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Know Who Knows November 24, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Networking.
Tags: , ,

Early in my career, I worked with two mathematicians who had been in computing since the very beginning.  They had all these great stories about using Fortran for the first time, and drum memory, and mercury delay lines.  They were brilliant and eccentric and were both named George.  George Haynam was called “George” and George Petznick was called “GP” just to avoid confusion.

The neat thing about either George was that they did not immediately know the answer to most mathematical questions.  Instead, they knew how to derive the answer from first principles.  Once, I asked GP for the formula for standard deviation.  He stood up at his blackboard (a real blackboard with chalk and dust) and, recalling that the standard deviation is just the square root of the variance integrated about the center of mass of the sample space, quickly derived the discrete formula.  Simple!  The running joke in the department was that the Georges could figure out anything, starting with f=ma.

This all came back to me recently as I was discussing aspects of successful leaders.  I pointed out that, in most cases, I don’t need to know the answer to something.  I just need to know who knows, so I can get the answer from them.  If my network is robust and current, and I surround myself with people smarter than me (very easy to do), the “know who knows” model always works.

This is true for everyone, of course, but I don’t think we coach our teams to value and use this trick.  Instead, we have lots of people on our teams who try to be cowboys, singlehandedly trying to know everything and solve everything.  As they move up the management chain and realize they can’t know everything, they begin to adopt the “know who knows” approach.  Unfortunately, it takes a while to learn this lesson.  Some people never do.

People at every level can dramatically increase their value by developing their network of “people who know things” along with their collection of “things they know themselves.”  The sum of both parts is substantially larger than everything they can hope to know, but that lesson isn’t learned right away.

As effective leaders, we need to explicitly teach this lesson to our people and offer opportunities for them to build their networks of “people who know.”  Social tools help, of course, but so do real social interactions with experts: training, conferences, seminars, etc.  Force your people to engage others as they solve problems, and show them how to fall back on their networks early in the problem-solving process, not as a last resort.  That lesson, learned early, can make a huge difference in the course of a career.


1. Dennis Dalton - March 20, 2009

Excellent thought. So obvious, yet missed by so many. The best people I have worked with seemed to have arrived at this “know who knows” approach intuitively.

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