Productive Friction: You Can Do More on LinkedIn Than Collect Links


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Seeing and seizing new business opportunities requires a networked brain trust—one that is proactive.
In their new book, The Only Sustainable Edge, John Hagel and John Seeley Brown, make the case for productive friction. In essence they say the interesting and profitable business opportunities increasingly lie outside anyone’s own expertise and require a mashup of intellectual capital. In other words, businesses and entrepreneurs need to find others who are at the fringe of their own knowledge and engage in conversation to figure out where potential synergies lie.
Think of it this way, you can’t keep sharpening the same saw. Because of change, the challenges that create opportunities can seldom be seen from your current perspective. Nor can they be seized with the tools designed for past problems. Of course, the old problems are not completely gone and the old expertise is not completely obsolete. But, these tools and expertise need to be put in a new context—the context of today’s challenges. That is, if one is interested in thriving not just coping.
If this sounds daunting and somewhat stressful, it is. However, it beats the stress and consequences of not facing the present and the immediate future. Hagel and Brown call it productive friction because it requires both or all parties to confront each other to find out what in the other and in their own practices are out of date (friction). And, it involves the discovery of a new perspective, one that could not be seen from either of the old view alone.
The new perspective has the potential of unleashing second-order effects. When Daimler and Olds invented the automobile some would say that they made the horse and buggy obsolete. But that was just the first-order effect. A second-order effect occurred because the new form of transportation enabled the development of suburbs and suburban lifestyle. Before this happened pizza parlors that delivered didn’t make sense, neither did shopping malls or lawn mowers.
Here’s how the networked brain trust comes into play. Social networking sites are marvelous at managing and foster a lot of weak-tie connections. Take someone on LinkedIn. If they have 80 direct connections, they probably represents people they know and already influence on each other. But, the number of potential connections through ones direct contacts could be well over 1,000,000. In this new pool lie many candidates for productive friction and the spawning of new insights and opportunities.
However, they are only candidate until someone makes a move. Yet, most people don’t take action. The majority of LinkedIn users passively collect connections and hope something happens. LinkedIn and other aspects of Web 2.0 can be thought of as sites to log into, or they can be a set of proactive tools that can be used to address pressing business challenges. Creating and benefiting from productive friction is one of them.

John Todor
John I. Todor, Ph.D. is the Managing Partner of the MindShift Innovation, a firm that helps executives confront the volatility and complexity of the marketplace. We engage executives in a process that tackles two critical challenges: envisioning new possibilities for creating and delivering value to customers and, fostering employee engagement in the innovation and alignment of business practices to deliver on the new possibilities. Follow me on Twitter @johntodor


  1. John: your point about LinkedIn users collecting connections brings up both a benefit and a drawback of the site:

    Benefit: the “network effect” of expanding your universe of valuable connections.

    Drawback: there isn’t a way to ascertain the quality of those connections. They can range anywhere from valuable to even-less-than perfunctory.

    That limitation can be frustrating when you’re using the site. In fact, today I find that 80-connection users might be more valuable in terms of quality of connections because they appear more discriminating than those who boast 500+.

    It didn’t start out that way. A few years ago, a 500+ connection user was someone who was thought to have a valuable network. It’s still valuable–but it’s important for us not to assume that more than a few of those 500 would even know the person they’re “connected” to. So it’s confusing, since it’s hard to really understand the relationship behind the connection. Connections are distilled to a simple number. Value is missing.

    I’m not bashing LinkedIn. At its inception, making the site valuable to users meant people building large personal networks quickly. Today, I think the LinkedIn’s creators would rather think that connections mean valuable connections. But LinkedIn doesn’t have a way to effectively enforce that. And I think that the cow is already out of the barn–there are too many people who exploit the site simply to create huge networks.

    Wouldn’t it be helpful if the next release could provide users a way to designate the type of links people have to their connections? Where connections could represent a conduit for knowledge or channel for creating productive friction? –or not?

    Could that insight be used to address the opportunities you describe?

  2. Andy,

    There is a big distinction between close connections where a relationship actually exists and a Linkedin connection. I know two people who are proud to say that they have over 5000 Linkedin connections. I asked one why he collected connections. His answer, visibility and contacts. However, when I probed, it was clear he was more active in collecting connections than using them afterwards.

    The network effect of a large list could be very valuable in reaching a diverse audience. Sociologist describe the bridging value of weak relationship contacts. People you know well usually share a common background and therefore do not add new ideas, insights and contact. In a world that keeps changing we need diversity. Of course, the list of contact won’t do anything until someone acts.

    I am not sure why you want to know if someone has strong relationships with there contacts. Are you trying to judge whether they would be a significant source of influence? If so, my reaction is they are still just a connection maker, it is up to you to make the relationship. That would change, of course, if they were a close contact of yours and endorsed you.

    I am intrigued with the network effect. Recently I joined a number of Linkedin Groups. Now I have a way to contact thousands of people directly who I don’t know and don’t have indirect links with. It will be interesting to see what the level of receptivity is.

    John I. Todor, Ph.D.
    Author of Get with it! The Hands-on Guide to Using Web 2.0 in Your Business

  3. Great thoughts John..but somewhere one dimension seems untouched.Links and the power of their influence has been discussed and so is the scope of new opportunities.What about the power of the tool for the development of the personal brand.You have talked about the development of your ability to contact thousands of people directly-people who you dont actually know.What about having empowered these thousands of people to contact you.Consumers at times consume products which provide the desired value and are the most visible.Agreed that those with 500 connections may not be doing much with them-but what about the growth and proliferation of the personal brand that these connections eventually deliver?

  4. Vandana,

    You’ve raise an interesting and valuable perspective — individual searchability.

    I agree that professionals need to build their personal brand online. I perfer to call this a social media presence because it is different from titles, credentials and the like. I see social media presence as the information that enables someone to vet you online, to get to know what you stand for, and what you have to offer. It involves both visibility and credibility.

    Linkedin contact would help in this regard especially affinity groups. Linkedin periodically has a message that “x” number of people in various industries have reviewed my profile. This could be evidence of proactive search by potential clients. To get more information I have to upgrade my status with Linkedin. Your comments have got me thinking, maybe I should upgrade.


    John I. Todor, Ph.D.
    Author of Get with it! The Hands-on Guide to Using Web 2.0 in Your Business

  5. John, good article. My company is in the midst of trying to solve the problem you are describing. Social Media is one but there’s also social software (actual pass driving web 2.0/3.0) and what I call “social overload”. It’s not just that your connections in a single connection is weak but multiply that by 3 different networks you are part of. Almost 90% of social networking users today maintain at least 2 social networks. You see the problem here I am sure. Solution is to clean up the clutter, consolidate and have a single point of network management. On top of that, create actionable environment to promote your brand and I think you have a winner.

  6. lasso,

    I like your term “social overload.” Unlike information overload, social overload is a self-inflicted wound. The pressure to join and the fear of being left out has compelled many people to post profiles and then struggle to maintain a presence on multiple social networks. The statistic indicate that the glow is off, the average time spend on social networks by existing members is decreasing. This is some what masked by the influx of new members.

    Where will this go? I think two things are going to happen. One, management tools will need to evolve. Two, people will narrow their participation to communities that engage them past the excitement of joining.


    John I. Todor, Ph.D.
    Author of Addicted Customers: How to Get Them Hooked on Your Company


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