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When it comes to innovation, most of us under-estimate the power of serendipity and the importance of meeting new people.

In workshops, I always stress the many and varied benefits that building a network brings. So I often talk about the importance of serendipity, and of meeting new people – and it is heartening to find that the news is spreading. At a recent workshop which I ran for the Wellcome Trust, I mentioned the (strangely named, I think) Random Coffee Trials that are becoming increasingly popular in organisations as diverse as the Scottish government, the Red Cross - even the UK Treasury.

The idea is simple. People sign up to the programme, and are then randomly partnered with another participant, with whom they arrange to meet informally over a cup of coffee. There is no set agenda – some people talk shop, others have more personal conversations. But the end result is that silos are broken down, ideas exchanged, help and advice given, and relationships forged. Organisations such as Ashridge Executive Education claim that over 90% of those taking part have met someone they would not otherwise have met in the course of their work at Ashridge.

One of the participants in my workshop pointed me in the direction of an interesting piece in Network, the magazine of the Medical Research Council. By creating a pleasant environment where staff are encouraged to relax and chat over a drink (rather than drinking inferior coffee from a dispenser in splendid isolation), many at the MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge claim that this has made an important contribution to the 13 Nobel prizes won by scientists working at the institution.

A nice example was provided by Professor Alessi who described how informal discussions led him and a colleague to realise they were, quite literally, working on two sides of the same coin – and that each of them had the answers to the other’s questions. The outcome is a potential new cancer drug.

If you’d like more information, or advice on how to organise RCTs in your organisation, do get in touch.

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Just back from a stimulating weekend in Finland, presenting at the Hanken School of Economics Summer Summit (www.hanken.fi/en). I am always especially pleased to work in Finland. I have personal connections with the country (my mum was Finnish) and have been spending my summer holidays there since I was a small child. But it was more recently, when my ideas on approaches to professional networking were developing, that my Finnish connection came to the fore professionally.

Much (most) of Finland is wild forest. Roaming in that forest is an enormously peaceful occupation…..and it was while gathering bilberries (or it may have been mushrooms) that I realised that there is something liberating and very productive about having no goal or aim. Gathering frees one from the pressure which any ‘hunting’ activity inevitably brings with it… and that, in turn, led me to realise that most people equate networking with hunting. They need something (a job, an introduction, a piece of information) and they go looking for it. The emphasis is entirely on me and my needs.

In contrast, the gatherer (in networking terms) goes out into the world to meet people, and is relaxed enough to wait and see where the conversation leads. The emphasis is on both ‘me’ and ‘you’. Sometimes the encounter is boring, sometimes it is interesting (but still ends up in a dead end) and just occasionally it is interesting and it leads somewhere. By taking the ‘gathering approach’, the pressure button is turned off – and networking is seen as a pleasant activity in itself, which is not necessarily self-seeking or manipulative.

Try it and see for yourself. I have many stores about the benefits of chance conversations, but I’m always happy to hear new ones.

And finally, please don’t think that I’m against ‘hunting’ Without doubt, it has its uses. It just isn’t the be-all and end-all of professional networking.

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Another one of those chance conversations that lead somewhere unexpected... I've been a volunteer reader on our local Talking Newspaper for a couple of years. Never got involved in the committee, governance or management side of things, just did the read, put the USB sticks in envelopes and went home. A few weeks back, during our 'cake break' in recording, I happened to be chatting to our engineer and regaling him with the latest instalment about dealing with what are euphemistically called 'strong characters' in my role as Chair of another voluntary organisation. I didn't think any more about it until a couple of weeks later when that same engineer (who I hadn't realised also happened to be Chair of the Talking Newspaper) called to say "I'm stepping down as Chair to spend more time travelling- would you be prepared to take over?"

Having agreed with my wife that I wasn't going to take on any additional voluntary work, I defended my 'volte face' on the basis that this wasn't an additional commitment, just an extension of an existing one with a commitment of 'only' four board meetings a year. So this week, after being nominated at the AGM, the Hexham Courant reports that 'Talking Newspaper Has New Chief'.

But the point is this. I didn't actively pursue the role, and I only took it on because the charity was hard-pushed to find someone else to take on that responsibility. I was approached to do it because of an entirely chance conversation in which I had given enough information about myself and my experience to allow a third party to decide that I had the skills required to do the job.I hadn't been 'selling' or promoting myself, just having a chat and swapping stories over a piece of home made cake.

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It may look like quite some time between this blog post and the last, but it's yet more evidence not only of the need to back stuff up, but also exactly what needs backing up. This site was working fine until a  few days ago when 'pow!', it suddenly couldn't find the SQL database that powers it. A lot of email to-ing and fro-ing with the web hosts told me that the database had disappeared from the server. Of course, files don't just disappear- someone or something has to delete them. But no log of any such activity and certainly nothing like that done from the admin side.

Restoring from backup should have been easy- until I discovered that the SQL database isn't backed up as part of the Joomla CMS backup process which merely links to it...backup has to be done separately through PHPmyadmin.

The reason I mention this is that we thought we had everything safely backed up, but obviously didn't. Cut to a few days ago when my Android phone suddenly died. Turned out it was the EFS folder that had been corrupted- and that's the one key folder that contains your phone's IMEI information without which it is useless...and guess what...the EFS folder isn't backed up in any of the usual backup packages.

I could probably re-create the various blog posts since 2011, but that's a job for a very rainy day.  Suffice it to say that we're still getting good reviews of 'The Network Effect' on Amazon, and that the most recent book to re-surface from the 2011 'Book on Train' project was on 5 Feb 2014, when it emerged from a pile of books in London's Streatham.

In June, I attended an eye-opening Summer Institute course in Social and Organisational Network Analysis at Carnegie Mellon University, which yielded many insights on just what degree of analysis and forceasting is possible with the data streams coming out of social networks.

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I’m used to running workshops for relatively small groups, and I’ve also delivered masterclasses to all sorts of audiences, both large and small. But there’s something distinctive about a book event – and when that book is your own, the event becomes even more special.

It may have something to do with having spent the early part of my career in the world of publishing, or the fact that I’ve taken part in the same literature class for more years that I care to admit…

Whatever the reason, I was strangely moved when speaking to an audience at The Economists’ Bookshop (at the London School of Economics and, I believe, the only branch of Waterstone’s to retain its original name). The audience wasn’t huge, but they were all book lovers, and many of them were students. The venue wasn’t specially impressive but it was a bookshop. And to see our book (with my name on it, as co-author together with my colleague Tony Newton) ranked 7 in that week’s sales charts represented a validation of all that we have been striving to achieve – changing attitudes to networking and helping people connect with each other in these difficult times.

Now all we have to do is persuade the 300-odd other branches of Waterstone’s to (a) stock the book so that browsers have a chance of coming across it and (b) run a signing event! Any suggestions will be gratefully received!

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One of the things we bang on about in both networking and negotiation workshops is the need to get real information to help avoid bad decision making based on faulty data.

And I've just had a reminder of that lesson.

I'm at St Pancras station, ticking off the last few destinations for the 'book on train' project. As I stop for a coffee at well known franchise, it occurs to me that leaving one or two books on tables there might encourage finders to whisk them off to exotic locations.

I could easily just plonk a couple of books on tables and make my exit, but wanting to ensure that staff won't just bin the book with other table waste, I think it prudent to try to get the manager 'on board'.

The manager listens attentively to my explanation of the project, and seems genuinely interested, but says she is unable to help. The reason, it seems, is an edict from Head Office which dictates that all tables must be cleared of all contents between customers: no exceptions.  So while the books might not end up in the waste bin, they would instead be collected up and stored in the crew room as 'lost property' (and doubling as reading material for any member of staff keen to improve their networking skills...)

Digging a bit  further into the Head Office edict, I discover from the helpful manager that the same applies to all branches. Given that I'd previously been toying with the idea of  'seeding' books at other branches of the same chain, the fact that I've bothered to engage her in conversation about my project ends up saving me wasted time and effort, plus of course the value of the books themselves.

But there is, of course, the counter-argument which goes like this: "It is better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission." In this case, it has very definitely paid to ask.

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If you’ve read The Network Effect, or been to our workshops, you’ll know that we often send out our own postcards, printed with a thought-provoking proverb or quotation. We often see them on people’s noticeboards or desks – but imagine our delight when Sarah, who participated in a workshop we ran at Judge Business School in Cambridge back in 2008, sent us a photograph of a postcard she had received, framed and proudly displayed on top of the first desk she purchased after her return from postings in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

As an aside, we would argue that the motto on this particular card – A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world (written by the novelist John Le Carré) – is especially appropriate in this age of digital communication. We certainly take the view that emails, tweets, and Facebook and txt messages just aren’t enough. You have to get out from behind your desk and network, face to face!

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Refreshingly, I’ve just got back from a meeting with someone who positively radiates energy. I’ve come away from too many ‘informal chats’ feeling drained, but this time I’m positive and hopeful that something will actually happen as a result of our conversation... but most interestingly, this guy’s business card includes his photograph. What people (and companies) choose to do (and not to do) with their business cards is a special interest of mine, and selecting examples from my ‘collection’ to use on page 141 of The Network Effect was a particular pleasure. Putting your photographs on your card is generally considered a bit tasteless (as my contact today fully realised) – but he also knew that the photo made him doubly memorable: literally, in that the photo acted as an aide memoire, and figuratively in that he becomes known as the guy with the unusual business card! I think he was right to take the risk – weighing up his gravitas as an experienced and capable interim with the risk of looking, at worst, a bit silly!

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Books have started surfacing. To recap, we've put specially labelled books on trains leaving London's King's Cross/St. Pancras stations and invited people to tell us where they found the book, and where they plan on leaving it (or did leave it) for the next person to find.

You can see the detail of each book's movements by following the project on Twitter @network_effect, but to date we have nine reports from seven books. With about 60 books placed so far, that's something around a 10% response rate.

So what's happened to the others? Worst case scenario is that train cleaners have trashed them, but the hope is that the rest of the books are being carried around by people who are reading them and enjoying them. Assuming a week or so to get through the 230 odd pages, I hope to be seeing more books surface in the next few days.

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It’s a mistake that many, many people make. They assume that everyone sees the world from the same point of view, their point of view.

For example, The Network Effect is clearly at the top of my list of priorities at the moment – I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, and want, quite naturally, to maximise its impact. I also genuinely believe that the book can help a lot of people. So I pick up the phone, late on a Friday afternoon, and call one of my contacts – a senior careers adviser at a top UK business school.

“What did you think of the book?”, I ask. “Brilliant”, she replies. “I haven’t yet read it from cover to cover, but I’ve dipped into it, and everything I’ve read is excellent.” I ask her if she could please put a review on Amazon for us. She pauses, and I jump in with “It needn’t be very long – just a couple of sentences would be fine.” And that’s when I feel I’ve slightly misjudged the situation. It’s Friday afternoon, and her hesitation should have warned me that she doesn’t want to add anything whatsoever to her ‘to do’ list. The book is in no way, shape or form as important to her as it is to me. Nor should it be. And I should have realised that before.

Although I try to take my own advice, and practice what I preach, I don’t always manage. In future, though, I’ll still ask for a review (if you don’t ask, you often don’t get, as the saying goes) – but I’ll keep well away from insisting on a favour.

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It's all very well putting books on trains and getting nice reviews from people we know, but if we want people in any numbers to read the book and take our messages on board, we need to get coverage in both conventional and 'new' media.

The first few calls made on our behalf all sound very positive, but of course the 'proof of the pudding' is whether anything useful appears in the public domain. You won't be surprised to hear that Judith and I are making every effort to harness our own networks to encourage that coverage rather than relying on 'cold' calls by Katherine, our PR manager.

One of the interesting things about networking as a topic is that it's relevant to the media across both job function and industry sector, so the range of periodicals and sites we'll be speaking to is pretty huge.

As we 'press the button' on our PR activity, I realise that the URL to the 'media resources' page on the website is a long and convoluted string that needs to be abbreviated to something neater. I'm also perplexed to find that the authors photos and book cover graphics that were there have disappeared.  Another thing to add to the 'to do' list which somehow never gets any shorter, however many items I tick off.

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Today it's St. Pancras that has the pleasure of my company, but the ticket barriers, complex platform arrangements and presence of the Eurostar all make this a more difficult nut to crack.  So first stop is the Station Manager's office, where I come across my first hint of 'more than my job's worth' and 'need to talk to the PR people'. I'm invited to take a seat for a few minutes while the chap concerned disappears behind the scenes. I'm beginning to think that I might have run up against a brick wall when he reappears and OK's the issue of a visitor's pass.

Fully badged up, and having read and signed the safety instructions, it's back to the trains. Books go on trains to places like Sheffield and Corby, but when it comes to the Eurostar, I have visions of an immense bureaucratic hassle given security, customs, passport control and the like. But I gird my loins and approach the customer services desk. The lady across the desk is at first mildly suspicious but breaks into a broad smile as I explain what I'm trying to do.  "What a great idea," she exclaims, and calls her colleagues over. The upshot is that I get escorted to the Paris and Brussels trains, and leave three books on each. Three books get placed by staff in the departure lounge and another two go to members of staff who are keen to read the book and pass it on.

For those trains for which St. Pancras is the terminus, things are straightforward.  But for others (such as Brighton, Sevenoaks and St. Albans), St. Pancras is just a calling point. Trying to get three books on to these trains without finding myself going on an unscheduled journey- or worse, causing a security alert through being seen to hop on and off trains in a suspicious manner- calls for some planning. I ask the station manager for help, and she's both cheerful and delighted to help. One of the station staff is tasked to come down to the platform with me, and I request the loan of a hi-vis jacket so that I can clearly be seen by passenegers to be 'official'. This has the un-anticipated downside that several people approach me to ask for help.

Between the two of us, we get the requisite three books on to each train without mishap. My bag is again empty, but there are still a few destinations to do so one last visit is called for, but it won't be for a while.

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Today sees the 'book on train' project take off in earnest as I travel to King's Cross with a very heavy bag full of books. To avoid the risk of creating a security alert, I've spoken to the PR people at both Network Rail and one of the Train Operating Companies, but it's clear that the people I really need to get 'buy in' from are the crew leaders on each train.
The plan is to put three copies on the book on trains travelling to each of the final destinations served by the King's Cross/St. Pancras hub. Why three? No very good reason other than a compromise between budget and logistics (posh word for how many I can label, carry and track). Why each final destination when several trains share part of the route? Only because each destination represents a terminal node on the network.
The crew leaders are, without exception, helpful and (to a greater or lesser extent) interested in the project.  Not one feels the need to refer to Higher Authority to get the OK.
My bag gradually gets lighter as I tick off the list of destinations, and I get an echo of the 'road not travelled' as I opt to place a book on one table rather than another, potentially changing the person that picks it up and the entire course of that book's travels.

I run out of books before I run out of destinations, so I'm going to have to refill my bag and come back tomorrow.

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When you first arrived at this website, you'll have seen a big button on the front page labelled 'I Found Your Book!'
Up until today, no-one could find a book because there weren't any to find. But that's all changed. This morning, the East Coast mainline train I took to Newcastle had three extra passengers- specially labelled copies of 'The Network Effect' that invite finders to take the book with them and log on to this website to tell us where they'd found the book, and where they plan to leave it.
Each of the books has a unique ID and a nickname, so that finders will be able to track their book via this blog and a twitter feed. We have no idea whether the project will work, or where books may end up- but that's half the fun of research into networks and networking!
It's not long before we have our first 'bite': a copy of the book nicknamed 'Hugo' has been found on a train coming BACK to King's Cross and the finder tells us that he'll be leaving the book at Stansted aiport.
Will 'The Network Effect' in the shape of 'Hugo' be going abroad? Time will tell (we hope...)

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I'll be the first to admit that one has to take Amazon reviews (or those of any other un-moderated site) with a pinch of salt. How many book reviews are penned by the author's proud mother? How many restaurant, hotel or product reviews by their owners (or indeed jealous competitors, in the case of appalling ones)?
But aside from one review that we asked our PR person to write, because that's her job, all the other 25 (at time of writing) come from people who have given what we have every reason to believe is an honest appraisal of what we've written. Most reviews give us five stars, and a few give us four.
To date, there's nothing lower than that. In an interesting aside on human nature, one reviewer confided to us that "I would have given it five stars, but on-one ever believes five star reviews so I gave it four instead." We're extracting some nuggets from these reviews and putting them up here on the website, but you can see all Amazon reviews here.
At no. 174,663 in the Amazon rankings, we're clearly not yet a top 10 bestseller, which doesn't worry us too much as a) we never expected to be; and b) we haven't told the big wide world about the book yet. Watch this space.

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We've got a decision to make. Do we send out review copies of the book before Christmas, with the pitfalls of bad weather, Christmas mail volume and the book being dumped in a drawer as festivities get under way? Or do we wait until 2011 has well and truly got under way?
We decide that as long as the books go out before the end of the second week in December, we'll be OK. Recipients of review copies include clients, academics and people whose opinions on networking we respect. In our covering letter, we ask them to put honest reviews up on Amazon. Active PR for the book with editors and others won't start until well into the New Year, but now it's time to sit back and see what the people who really matter to us think of our handiwork.

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There's an old logic problem about a frog that's trying to get from his lily pad in the middle of the pond to the pond's edge.  Each jump he takes is exactly half the distance of the previous jump, so (at least in theory) he never quite gets to his destination.
That's what the previous weeks have felt like: every time we thought we were there with the 'final' version of the book cover and text, some minor 'gotcha' would jump up and bite us.  Probably things that the reader wouldn't even notice- but we'd know they were there.

We even discovered a mistake in which a case study mentioned a name correctly the first time, then got it wrong on three subsequent occasions.  Not a spelling or grammatical mistake, but one of those things that you can read again and again and not notice, because the brain sees what it wants to see.  Then, suddenly, seeing it out of context in a pdf file on screen, the mistake almost jumps out and grabs you by the throat.

Anyway, job done. Files uploaded and proofs on the way.

So while we're on the subject of frogs, lily ponds and conundrums, here's one for all you proof readers out there.

I first read the following sentence aged about eleven in a well thumbed green cloth bound 'What Every Boy Should Know' type of book compiled specifically for the Sons of the Empire (I wish I could lay my hands on a copy today, just for old time's sake).  I could make neither hide nor hair of it then or for years after, even when I saw the suggested result.  Only when I heard the problem aired on radio did I 'get it'.

So here it is. The following can be punctuated as a single sentence to make it read correctly and sensibly:

Newton where Perle had had had had had had had had had had had had been correct

Yes it can. Answers in a future blog, and I might even put up an audio file in my best voiceover voice to help you interpret the answer.

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Writing a book isn't just about getting the words right: it's about making sure that the look and  feel of the book matches the words inside and conveys something of the author's personality.  With two co- authors, that's potentially a minefield, but what Guy Callaby, our designer, has created is a book where we're pretty sure that the collar and cuffs match.  Judith and I both love what he's done, and we hope you will too.

It's been a long slog getting the text right, and an even longer slog getting all the permissions needed for quotes, case studies and graphics with which the book is peppered.

Creating a website to match the styling of the book was something that had me worried until I came across Eric Cuthbert and his team at There-fore.com.   I knew that we wanted a  Joomla- based  Content Management System, I knew that we wanted presentation that was informative and fun but not flashy, and I knew that we didn't want to be 'taken for a ride' with an overblown web development project. What they've delivered so far has been exactly what was requested- to time and to budget. As one of those people who prefers to ride shotgun with a designer to get web changes right first time rather than have endless rounds of iterations, working with There-fore's  Przemek Kenar has been a real pleasure.

As the sky darkens for the Guy Fawkes weekend, it's frustrating that we'll have to wait until next week for very last tiny pieces of the jigsaw to be added to the book (authors' photo by Ali Baskerville of ericart.co.uk) and website (tweaking functionality).

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