Mark Craemer 1 Comment

Today there is a great deal of talk about the need for more employee collaboration. This is because collaboration can lead to creative solutions and is directly tied to innovation.

Though we often attribute innovative ideas to a single person, rarely do these ideas occur in isolation. Finding novel solutions to problems or creating new market opportunities requires people sharing and discovering through direct and open interaction with others.

The physical environment can certainly play a role in encouraging innovation. Here are some examples of what organizations are currently doing.

  • Google is designing their new corporate headquarters to maximize casual employee conversations, which is exactly how they came up with innovations like Gmail and Street View.
  • Zappos created a new headquarters and deliberately provided employees with smaller workspaces and break rooms, not only to save money, but to encourage people to physically bump into each other. They hope this will lead to more spontaneous and productive interactions.
  • Many companies are also providing common work areas that enable employees to mingle and chat with the hope that more ideas will result.
  • National Public Radio has “Serendipity Days” where employees from different departments come together to deliberately think about new ideas and projects over a two-day period. The focus is on getting employees to work with people who they wouldn’t normally work with as a way to alter their current thinking and broaden perspective.
  • Some companies are asking employees to swap jobs for a few months in order to better understand each other’s work, and also seek different approaches to existing ways of doing things.
  • Yahoo recently put a ban on telecommuting as way to encourage incidental encounters in hallways and the cafeteria that would likely not occur if these employees worked from home.

Clearly these physical interventions may create an environment where people can collaborate and innovate together, but innovation also requires getting the right people together and having a culture that encourages the innovating process.

Here are some ideas on how organizations can encourage innovation:

  1. Hire the right people. Look for a cultural fit as well as passion in the people you hire. Don’t underestimate the importance of emotional intelligence, which is vital for effective relationships, but may not show up on resumes. Seek out curious people who look beyond presenting problems and find sustainable solutions.
  2. Foster a team approach. Don’t let an individual’s desire for career advancement override the team’s ability to succeed. Remember the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
  3. Enable brainstorming time. This means not shooting down what may appear at first to be a bad idea. Real innovation occurs when people are free to ask stupid questions, challenge assumptions, and try out what hasn’t been done before.
  4. Encourage risk taking. True creativity requires the opportunity to make mistakes and not be penalized for it. This means organizations must not only tolerate mistakes or false starts, but encourage them as the natural process for reaching innovative success.
  5. Foster a playful environment. Innovation demands that people follow their interests and play with ideas that may fall outside traditional thinking. While this may at times appear silly and unproductive, it is the exact environment where ideas can grow.
  6. Welcome diversity and conflicting opinions. Many organizations are conflict avoidant; they are also less likely to be innovative. That’s because coming up with new ideas is often messy and requires people to see and hear what is beyond their current point of view. Stay in the mess in order to let the best ideas surface.

Outside the workplace, there are organizations like Maker Faire that encourage innovation. “Maker Faire features innovation and experimentation across the spectrum of science, engineering, art, performance and craft.” In other words, it encourages people from many disciplines to take something old and make something new.

Regardless of the industry, organizations that provide products or services need to continually innovate in order to gain or maintain a competitive edge. Fostering an environment that encourages collaboration with a corporate culture and policies that support it can enable this innovation to occur.


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