An organization’s most influential people are social butterflies. They have networks of diverse people with whom they have frequent, meaningful engagement.

An organization’s most successful groups have frequent, face-to-face meetings at which they talk about business and personal things, where no one dominates the conversation, and where the conversation ball is passed quickly from one to the other.

There’s a mathematical formula to prove it.

Social Physics book coverAlex Pentland and his team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology do “reality mining,” capturing big, big interpersonal communication data in organizations around the country. They gather the GPS bits from employees’ company smart phones, patterns of e-mail, and even the frequency and tone of conversations. They say they have discovered patterns of communication that significantly improve decision-making, facilitate change management, and increase productivity.

In Pentland’s book, Social Physics: How Good Ideas Spread — The Lessons From A New Science, They provide hard data to show that email, texting, and instant messaging foster weak interpersonal ties, and thus impede group progress. Groups that talk more – even about trivial things – get more done.

Two work groups in one call center had significantly different productivity numbers. Pentland’s researchers asked employees of both groups to wear devices around their necks that recorded the number, duration, and tone of their conversations over several weeks. The members of the more productive work group had more friendly conversation amongst themselves.

At the researchers’ suggestion, the call center leadership changed the break schedules of the lower-producing team, enabling more team members to take breaks at the same time, during which they could have more free conversations. The group’s productivity increased, and call center leadership rolled the practice out across its network, saving $15 million a year in lost productivity.

Pentland’s researchers have found that richly interactive workplaces convey their culture in deeds as well as words. “Exposure to overheard comments or casual observation of other people’s behavior can drive idea flow just as well as, and in some cases better than, more direct interactions such as conversations, telephone calls, and social media. Idea flow sometimes depends more on seeing what people actually do than on hearing what they say they do. …

“Unexpectedly, we found that the factors most people usually think of as driving group performance— i.e., cohesion, motivation, and satisfaction— were not statistically significant. The largest factor in predicting group intelligence was the equality of conversational turn taking; groups where a few people dominated the conversation were less collectively intelligent than those with a more equal distribution of conversational turn taking. The second most important factor was the social intelligence of a group’s members, as measured by their ability to read each other’s social signals.” Because women are generally better at reading social signals, groups of women are measurably more effective, Pentland says.

The Big Idea

Social physics is a quantitative social science that describes reliable, mathematical connections between information and idea flow on the one hand and people’s behavior on the other. It makes quantitative measures of how people interact. Typical variables measured include : the tone of voice used; whether people face one another while talking; how much they gesture; and how much they talk , listen, and interrupt each other. By combining data from individuals within a team and comparing it with performance data, we can identify the interaction patterns that make for successful teamwork. Social physics helps us understand how ideas flow from person to person through the mechanism of social learning and how this flow of ideas ends up shaping the norms, productivity, and creative output of our companies, cities, and societies.


Best Quote

Our social world consists of the rush and excitement of new ideas harvested through exploration, and then the quieter and slower process of engaging with peers in order to winnow through those ideas, to determine which should be converted into personal habits and social norms.


The social physics approach to getting everyone to cooperate is to use social network incentives rather than to use individual market incentives or to provide additional information. That is, we focus on changing the connections between people rather than focusing on getting people individually to change their behavior. The logic here is clear: Since exchanges between people are of enormous value to the participants, we can leverage those exchanges to generate social pressure for change. Engagement—repeated cooperative interactions among members of the community— brings movement toward cooperative behavior.

His “social physics” number crunching at more than two dozen companies has found that interaction patterns among workers account for almost half of all performance variation between high- and low-performing teams. They have discovered that the greater the number of direct interactions in a group, the greater the social pressure to adopt cooperative behaviors.

Pentland’s team at MIT continues to do “reality mining,” and share their results at their site, . The data can be used to help an organization “tune” its communication culture to measurably improve productivity.

What leaders should know and do

At the individual level, the most influential individuals tend to cultivate the most diverse, cross-functional relationships. “They could adopt the perspectives of customers, competitors, and managers. Because they could see the situation from a variety of viewpoints, they could develop better solutions to problems. …

“The most productive people are constantly developing and testing a new story, adding newly discovered ideas to the story and then trying it out on everyone they meet,” Pentland says.

“They tend to drive conversations , asking about what is happening in people’s lives, how their projects are doing, how they are addressing problems, etc. The consequence is that they develop a good sense of everything that is going on and become a source of social intelligence.”

Leaders who seek to foster greater engagement and idea flow in their team should make everyone feel a part of the conversation. They should achieve just enough consensus so that all members of the group are OK with going along with new ideas.

They should seek ways to change the connections between people, rather than seek to influence solely by providing information and extrinsic incentives. In one intervention, they successfully decreased individuals’ energy consumption by showing their usage pattern in comparison to their neighbors.

“The pattern of idea flow (is) the single biggest performance factor that can be shaped by leadership, and yet today there isn’t a single organization in the world that keeps track of both face-to-face and electronic interaction patterns. And, as we all know, what isn’t measured can’t be managed.”




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