Creativity rarely happens in a silo, says Noshir Contractor, a professor of behavioral science at Northwestern. While that notion may have been true in the past, collaboration and networks are now the fuel that power creative success.
This concept is what he’s teaching in his Leveraging Networks in Creative Industries course as part of the MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program. His goal is to help students embrace the departure from rugged individualism and lean into the idea of building networks to nurture creativity.
“Even if the act of writing or composing is done individually, we get our ideas through association,” Contractor explains. “Inspiration comes from influences you draw from your network.” These networks not only help you generate creative ideas, but they’re also sometimes necessary in order to execute these ideas (like making music or producing a movie, for example). Much of the course’s curriculum is based on Contractor’s own research collaborations, which examine how network nurturing allows people to be creative and innovative in different contexts.
In his work, he and his collaborators have studied the impact of social influences and reputation on community sites like Threadless and ccMixter, which rely on networks to thrive. To what extent are sales, downloads, or streams on these sites influenced by raw ideas as opposed to reputation? Once a reputation is built, to what extent will people automatically buy from that seller? How much does someone else’s reputation influence the votes, opinions, and sales of others?
“In class, we look at profiles of people who have been successful in creative industries like fashion and music. What strategies do they take to establish and grow their networks? How and when do they reach out to people? How do they make networks in the short term and how do networks make them in the long term?”
Before he does this, however, Contractor likes to start the class by helping students overcome what he calls the “ick factor.”
“When many people think of networking, they think of reaching out to someone to find out what they can do for you,” he explains. “It’s uncomfortable. Instead, what if you changed your mindset and looked at networking as an activity where you lead with what you can do for them? It might seem counterintuitive, but that approach offers an enormous advantage. The case studies in class will prove it. Don’t ever believe that you have nothing to offer someone else just because you’re at a lower level in terms of hierarchy or seniority.”
The class also unravels several myths about networks. Instead of focusing on networking events, for example, he says to consider life itself as a never-ending networking process. Whether you realize it or not, every interaction you have helps you understand and build networks.
The suggestion that strong networks are important is also an illusion, Contractor explains. “You’re much more likely to get a job from an acquaintance than a friend. There’s a famous principle called ‘the strength of weak ties; those ties are the ones that bring you lots of valuable information.” He also leads students through ways technology can help assess and reshape networks. “One of the things we do is an activity called the ‘relational analytics dashboard,’ ” he explains. “This gives students the ability to examine workplace analytics.”
He says companies like Microsoft are using data generated through tools like Teams and Office 365 to create dashboards that reveal how the tools are being used to enable networks in the workplace—and offer insights about the performance of the individual, team, and organization.
“Essentially, workplace analytics capture a network selfie of who you message, who you share files with, who you like, and who you follow. We give students a case study where they assemble a team and see what happens when they put these people together to engage in activities. In addition to providing traditional résumés for these team members, we also give students access to dashboards so they can use network information to factor into their decision of who should be on their team.”
The process is similar to a method Contractor has used to help NASA shape teams that will visit Mars. Working with a global team of researchers, he helped develop a predictive model of group performance that anticipates conflicts and communication breakdowns among astronauts based on personality traits.
“We put people into simulated missions in confined environments so we can understand dynamics,” he explains. “Our research shows us who will get along—and who won’t. We’ve become quite successful in predicting whether Person A is going to view Person B as a hindrance by Day 43, for example. Now that we’ve gotten good at predicting that, is there anything we can do to preempt it? Can we use that information to head off a potential problem? Although we’re doing these types of things for space right now, we anticipate it having big payoffs on Earth, including in creative industries.”