Strong Link meets Weak Link Innovation

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I recently listened to the My little hundred million episode of Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist podcast in which he discusses elite universities vs non-elite universities. One of the points Gladwell makes, illustrated with the work of Chris Anderson and David Sally on football – see here for their website and here for their book – is that there are strong link activities and weak link activities.

Gladwell contrasts two sports to bring to the fore the salience of his point: Basketball and Football. There are strong link sports and weak links sports. Basketball is a strong link sport in as much as it is decided, more often than not, by the strongest player on the court. The “strongest” player can dominate a game and win it for his team. Football is a weak link sport in as much as it is decided, more often than not, by the 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th best players on the team. The “weakest” players need to be stronger than the opposing team’s “weakest” players. On the one hand the strongest link can win you the game. On the other hand, the weakest links may win you the game.

This strong/weak link heuristic made me think about innovation within an organizational context and more specifically as it may apply to early stage startups and mature corporations both in absolute terms and dynamically as either evolve over time.

It goes without saying that the business of growing a startup is eminently perilous, as evidenced by a survival rate that barely exceed those of male mantises after a male-female encounter. In that regard, and because of the numerous triggers that result in failure, growing a startup over time is a weak link “game” – you are as good as your “weakest” employees allow you to be, and by the same token operating a startup & strategic execution are weak links, the more so as the startup grows.

On the other hand, innovation within an early stage startup usually occurs thanks to the genius of one individual, an exceptional entrepreneur or technologist. The smaller the team, the smaller the organizational friction, the smaller the potential agency issues, the simpler the complexities facing the startup, the more one strong link will shine and carry the day. Innovation tends to live and breathe in rhythm with the strong link.

As startups grow and mature, they start to encounter, in an increasing fashion, the well known issues large corporations are faced with.  As this happens, innovation switches from being a strong link game to a weak link game. Once the innovation function has to live in symbiosis with the legal team, the compliance team, the IT team, the business team, the executive office, the strategy team and myriad other agents across the organization, it becomes as effective as the organization’s weakest link, be it an ill-tempered lawyer, a timid compliance officer or high-charging business leader.

In terms of culture, early stage startups “speak” strong link innovation while corporations “speak” weak link innovation. These languages, with their respective grammatical rules, spelling styles and lexicon inform how innovative ideas can and will propagate or fail. These languages tend to remain separate with minimal overlap until they were forced to intermingle forcefully due to the transformational diktat that has befallen every organization aspiring to thrive in the digital age – under the assumption that one needs an infusion of strong link innovation in order to transform and thrive.

Some corporations have responded to the language barrier by setting up technology transfer filters ranging from participating in independent accelerators, to building their own incubators or business builders, creating their captive venture arms, and/or investing in independent venture funds. Other corporations, and they are few and far between, have successfully retained strong link innovation traits as they have grown into sprawling enterprises – see Amazon’s management culture as a perfect example.

We can assume the rate of technology change will not abate anytime soon which will put a premium on how skillfully any organization will adapt to said change. As such, the ability to master the strong/weak link divide will, in my opinion, become a competitive advantage for startups and corporations alike.

Below is a non-exhaustive short list of what strong/weak link masters will focus on going forward.


  1. Focus on your strong link capabilities and ride them hard! These make you unique
  2. Build systems to enable your strong link culture but recognize that growth will bring complexities and weak links
  3. Prepare for weak links but honor them as much as strong because they will ultimately be your business backbone if you are successful


  1. Analyze your business to make sure that you have strong link actors.  If so, nurture them.  If not, call HR fast
  2. Analyze your support systems to make sure they are high functioning.  Weak links should not be “bad”.  Raise their quality because these weak links make or break the business
  3. Build a culture around monitoring and raising the quality of weak links continuously

Needless to say that I expect more corporations following into Amazon’s footsteps, the resulting outcome being a blurring of the strong/weak divide. Neither fully basketball nor fully football; hybrid organisms are usually more resilient.

ps:  I would like to thank Michael Meyer for his editorial help

Pascal Bouvier

Life and work experiences have given Pascal an unmatched vantage point, seeing things as both venture capitalist and aspiring entrepreneur. He currently is a Venture Partner with Santander Innoventures – Santander Group’s Global Fintech fund.

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