Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Innovation happens at social crossroads



Innovation often happen at social crossroads, places where people and ideas coming from different directions might meet, exchange ideas and collaborate to produce something new. Nothing might happen – but, more importantly, also anything. The most fruitful meetings are often those that are spontaneous and unplanned, almost non-voluntary and where people with new ideas or other perspectives on things show up with.


Innovation is also more often a bi-product of a process or something that occurs ad hoc than the result of a pre-defined process. Coffee breaks are usually a great opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences, input that might be needed to spawn an innovation.

If the only crossroads would be face-to-face meetings, exchange of information and knowledge, collaboration and innovation is less likely to happen. These meetings usually have to be scheduled way in advance so that the people you want showing up will be able to attend. The meetings also needs to take place in a physical room or space somewhere, which means that you need to be restrictive about who you invite. Besides, it is often hard to motivate the time and traveling costs as the number of participants increase. You simply cannot afford having people listening in to the meeting without contributing, even if it is just a matter of minutes that might be relevant for them to participate. That just isn't feasible with face-to-face meetings. You need to see value in attending at least half an hour; otherwise you should not go to the meeting.

Still - we need to meet more people, more frequently and more spontaneously to increase the chance of information and knowledge exchange, collaboration and innovation happening. These are some of the things we need less and more of:

  • Less scheduled meetings

  • Less waiting for the part of the meeting which is relevant for you

  • Less traveling

  • Less lead-time caused by going to or leaving meetings

  • Less irrelevant information exchanged

  • Less overbooked schedules

  • More flexible schedules

  • More people to get to know

  • More frequent interactions with other people

  • More spontaneous and on-demand meetings

  • More information exchanged

There is obviously a really big gap to fill where people need to meet but simply cannot do it in person in real life. Virtual meeting places have the potential to fill this gap. An organization that has stuck on repeat and do not innovate anymore should focus on creating more crossroads and increase the density of its people to make meetings. This can be done both physically and virtually, but it is usually not an option in a large organization to co-locate its entire people in one location. Anyway, it would be a huge office and there would still be physical barriers for people to meet spontaneously, efficiently and on-demand.

I personally like the crossroads analogy better than the silo or stovepipe analogy when explaining why collaboration does not happen. The silo and stovepipe analogies are negative and destructive, implying that you can solve things by reorganizing the organization scheme. Well, you might get temporary effects, but after a while everybody will most likely be stuck again in their new and shining silos or stove-pipes. That is, unless you enable a lot of virtual social crossroads to be created.