America seems to be suffering a decline in innovation advantage.
America seems to be experiencing an increase in the number of people who work alone.
Is it possible that these are connected?
I have read a lot of books on innovation. And a few on creativity. (Bob Morris, our blogging colleague, is good at reminding us of the difference between the two). And I think about these subjects, creativity and innovation, a lot.
And, right now, on my reading list is the new book The Idea Factory, about the Bell Labs, and the new book by Jonah Lehrer, Imagine. (Imagine is getting a lot of buzz, and I will present my synopsis of this book at the May First Friday Book Synopsis).
So, here’s my latest thought about our innovation deficit. A lot of us are in a deficit position. Why? Because we work primarily alone.
I am an independent consultant. Though Karl Krayer and I have hosted the First Friday Book Synopsis together for fourteen full years, we spend little actual time together. We each office separately. And though I work with other folks in a few different ways, I do most of my thinking and pondering alone. My “coffee breaks” lead to little business interaction. And yet, all of the new research seems to say a lot about the enormous value of the forced and not-so-forced interactions in idea factories of one kind or another. Being together, rubbing elbows together, just talking in “unscheduled” run-ins, can lead to breakthrough thinking.
Why? Here’s a quote from Imagine, which Bob Morris quoted in his review of the book:
“Sometimes a creative problem is so difficult that it requires people to connect their imaginations together; the answer arrives only if we collaborate. That’s because a group is not just a collection of individual talents. Instead, it is a chance for those talents to exceed themselves, to produce something greater than anyone thought possible.”
And don’t forget — “together” actually does require some time “together.”
The Bell Laboratories provide an example of a true idea factory. So too with Pixar, and Apple, and other entities that profit from smart and creative people being together. And it is the sum of all of these many interactions, constantly occurring, that leads to breakthrough ideas.
And, yet, so many more people now work in “alone” settings. The very people that, if they had more interactions, might produce more great ideas.
I “interact” virtually. I read widely. But I’m not sure it is the same as the company cafeteria and ping pong tables and simple coffee breaks…
What do we do about this? I’m not sure. But I think this is a problem worth our attention.