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Judith Perle

Judith Perle

Judith Perle has not set their biography yet

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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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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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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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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