The Power Of Flocking

The United Kingdom has had a longstanding milk distribution system in which milkmen in small trucks bring the milk in bottles to the door of each country house. At the beginning of the 20th century, these milk bottles had no top. As a result, birds had easy access to the cream that rose to the top of the milk in each of the bottles.

In fact, two different species of British garden birds, the titmice and the red robins, capitalized most on this opportunity. Each species learned to siphon off cream from the bottles, tapping this new, rich food source.

In addition to not being sanitary, these birds were stripping milk of its vital nutritional value. This prompted dairies in the 1940’s to start installing aluminum seals on milk bottles. Thus, when the milkman delivered the product, the birds were effectively prevented from getting at the cream.

This only worked for a short while, though. One by one, titmice learned to pierce this weak defense. Before long, the entire titmouse populations were only mildly inconvenienced by the aluminum caps.

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The same was not true of the robins. As a species, they never learned how to get around the bottle cap and pierce the cream at the top of the milk. Certainly, here and there, one robin would be fortunate enough to figure it out, but as a whole, the species was foiled (no pun intended) from getting at the milky cream, as they once had.

Why was this the case? After all, the robin and the titmouse were very similar birds in size and physical characteristics. The difference was in how the birds interacted within their own species.

The robin is an individualistic bird. They are self-serving and territorial. Rather than cooperate with one another, when fellow robins comes near the robin will chase it off.

The titmouse, on the other hand, is a communal bird, relying on one another heavily for survival, sticking together in tight groups of at least eight to ten. As such, they are able to cooperate and collaborate together, quickly learning what works and what doesn’t for one another. They have an efficient social propagation process in which they are able to adapt to changing conditions and learn from each other because of their mutual dependencies.

In short, the titmice almost universally prevailed against the aluminum caps because they learned from one another. After all, that is their way.

On the other hand, while an occasional robin might have gained access to the cream, the successful birds never shared the information with others.

The lesson here is simple: Birds, like the titmice, that flock seem to learn faster, evolve more quickly, and increase their chances to survive.

This is true for you as well. When you interact with others, you learn. You learn new information. You learn new techniques. You learn how to dress and talk. You probably learned how to open a carton of milk.

In your life, in order to quickly get over obstacles and move past barriers and on to your goals — such as finding clients — you should take every opportunity to behave as the titmouse and help each other succeed together. This would include sharing tips and tricks with one-another or taking an interest in the needs of your peers.

The Strength Of Weak Ties

In addition to the types of people with whom you network, to benefit your network you also need to consider the extent with which you know people in your network. This is known as “The Strength of Weak Ties.”

In his 1974 book Getting A Job, author and sociologist Mark Granovetter found that 56% of people found jobs through personal contacts. This is not surprising. After all, it is “not what you know, but who you know.”

The surprise in his research, however, was that the personal contacts used to obtain these jobs were not from family or close friends. Rather a significant majority of people who found jobs via personal contacts did so via their “weak ties”. In fact, 55.6% of individuals reported that they saw their “job-producing” contact only occasionally and 27.8% saw their contact only rarely.

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Therefore, when it comes to finding out about new jobs – or, for that matter, gaining new information or looking for new ideas or finding clients – weak ties tend to be more important than strong ties.

Why? Because your close ties tend to occupy the same world as you do. For example, a spouse or close friend might substantially share the same network as you. Thus, they could only refer or connect you to people you already know.

Mere acquaintances, on the other hand, are much more likely to know something or someone that you do not. While you might share a small overlap in networks, most of the people they know are completely unexplored territory for you.

Bringing the concept of The Strength of Weak Ties into your business, profession or career means this: Do NOT rely on those that you know real well to build your clientele.

Rather, a better means for fortifying your network is to make a point of occasionally associating with people you know, but not that well. The person from work that you sort of knew from occasional meetings or trips up on the elevator. The person at church that you see every week and can address by name, but you know little else about them.

Thus, from a networking perspective, the most important people in your life are the people who aren’t closest to you. In fact, the more people you know who aren’t close to you the stronger your position becomes.

In summary, what matters in getting ahead is the quality of your relationship, but one measure of quality is to what extent someone is not particularly close to you. Having lunch with your long-time best buddy can be fun. It, however, does little to build your network. If you want to build your network, have lunch with someone you know, but not that well (e.g., the friendly stranger).