Friday, August 20, 2021

The innovation and collaboration strawman

 I have friends who work for IBM and other large corporations in the Research Triangle Park, some of whom are experiencing whiplash.  After all, they've been sent to work from home, returned to the office and then sent back to work from home several times.  All before Covid struck.  Covid has only caused the process to repeat.

When they were sent home, the argument was that it did not matter where people worked and the company could save money by downsizing buildings.  When they were brought back to the office, the rationale was that hallway conversations and unexpected interactions would lead to better communication and innovation.  Some of the to-ing and fro-ing that happened is inexplicable, at least to me, but I am sure there was some "strategy" behind it.

Now, the NY Times has a recent article (sorry there may be a paywall) that suggests that working in the office, with the ever present water cooler conversations and random interactions, is not necessarily better for innovation.  The fact that this appears to be "news" suggests how little innovation must happen in the NY Times news room.  Innovation in any corporation is difficult.  It is not a question of random hallway conversations, because that's not what drives most innovation.

Narrow and brittle

The reason that most random hallway conversations don't produce innovation in a lot of corporations is because the organizations are narrow and brittle. By this I mean that most of the people you interact with represent one of two categories:  they are either working in a job or industry that is exceptionally similar to the one you are in, and therefore unlikely to introduce anything new to you, or they are likely to be working in a job or geography so different from yours that they may as well speak another language.

In the first instance, meeting with people who have similar jobs, the random interactions will always return to common challenges and issues that you've hashed out before. The range and scope of ideas and options is exceptionally limited.  In the second instance, if and when you meet people in your company from really different functions or jobs or locations (which is rare), you share so little with them, and have so little incentive to explore new opportunities, that in most cases you may as well be two different species.

The best opportunity for innovation will happen in these instances in a truly cross-functional team with people selected from different functions, industries and geographies, but the challenge is that none of these people work for the same VP, and the VPs don't have any incentive to commit good people to a cross functional project that does not benefit their team directly.

Innovation and collaboration

If Edison showed us anything, he demonstrated that intentionally mixing people with different skills from different fields, and focusing their attention on specific problems, could definitely lead to better outcomes than people working on their own.  

Edison's Menlo Park lab included people from a number of backgrounds, functions and industries, put there intentionally to interact and to bridge technologies and ideas across industry or technology boundaries.  They created hundreds of patents and dozens of ideas, sometimes creating new solutions from the ground up, and sometimes making radical improvements to existing technologies (the light bulb).

So, there are a couple of issues with the idea that collaboration and innovation aren't helpful.

First, having a bunch of unaffiliated people who do not share compensation models and do not work on the same issues randomly running into each other in  the hallways is not a recipe for innovation, it is a Brownian motion experiment.

Two, sending people who share a focus on solving specific problems (senior sponsorship and strategic direction) to work within their fields and to INTENTIONALLY cross pollinate with each other has real potential to create interesting and radically different solutions.

Key Factors

What we can see from this is that whether the innovators work in a distributed fashion, work in a hybrid fashion or all work in the office, is not the key issue.  There are a couple of factors that will determine if and when collaboration and interaction can add to an organization's innovation capacity:

  • Strategy - Why are the interactions valuable?  Most interactions that cross business functions, geographies or technologies will be transformative or disruptive, so they need a helping hand from the top. 

What problems or opportunities do you hope to solve?  Edison did not leave this to chance.

  •  Intentionality - Which people with which experiences or knowledge should interact?  Rather than random interactions, create interactions and collaborations that have an intent.  Mix the technologists from several fields together if there is a potential for a new opportunity, or mix technologists and marketers together but do so intentionally.
  • Shared goals - if the people running into each other, on purpose or accidentally, have shared goals, shared compensation models, they are much more likely to explore opportunities that mix my peanut butter and your chocolate, to use an old saying.
  •  Openness - this only works if the whole idea of collaboration and cross pollination is exposed and open to everyone, and no one needs or wants to claim sole credit for an idea.  If the expectations aren't established, then all the interaction will lead to a number of separate projects, with each group or team declaring their version of the idea the best.

  • Variety - Edison mixed people from radically (at the time) different industries and technologies, seeking to bridge capabilities from one industry or technology to another.  The best innovation teams are often heterogeneous, and it is in their diversity (diversity of age, race, experience, industries, functions, technologies) that creates real value.

Random collisions or carefully considered interactions?

So, the choice is yours.  Whether your teams work from home or the office, you can send them into a billiard ball's path of random collisions with people they don't quite know and don't quite understand, who don't share common goals and who want to claim the glory of any idea for themselves.

Or, you can plan their interactions with strategy in mind, with intention, building to specific goals and outcomes, with a shared context.  

The latter is far more likely to create interesting outcomes, but requires a lot more engagement from senior executives and change management.  So, too often we'll end up with the random collisions which appears to be a solution, but is simply window dressing, or an argument to bring everyone back to the office.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:10 AM


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