Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.
Greg Lindsay’s talk, Innovation Doesn’t Happen at Your Desk is an attempt to get people to work together and better. I think he’d agree with Rory Sutherland in that many of the logical questions have been answered and we need to get a bit weird.
A more positive term for weird is serendipity.
Lindsay tells of a natural experiment where a building needed asbestos treatment. The teams there had their offices shuffled about, and when their (innovation) results were measured, “Randomness was the best strategy for increasing innovation for these teams.”
Put different people near each other, let them talk, and watch the good ideas flow.
Part of the explanation is The Allen Curve, an observation that people talk more to those nearby, even when digital tools allow us to talk to anyone anywhere. Dr. Thomas Allen said, “Broadband communication isn’t a substitute for face to face.” That is, people communicate with those they see.
If proximity leads to communication then communication leads to serendipity. Examples include the Nike Waffle Shoe, Spotify’s Discover Weekly Playlist, and Reed Hastings (who got lucky serving coffee to a certain computer lab).
Lindsay said, “All three major types of artificial sweeteners came from lab accidents where the researchers then picked up their lab bench and stuck their fingers in their mouths.”
Jenna Fischer agrees with action as a solution, “…you’re much more likely to be in the right place at the right time if you’re busy doing showcases, plays, and taking classes. Chances are you won’t be in the right place at the right time if you’re spending your days eating Lucky Charms your couch. Trust me, I tried.”
There are four “black boxes” for serendipity Lindsay said:
- The office
- The city
- The network
Building on ideas from James Lollies and Joey Ito, Lindsay said, “You know the classical line, the true sound of scientific discovery is not Eureka but ‘that’s interesting’.” And “Do you have the latitude to chase something?” It takes an internal curiosity and external circumstances.
That’s interesting moments surround us. Peter Rahal wondered why a Crossfit sold t-shirts but not protein bars. Eric Maddox wondered why certain people were still hanging around an area. Brian Koppelman wondered why Americans celebrate entrepreneurs. Jim O’Shaughnessy wondered if personalities weren’t the perfect proxy for well-performing investments.
Cubicle offices are too much like tree farms, orderly and great for optimizing harvests. Another way to approach Lindsay’s idea is via Christensen’s disruption model; optimized offices are best for sustaining innovations while open offices (and mandates) are better for disruptive technology.
“Google started a beekeeping club so that engineers who are interested in beekeeping might meet each other and actually have discussions about unrelated subjects.”
Pervading the office furniture is the office culture, and perks are not culture. Ben Horowitz said that culture is what people do when you don’t tell them what to do. Does your boss encourage serendipity? Do you?
Lindsay cites Geoffrey West that cities get better as they get bigger.
He also (seems) to like the work of Jane Jacobs and mentioned a Sante Fe panel/study along with this; Being Nicely Messy. While YOU and THE OFFICE are bonsai-like cultivatable, the city is more emergent. “Cities are the greatest serendipity environments of all so Google and Facebook are trying to design these environments that are more walkable and allow all these sorts of spillover effects.”
Org charts often differ from communication networks. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi has done similar work to what Lindsay cites. Barabasi noted that the people best connected in a network are rarely the decision makers, it’s the safety management supervisor who has to visit each office and likes to talk.
Other examples from the talk include:
- HBR, Workspaces that move people.
- IDEO’s process for multidisciplinary teams.
- MIT’s Building 20.
- Skunk Works
- Zappos’s experiments in Las Vegas.
Thanks for reading and happy serendipitying to you.