“Almost always great new ideas don’t emerge from within a single person or function, but at the intersection of functions or people that have never met before.”Clayton Christensen
(WFH – Work From Home / DFI – Disastrous For Innovation)
I design and deliver workshops on fostering a culture of innovation. One of these workshops is designed for team or cross-company (cross-silo) communication. Such inter-company communication is vital for innovation and for healthy company culture. Innovation is chiefly about combining existing ideas in new ways, but how can we do this if people do not meet, do not randomly share ideas at the watercooler, in the hallway, or when they do not come to the office at all? That is the theme of The Thursday Thought this week.
In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson tells the story of how Jobs obsessed over every aspect of a new showcase headquarters for Pixar. “Steve had this firm belief that the right kind of building can do great things for a culture,” said Pixar’s president Ed Catmull. Pixar’s (now disgraced for sexual misconduct) creative director John Lasseter wanted a traditional Hollywood studio, with separate buildings for various projects and bungalows for the various development teams. But the Disney folks said they didn’t like their new campus because the teams felt isolated, and Jobs agreed. Jobs decided they should go to the other extreme: one huge building around a central atrium designed to encourage random encounters.
(PIXAR lobby / common area by Blake Patterson on Flickr)
Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its isolating potential, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” he said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” So he had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations. “If a building doesn’t encourage that, you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity,” he said. “So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.” The front doors and main stairs and corridors all led to the atrium, the café and the mailboxes were there, the conference rooms had windows that looked out onto it, and the six-hundred-seat theatre and two smaller screening rooms all spilled into it. “Steve’s theory worked from day one,” Lasseter recalled. “I kept running into people I hadn’t seen for months. I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”
Many of us have worked in siloed organisations, in which, often for no explicit reason tribes do not communicate, treat each other like competitors and God-forbid share ideas. However, modern-day cultures and building designs do promote this, but now we have a new challenge people don’t want to come to the office. Yes, I understand, I have a family and I have cherished the time I would never have otherwise had in walking them to school, going for family hikes and having lunch at home rather than in the office. BUT. There is a balance. We can’t have it every way. Give and take requires some give. Innovation aside, you cannot cultivate a company culture on a virtual meeting.
In absence of human presence, there is little sharing of office politics, and online meetings dictate more prepackaged information generally with a positive outlook or spin. Meetings adjourn without the informal and productive hallway follow‐ups with colleagues, and post-meeting requests for honest feedback (how did I do?) from subordinates or colleagues rarely happen anymore. There is no water cooler moment, where a senior or junior member might challenge or champion an idea. Ideas are fleeting and if you don’t seize them and water them with energy, they simply die on the vine.
Worldwide Water Coolers
I had the great pleasure to chat with Lars Tvede on his book SuperTrends for an upcoming multi-part episode of The Innovation Show’s exponential series. Above, you will see his illustration of Human innovation spanning 2,850 years. (Sources for this illustration are Murray, C.: “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences”, 800 B.C. to 1950 and Tvede, L.: “The Creative Society”, 2016.
While we may take such exponential progress for granted today, for a long period of our existence we experienced linear growth. While many complex factors contributed to this exponential growth, one of these factors is population growth. There are about 30,000 times more people today than at the end of the last Glacial Period. With more people comes more ideas, especially if education improved as it has. Coupled with improvements in education and increased IQ are spikes in prosperity. With prosperity, people have more leisure time to read, think, and imagine.
In addition, we are increasingly closely connected with each other via travel, the Internet, social media and global trade. So, we have far better opportunities to exchange thoughts, ideas, and inventions than previously. Urbanisation is another important contributor to the spread of ideas. As we discussed in a previous series with the author of “Scale”, Geoffrey West, ideas and innovations spread quicker in towns and cities because of public meeting spaces, libraries, coffee shops, and concerts. The bigger the cities, the faster ideas spread. The likelihood of meeting people who complement your own skills is also much greater when you are surrounded by lots of people. Add to all this, the neurodiverse nature of cities, when a group is neurodiverse, they have more novel ideas. So a city is like a scaled-up office, like an office, a city cannot innovate in lockdown. The world cannot innovate in isolation. And, a company cannot innovate when its people work from home.
I can empathise with how an innovator like Elon Musk wants people in the office.
No people in the office:
No hallway chats.
No challenging opinions.
No back channels.
No “quick” coffees.
No “can I run something by you”
No chance encounters.
P.S. I do find virtual workshops unlock introverted colleagues and have a great benefit.
P.P.S. I hope I am wrong.
THANKS FOR READING