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Key to Organizational Success: Balancing Engagement and Exploration

Sandy Pendtland's Social Physics concepts of engagement and exploration

Image credit: from Sandy Pentland presentation on "Social Physics"

There is a paradox at work when trying to accomplish organizational change:

  • On one hand, small groups are needed to get things done. If the leader is too inclusive and political, the group can be too large and too unfocused and too dysfunctional. The right group of smart, committed, servant-minded people can get a lot done--especially after they have "settled in" with each other.

  • On the other hand, small groups often fall victim to "group think" and other well-proven group biases. Research suggests teams need a "deviant" element, some kind of healthy disruption of the almost inevitable homogeneity of thought that results from small group work (Coutu, Why Teams Don't Work, HBR 2009)

We held two college-wide open forums this week. The purpose was to gain input on the creation of a new center for research and education in sustainable business. We are committed to not just creating another center for sustainable business (of which there are many). We want to do something different, not a copy. The open forums were very effective. There were new ideas, novel perspectives, challenging questions, some assumptions were affirmed and others were greatly enhanced.

Social Physics: The Flow of Ideas Through People and Groups

We have two small groups in the business school focused on sustainability. We call them "working groups". One is focused on research and another on education & student engagement. With 6 - 8 people, these are effective groups with competent leaders. These groups have been meeting during the year and helping to shape some of the key aspects of the new center.

The open forums were the first opportunity for a wider community to hear and respond to the ideas from the smaller group. It was focused primarily on an internal audience (current faculty, staff and students) although later we will hold similar sessions for stakeholders across the university--and across the country.

Alex "Sandy" Pentland directs the MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs. His work on "social physics"--applying sociological principles to big data sets--has helped to highlight interesting facts about the flow of ideas and how this flow impacts community health, economic performance and organizational effectiveness. In particular, he calls this balance between what I am calling small group and larger community input: engagement and exploration.

  • Engagement is the extent of interaction among a group (or the quantity and quality of idea exchange between members)

  • Exploration is the extent of interaction between that group and outside groups or communities (or the quantity and quality of new ideas, information and resources)

The New Science of Building Great Teams, HBR, 2012

Image credit: The New Science of Building Great Teams, 2012

His research, which involves the collection of sociometric data using badges, has shown that measuring the amount and "energy" of engagement and exploration allows his team to make surprisingly accurate predictions about an organization or community. They don't need to know about the content and they don't record the content of interactions.

Just the number, duration and energy of the interactions themselves tell a compelling story. The bottom line is that organizations, teams and initiatives that have high levels of engagement and exploration do the best. We are on the right track.

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