sealed analysis fueled by spreadsheets, dot graphs and Power Points. As Joel Salatin will tell you with great gusto, soil is all about relationships. It’s “a community of beings.” 

So learning soil is principally learning relationships, which are the nodes of access to understanding the nuances, dynamics, and power structures of the status quo system.

Burt’s whole piece is worth a read. You can get the PDF via the link above. But the passage on “Creativity” (pages 388-89) really resonates. Burt writes:

“The source of an idea is no longer the focal question; what matters is the value produced by the idea, whatever its source. People with connections across structural holes have early access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations, which gives them a competitive advantage in seeing and developing good ideas…

This is not creativity born of genius; it is creativity as an import-export business. An idea mundane in one group can be a valuable insight in another.  In our age of ready technology, people often make the mistake of thinking that they create value when they have an idea born of sophisticated analysis. That is not true. An idea is as valuable as an audience is willing to credit it with being.”

To push this idea further, check out the truly hot-off-the-press “Understanding New Power” in Harvard Business Review (Dec 2014). According to authors Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, the recipe of the day is “networked governance, open source collaboration, crowd wisdom and sharing.”