Imagine you are putting together a team for an important project. You have two candidates for the last slot. First, there’s Tess. She has not only a lot of relevant experience but also a wide network in the industry. She seems to know all about the emerging trends; her colleagues marvel at her creativity. Then there’s Cyril, who is competent and has deep skills and knowledge, but does not have Tess’s broad network. You can only choose one.
It seems like a no-brainer. Decades of research have explained why people like Tess can come up with creative insights: Their connections expose them to different ideas from groups of people who normally don’t talk with each other. These “hubs” absorb information from different professional communities and recombine them in creative ways. They certainly benefit from having connections. But is it a two-way street? Do the people who work with hubs like Tess get as much out of the collaboration?
To answer that question, we studied factors that determined the success (viewership) of French TV game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (adapted in France from the UK). In total, we collected data on 171 game shows that aired in France between 1995 and 2012.
People in this industry form professional connections as they work on different shows throughout their careers. But, importantly, these relationships tend to divide over time into different “communities.” For example, one community was associated with reality shows that tested participants’ physical endurance, another community focused on high-brow, intellectual quiz-type shows, and so on. A few individuals bridge various communities (like Tess), while others are more focused relationally, collaborating mostly with members of their community (like Cyril).
Game show teams are almost always led by two people with very distinct roles: a creative director and a producer. Creative directors focus on the creative aspects of the show — they need to come up with ideas to make it look unique. Producers coordinate the work and are responsible for disciplined execution — they ensure everybody gets their job done. We studied whether hiring hubs (like Tess) to work on TV shows made the shows successful, and specifically, what impact hubs had on these executives’ ability to do their work well.
The results were striking. Creative directors benefit from their proximity to hubs; working with hubs gave them access to new ideas and tools to put together innovative game shows. But a very different picture emerged from producers: Not only did they not benefit from their proximity to hubs, but they actually suffered from it. The shows of producers who were in contact with hubs performed less well, and there was even evidence of delays in their production. In other words, if you are a producer, you are better off avoiding Tess and choosing Cyril.
Why is that? As it turns out, hubs are great repositories of ideas, but they can be poor collaboration partners. Their attention is stretched across projects in different communities, and they have less fear of damaging their reputation, because of their professional ties throughout their industry. If Tess steps on someone’s toes, she has a healthy repertoire of colleagues in other communities she can call upon for new ventures.
Even more interesting, creative directors benefited when they worked with people who worked with hubs. It seems that hubs’ ideas got transmitted through the network of their contacts to reach creative directors even without their direct interaction. By contrast, producers suffered when they worked with people who worked with hubs on their own projects. In other words, when hubs disrupt one project, this has a cascading effect on the other projects that involve people from the hubs’ professional community. All of these findings held when we controlled for whether producers and creative directors themselves had the hub-like skills.
Two thousand years ago, the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing” — which later inspired Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox. This research casts a little insight, perhaps, into when to pick the less exciting hedgehog over the clever, beguiling fox.