Question: What do the founder of Quirky, the creator of Duolingo, and the farmer who grew the world’s largest pumpkin have in common?

Answer: They all leveraged “connectional intelligence” on their path to success.

So, what exactly is this skill, and how can you use it to accomplish your goals? For that answer, we turned to Erica Dhawan, the co-author of Get Big Things Done: The Power of Connectional Intelligence.

Your book focuses on the concept of “connectional intelligence,” which you and your co-author, Saj-nicole Joni, explain is a skill people can employ to—well—get big things done! Can you explain what connectional intelligence is?

A lot of the ways that we measure relationships and connections is by quantity, such as how many Twitter followers or Facebook likes you have. But our research shifted focus and moved from quantity of connections to quality of connections. Having a large network does not necessarily lead to measurable change—the key is how you build relationships that actually change people’s lives. That skill is what we define as connectional intelligence: The ability to combine knowledge, ambition, and human capital—forging connections on a global scale that create unprecedented value and change.

How did you first identify connectional intelligence as a skill that people can learn and leverage?

That stems from my personal story. I’m the daughter of first-generation immigrants, and my goal was to check off all the boxes of success. I got a shiny degree from an Ivy League school, I got a glamorous job on Wall Street, and like every other young, ambitious person starting their career, I worked incredibly hard. Then, during the 2008 recession, I witnessed a sense of disillusionment and confusion among the generation that had recently entered the workforce. At the same time, there was a rise of new tools, like Facebook, Twitter, and Evernote that were changing the way people work.

So, after the financial collapse, I decided to completely switch gears to explore how people can find more meaning in their world and how Millennials could leverage the tools, platforms, and resources available to them. What I found was that whether someone was joining a startup or working at a Fortune 500 company, everyone was just trying to figure out how to cut through the noise of social media and their connections to get big things done.

That led me to this research with Joni, who is a renowned social strategist, and together we found this underlying theme of connectional intelligence, in which people were not focusing on more connections, but really how to leverage the connectedness available to all of us. And that was really the answer of how to find greater value and meaning in today’s world.

You give a number of examples in your book of people who’ve used connectional intelligence to create major change, and one thing I loved was that it’s not just Millennials tweeting and Snapchatting all day who can utilize this skill—it’s anyone! What is one of your favorite examples?

I love the story of Jared Heyman, the founder of CrowdMed. Jared was working at an online survey company when his sister suddenly developed symptoms of a rare medical condition. She left college and spent three years struggling until doctors finally gave her a proper diagnosis. After that, her symptoms cleared up within a month! Because of that experience, Jared decided to build a company that would ensure others don’t have to go through the same trials that his sister did.

So, in CrowdMed, patients explain their symptoms (and other relevant data) to an online audience—that audience then suggest diagnoses. The patients are able to use that information to work with their physicians and obtain proper treatment. As one of the site’s fist test cases, Jared submitted all of his sister’s symptoms, and CrowdMed correctly identified her illness in just three days. Now, CrowdMed has helped hundreds of patients identify illnesses that doctors weren’t able to solve on their own. In addition to creating a way for patients to actually help doctors, it’s also aiding medical research in many fields.

What I find so inspiring about this is, first, that he built CrowdMed out of a passion, out of seeing a need in the world, and second, that he leveraged intelligence by using the survey technology that he already knew. Also, he built this not with the mindset that he wanted to be successful, but that he wanted to help people get connected around the world.

Is there one step we can all take today to help improve our connectional intelligence?

You know, Malcolm Gladwell coined the term “connector” years ago, and it was revolutionary, but at this point, it’s quite outdated because we’re not just connected—we’re over-connected!

So, in the book, we explain that there are three different types of connectors: the thinker, the enabler, and the connection executor. The thinkers are those who love to generate groundbreaking ideas and are very curious, the enablers are those who get the ideas working, and the connection executors are the mobilizers who get all the parts in action.

I would really encourage everyone to identify what kind of connector they are and what kind of connector they need to be in their role at work and then identify colleagues who can help them build some of the other skills. For example, if you’re a connection executor, who are the thinkers you might want to have lunch with to help you generate or explore your approach to new ideas?

Last, how are you personally harnessing this skill in your life, both as an author and as the CEO of Cotential, a connectional intelligence consultancy?

I try to think about how I’m growing and developing my connectional intelligence on three levels. The first level is the crowd level, or how I am engaging with larger networks. Lately, the way that I’m doing that is creating a movement online through the hashtag #getbigthingsdone. I’m using it as a platform for people to share their learnings and their insights about the book, plus their work on the topic of connectional intelligence, so that’s really how I stay engaged with the larger movement and much broader network.

With smaller groups, the second level, I’m holding a series of connectional intelligence workshops across the country right now with anywhere from 30-50 people. What I’m doing is helping people learn about connectional intelligence and how they can better leverage it by giving them interactive projects.

Third is building my own individual connectional intelligence, and the way I’m doing that is the 10-minute rule, where I spend 10 minutes a day connecting myself to a new perspective outside my own. So, it might be connecting by following two new hashtags every week or joining a forum on Quora or LinkedIn about a new topic—really just connecting and learning from people who think differently than me.

Photo of people working courtesy of Shutterstock.

Updated 6/19/2020