The Strength of Weak Ties

weak tiesSince product managers rarely have the needed direct authority to accomplish their goals, they must learn to influence without authority.

But given all of our responsibilities – writing use cases, prioritizing back logs, writing personas, talking with buyers, doing sales demos, etc. – wherever do we find the time to work on our own professional development? Some personal skills are critical to success. Influencing without authority is one. Another is tapping into your personal network – friends, family, former colleagues and random folks you met once at a trade show, conference or ProductCamp.

Research has shown that well-meaning family and close friends actually are not particularly helpful in networking endeavors. Not what you expected to read? There is a theory about why, known as the Strength of Weak Ties, and it has academic cred behind it. Tapping into your weak ties is strategic in both job search and in influencing without authority. The best way to understand how to leverage these weak ties is by example:

  1. Work/Influencing without authority example: In the product world, you are more likely to get significant, useful market feedback from a potential buyer you barely know (a weak tie), than from your best customer who is already happy with the product and is not even seeking more/better/different features. The potential buyer is actually more motivated to give input and has fresh market data leading them to clearly say, “I would buy your product if only it had this crucial feature.” They have no reason to tell you anything but the truth and are motivated because they can make an impact on the product they want to acquire.
  2. Personal/Job search example: In a 1973 landmark study called, The Strength of Weak Ties, Mark Granovetter of John Hopkins University, found that the best leads for job opportunities are more likely to come from your more distant acquaintances (weak ties) rather than your close friends (strong ties). Why? As explained by Cornell professors, David Easley and Jon Kleinberg in Networks, Crowds, and Markets, “The closely-knit groups that you belong to, though they are filled with people eager to help, are also filled with people who know roughly the same things that you do.” The point: our distant acquaintances have the ability to expose you to job openings that you and your friends just can’t know about.

You can turn this same logic of weak ties on to new development team leads, who have mad programming skills, but not the baggage or bias of tons of industry experience. Simply ask them, “Is there a way to …” and allow them to use their previous experience to add features that were previously road blocked. They are not constrained by repeated internal groupthink.

From the outside looking in, to better influence our efforts, products or personal selves, we should all be reaching out to our weak ties – it is strategic and needs to be a part of any development effort, market understanding, executive communication (or even a  job search).


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