Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
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6/18/2014
09:06 AM
David Wagner
David Wagner
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Innovation: Disperse or Congregate?

If you want to increase innovation, make sure your people literally cross paths more often.

There's an interesting economic disconnect between those who think people must get closer together to innovate and those who think technology lets most people work and innovate from anywhere in the world. One American in five now telecommutes, according to this article in Forbes. Global Workplace Analytics (cited by Forbes, with the original behind this pay wall) projects that number to grow 63% in the next five years. But at the same time that companies are letting more of their employees work from home, cities are creating "innovation districts" rich with mass transit to take advantage of proximity.

Which method -- proximity or dispersion -- produces the best results? If you're a business technology leader, what's the impact on the way your teams innovate?

The answer has a lot to do with what you think lies at the heart of innovation. Global Workplace Analytics found that 47% of the telecommuters it surveyed say they're "very satisfied" with their jobs, compared with only 27% of the office workers it surveyed. The researchers also found that the vast majority of companies report that their telecommuters are more productive than their office workers. Not only are they more productive, but according to well-being researcher Nic Marks they are more innovative as well. It makes sense intuitively that happier and more productive people would be more innovative. They have more time to innovate and have more invested in the company.

But there are two aspects to innovation: ideation and follow-through. It makes perfect sense that happy, productive home workers are more likely than their office counterparts to come up with innovative ideas, but it's also possible that those who are isolated from their colleagues find it harder to follow through on those ideas. That's because in all but the smallest companies, it usually takes a broad group with a cross-section of skills to turn a good idea into a revenue-generating product or service.

[What role does speed play when it comes to innovation? Watch and read IT Innovation At Full Speed: InformationWeek Video.]

Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyers famously caused a stir when she ended the company's telecommuting policy. Google, where she had previously worked, also doesn't allow much telecommuting, because management thinks it cuts down on casual interactions between different parts of the company that can lead to some of the best ideas. There's something to be said for an engineer, salesperson, and marketer bumping into one another at the lunch table or water cooler and hashing out the company's next great innovation.

That's certainly the plan, in large scale, of the innovation districts cities are bringing together. By condensing talent (including researchers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, engineers, and business development experts) from multiple fields into densely packed areas, the belief is that they will be better placed to germinate and spread ideas that produce economic benefit, not only for companies, but also for those cities.

Is it that simple? Just stick people in a small space and they'll innovate? Before you start making 10 people share a 30-foot-long desk, consider research that suggests that all corporate and city leaders have to do have to do is pay attention to the bathroom (among other key office destinations). Previous studies around proximity and innovation have centered on the distance between people. Generally, that research has been hard-pressed to identify a significant connection between close proximity and more innovation or collaboration.

But a 2013 working paper from a group at the University of Michigan tracked people as they walked through their offices. Not surprisingly, those people seldom ranged far from a few obvious places: their desks, the desks of their department colleagues, the break rooms, any equipment they needed (the study tracked bio lab workers), and, yes, the bathrooms.

What they discovered was that the more overlap there was between the paths of two people who usually didn't work together, the more likely they were to collaborate. In other words, the types of casual contact that Yahoo and Google are trying to promote don't necessarily come because people are near each other physically, but because their paths intersect. The more times they cross paths, the more likely they'll communicate.

Think of this like a pot of water on the stove. When the water is cold, the molecules move slowly and don't mingle much. Adding energy to them makes them move around faster, at which time they start bumping into each other and transferring their energy. Stimulating innovation is about getting your people to bounce into each other as often as possible. Cities really do have the right idea. If you make it easy for people to connect, they will.

The real issue isn't one of dispersion versus proximity. It's one of intersection. There's no reason that companies can't arrange telecommuting in a way that creates more intersections. Whatever your work environment, try to build in more paths for people to cross. If your teams work in an office, consider mixing them up. Make them walk to see each other. Make sure they walk past people you want them to see. Put a network engineer on the path between two security experts. Or put a salesperson halfway between two R&D folks.

Instead of putting bathrooms or break rooms in central locations, put them in places that require people to walk by as many colleagues as possible to get to them. Put them on opposite sides of the floor so people can't just keep a small circle. In the simplest terms, resist the urge to sit teams together.

If you have dispersed teams, build moments of intersection into the way you meet online. Have more cross-functional team meetings. Consider Internet gimmicks such as chat roulette to get your people talking with new people. Try having meetings based on where people live rather than their job functions. Most important, take the time to make people aware of the need to intersect.

Truthfully, you will lose something with telecommuting -- casual contact between people with different expertise required to create follow-through on good ideas. But when you know what you're missing, you might find a way to have your cake and eat it, too. Help those employees become happier and more creative, but also help them find each other.

Our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue -- our 26th ranking of technology innovators -- shines a spotlight on businesses that are succeeding because of their digital strategies. We take a close at look at the top five companies in this year's ranking and the eight winners of our Business Innovation awards, and offer 20 great ideas that you can use in your company. We also provide a ranked list of our Elite 100 innovators. Read our InformationWeek Elite 100 issue today.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/23/2014 | 7:17:40 AM
Re: Innovation Challenges
I guess if they give you a set of phone cubes and they are always full it would indicate that either there is a general issue with your office plan or everyone you employ has a top secret side job.  I know in some industries it just isn't going to work but when you have sales teams that have to collaborate with other teams it helps quite a bit.  Pulling down walls between the teams that are supposed to be working together removes a lot of the communication issues.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/20/2014 | 1:03:57 PM
Re: Innovation Challenges
@SaneIT- Yes, the open offic ei worked at also had the little phone cubes. But they were all full. they might as well have given everyone a little phone booth because so much business is done on the phone these days. I guess a lot of it depends on your job function.

But you are right. You have to balance ability to work and ability to collaborate.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/20/2014 | 7:14:42 AM
Re: Innovation Challenges
It is a balancing act but the company I was at with the most open floor plan did a lot of business over the phone.  I can't say I'd want to have a private conversation sitting in a cubicle but we had small meeting rooms on the perimeter that could be used for that.  Companies talk about the problems with silos but then they design their office space to build those silos.  I don't think I'd do well in a floating office environment but I'm to the point with my own office that I could move just about anywhere, even the hallway and be able to do my job.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/19/2014 | 1:02:37 PM
Re: Innovation Challenges
@SaneIT- I think you are right about hallways. I think they kill collaboration. On the other hand, I tend to think open floor plans kill productivity because of the noise. It is a tought balance.

I've worked in very open office plans where I felt it was hard ot have a phone call without disturbing people, and I've worked in my own office with a closed door and realized a whole day went by without my talking to another soul. I'm sure there is a middle ground. Not sure where it lies.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
6/19/2014 | 8:31:01 AM
Re: Innovation Challenges
The way most office spaces are built just add to this issue.  I can only think of one company I worked for where everyone mingled at company functions or at lunch time and I think that the building layout had a lot to do with it.  There were no hallways, just one big open space with offices around the outside.  Everyone who did not have a position that came with an office sat in the open space and there was no real division based on department.  Members of certain departments did tend to be close to the CFO's office but there were HR folks and IT folks mixed in that area as well.  Everyone got to know everyone else because there weren't any walls to hide behind.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/18/2014 | 11:35:40 AM
Re: Very True
@Lorna- You are right. It can be done. And you display the kind of effort it takes. Many internal wikis have been created, punded down the throats of emplooyees, and then died after millions were spent trying to make that easier. 

If anyone wants to make a difference in their company they could come up with a way to pair people with ideas and the ability to execute those ideas so people don't need to keep the type of lists you do.
David Wagner
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David Wagner,
User Rank: Strategist
6/18/2014 | 11:32:50 AM
Re: Innovation Challenges
@jastro- I might be naive, but I think there's no reason different types of job functions won't sit together in the cafeteria if they mingle differently from the beginning. People tend to mingle with their teams because they sit together and they get to know each other. If we build teams and seating differently, we'll learn we're a lot more alike than people think. 

OK, here endeth my message of peace and understanding. :)
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
6/18/2014 | 11:30:23 AM
Very True
As a longtime telecommuter, the concept of idea vs. follow-through rings very true. I often have to resort to a cheat sheet culled from the org chart to know who outside my group to ask about projects, just because I have no faces connected to names. So it stands to reason that it's a challenge to pull together a diverse team.

It can be done -- we turn plenty of ideas into reality. A prime example is the Women in IT focus at the recent Interop show. But it takes effort. 
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
6/18/2014 | 11:07:27 AM
Innovation Challenges
@dave – great article, and you've covered all the arguments re:  on-site and remote work and then some

To your idea >> Have more cross-functional team meetings

I'm going to expand to: have standing cross-functional working groups and teams – on site and remote.

Because engineers won't ever site with marketers in the cafeteria, or the other way around. They don't know each other and have no reason to.

But, getting people from different groups together working on products and services on a regular basis makes them true co-workers, and not working in a silo. Change group composition every year, and make sure nobody is left out, from the bottom of the food chain to the top – everyone contributes.

The challenge is making the group work together – finding the right keys to stimulate thinking and to balance ideas, while keeping it all on track. The results can be really valuable
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