Five traits that boost your connectional intelligence

Want to solve problems faster? Learn to unleash your connectional intelligence.

Erica Dhawan: A few years ago a leading scientific company had a specific challenge. It was a toothpaste company and they make different fluorides for their toothpaste, but there was a big mechanical problem, the fluoride was getting stuck in the equipment and it wasn't meshing well. The company had engaged all their top chemists to try to figure out what the problem was and no one could solve it. It was taking months and months of time and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars at that point. So the executive on the team said, "You know what, we have not been able to solve this, who else could we engage? What other networks could help us solve this problem?" So the company ended up posting this fluoride challenge on a website called InnoCentive, which is a community of crowd source scientists who come together to help large companies solve scientific challenges. Within a few days of posting this fluoride challenge a physicist, who lived in Canada, looked at the problem online and said, "This isn't a chemistry problem; it's a physics problem! It's about charged particles," you charge the fluoride one way, the toothpaste the other — instantly the problem was solved.

Colgate learned a few things from this experience. The first thing is that they never even dared to ask the physicists at their own company because they had labeled it as a chemistry problem. The other thing they realize is: that physicist that solved the problem may have never been hired by Colgate, he didn't have the traditional resume, he had had different careers throughout his life. And so in today's world we can access and engage expertise in a radically different way to find real time solutions. And those that may have the answers are those that choose to contribute. They may not be who we suspect are the right people to contribute.

In my book Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence, my co-author Saj-nicole A. Joni and I distilled connectional intelligence into five specific traits. We looked at companies and leaders around the world and found that there were specific skillsets that you could use to build your own connectional intelligence, and they're called the five C's of connectional intelligence.

The first C is curiosity. And we all think about curiosity as the ability to ask great questions, but from a connectional intelligence perspective curiosity is the ability to design your questions so that other networks outside of your own can engage to help you solve those problems. So, if you think about when you're solving a problem today, how can you not only be curious to ask who you traditionally go to, but how might you design your question to engage a new community, a different resource, an outside perspective from another company or even outside your industry that could lead to a new and different breakthrough solution?

The second C of connectional intelligence is combination. And combination as we all know is the root of innovation combining disparate ideas, people and resources to come up with something entirely new and different. So as you think about combination how are you leveraging your combination skills of different resources within your company across teams, across business units at different levels in different regions of the organization, and far beyond with companies and customers and other stakeholders that could help create and forge new business solutions, new opportunities, and address challenges that you may be facing?

The third C of connectional intelligence is courage and we all know that courage is such a key part of all of the key ways of connecting. And when I define courage from a connectional intelligence perspective it's really the ability to be able to have difficult and different types of conversations, but not just raise those conversations, being willing to amplify and sustain them over time. Because we know that having a one time connection doesn't create breakthroughs, it's those people that are willing to be courageous, to continue those conversations over time. Often it could take years to really lead to that breakthrough, but it's that sustaining of the courageous conversation that creates that. So as you think about your own courage, how many courageous conversations are you having every day? Are you sustaining those conversations over time? And what might be those forms or avenues that would allow you to amplify your own courage? Who do you surround yourself with and make connections with that makes you courageous yourself?

The fourth of C of connectional intelligence is community. And we all know that community is such a big aspect of this; finding different networks of people that can care about similar things, that can spark ideas together. And what we found with connectional intelligence is those that really tap into this superpower are those that see communities far beyond traditional forums, far beyond the traditional hierarchies. So it could be a community of moms in the company at Unilever that have a new way of thinking about what their customers might need, or it could be a network of Latino employees at Frito Lay who realize that there's an opportunity for a guacamole Doritos chip that turned into $100 million product for the business. So communities can be far beyond our traditional spectrums of what people's roles and traditional sources of expertise are. So, as you think about your own communities, what communities are you involved with? What informal, formal communities, what internal and external communities do you engage with and how might you be able to leverage them, not just for what they're traditionally known for, but what are the problems they could solve for you, for your team, your company and beyond?

And the last C of connectional intelligence is combustion. So once you have courage, curiosity, community, combination — it's about, how do you allow it to mobilize and combust? Combustion is the ability to mobilize and curate your communities, to create added value. So it's when you've built your community, it's when you've tapped into the courage of that community that allows those people to create value in a new and different way.

  • Erica Dhawan explains the five C's of connectional intelligence: curiosity, combination, courage, community, combustion.
  • Using case studies from Colgate and Frito Lay, Dhawan explains how networked problem-solving can create million-dollar opportunities.
  • Connectional intelligence is a teachable skill set that leads to big-picture thinking. Expertise doesn't come top down from ivory towers; genius ideas are everywhere — if you know where to look.