Building Bridges

Most of us probably built bridges out of blocks, toys, or sticks as kids.  There is a natural marvel we possess as children in creating something that defies nature and moves us from one place to another.  Toy makers for generations have successfully created games and toys for all ages that tap into this creative desire.  In addition, schools and associations have sponsored contests and competitions to build bridges with toothpicks, popsicle sticks, or spaghetti for elementary through high school.  Even today, I marvel when driving over large bridges and imagine the creativity, planning, and effort that must have gone into building these large metal and concrete structures.

In business, we refer to “building bridges” when we attempt to form connections between ourselves and other groups.  Historically, bridges joined communities and increased commerce.  Just like communities of old, by building a bridge we are linking ourselves or our organization to the outside world in hope that this linkage will provide benefits to us both.  Most of us recognize that networking is a correlate with business success.  However, it is common to practice a form of “networking by convenience.”  Instead of building linkages to the best targets, we focus on the most convenient targets or the targets that require the least effort.  Although some linkages are better than none, it is important to develop the most mutually beneficial relationships.  In other words, a bridge is still a bridge even if it goes now where, but a bridge to somewhere is a lot more desirable.

In keeping with the bridge analogy, what can we learn from bridge building?

Learning from the Past

The earliest bridges were created by nature.  As people moved from one place to another, large rocks and fallen tress provided a path across water or ravines.  In time, humankind began to realize that created structures could serve the same purpose. The Arkadiko Bridge is one of four Mycenaean corbel arch bridges that dates back to the Bronze Age that still stands today.  Like many in southern Greece, its simplicity is quite amazing.  As Rome rose, it took many Greek ideas including its knowledge of bridge building and provided the world with arched bridges and aqueducts that were engineering miracles of the time.

Like bridge builders of old, we can learn from how others have built linkages through different methods and approaches in the past.  Time and again, social interaction, school ties, or even luck have led to very productive partnerships between individuals or organizations.  What is discussed less are those times where a person intentionally developed a relationship to achieve a specific result.  It is important that we always build bridges, but it is just as important that we have the ability to build “custom” bridges when needed to where we want to go.

Construction

Modern bridge building has a design and construction phase.  The design phase begins with determining the type of bridge needed (arch, suspension, truss, cabled, or beamed).  Next, considerable research goes into determining the best placement for a bridge.  Once the location is known, engineers factor in potential traffic and load on the bridge.  A plan is prepared and approved that details the actual building process.  Finally, construction begins with breaking ground and assembling materials.  The materials are turned into the bridge decking with concrete or other materials and then paving is added.  Once the bridge is inspected, it is open to the public.

Before we construct, it is important to have a plan.  We should be able to answer the following questions at a minimum before getting started:

  • Who do we want to build a bridge to and why?
  • What can we offer the person and what can the person offer in turn?
  • What is the best method and time to approach the person?

Once we know what we want, what we have to offer, and how we can best attain it, we are ready to start acting.

Try, Try Again

If you had a small brother or sister, you probably had the joy of building a bridge all afternoon to only have “siblingzilla” come and kick it over.  History holds a number of stories of bridges that failed.  Most recently, the media discussed the events surrounding the collapse of I-35W Mississippi River bridge and how a design flaw and additional weight on the bridge at the time of the collapse caused the disaster.  There are some common threats to bridges even if they are designed and constructed well: changes in the concrete density, erosion beneath the concrete slabs, and rust expansion of internal steel.

As we all know, some bridge building simply does not work.  When we attempt to build a bridge to someone, failure can occur as well: the approach can be wrong, timing can be bad, or person can fail to see the mutual value.  The important thing is that we don’t abandon building bridges, but find new opportunities.

As we start the New Year, let’s build new bridges.

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