Connecting for Innovation

Recently, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced that, from June, working at home will not be permitted. The official memo states: “communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. … Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

Predictably, the Yahoo news led to a storm of comment, mostly negative. The gist of these comments is that individuals can be more productive and efficient if they can work undisturbed at home. It saves commuting time (and the environment, by taking cars off the road) and modern communications technology can more than compensate for decreased face-to-face contact.

Lessons from the Past
From the 1920’s until the late l970’s, Bell Laboratories, a subsidiary of AT&T, was arguably the most innovative centre for new ideas in the world. Transistors, lasers, digital communication, solar power cells, mobile telephony and many other things we take for granted today originated in Bell Labs. How did that organisation work?

Jon Gertner has written an enlightening window into that world: The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. Central for Bell Labs was the notion that “the group – especially the interdisciplinary group – was better than the lone scientist or small team.” A leading scientist of that day wrote: “We would meet together to discuss important steps almost on the spur of the moment … we would discuss things freely. I think many of us had ideas in these discussion groups, one person’s remarks suggesting an idea to another.”

“Social and professional exchanges moved back and forth, in all directions. … Formal talks and informal chats were always encouraged, both as a matter of policy and by the inventive design of the building.” A building redesign is also what Mayer has pushed through for Yahoo. Within Bell Labs the position was, “People had to be near one another. Phone calls alone wouldn’t do.” According to a former senior Bell Labs executive, an institution seeking greatness in research and development needs a place where a “critical mass” of people can exchange all kinds of information and consult with one another. Creative environments that foster a rich exchange of ideas are a key to success.

The present
In many organisations, working from home is increasingly a fact, and for some people a privilege. That works well where the alternative is that individuals waste time on lengthy commutes, only to spend their days closeted in offices or cubicles doing independent work. Virtual teams are also a fact of life: individuals spread across countries and continents have to work on the same project and simply cannot meet face to face often, if at all.

However, when innovation is crucial, it is doubtful whether this works. Then people need to interact, to connect, to learn to trust each other, and to influence each other’s thinking. For this purpose, email, teleconferences and Skype are simply not as effective as face-to-face encounters and exchanges.

The Bell Labs environment led to the invention and development of much of what now make instant global communications possible. It is ironic that this has resulted in working environments that are much less conducive to innovation and creativity.

Sliding the empathy scale

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. This ability (in contrast to simply listening to others, or hearing them out) lays the foundation for making connections with others, and being able to influence them effectively.

Differences and conflicts occur on a regular basis in most normal workplaces. In order to deal with those it is of critical importance that we be able to experience how a situation looks and feels from the other person’s perspective. This enables us to work together to meet the needs of both parties and to forge strong relationships based on mutual trust and respect.

Is a high level of empathy always a good thing? No, probably not. In business, we will wish to understand how major decisions will have a possible negative impact on others. However, sharing all potential negative feelings can lead to paralysis when tough, unsentimental decisions are required. ‘Empathy’ is good – on a sliding scale. A CEO who is seen as heartless will not earn the ‘engagement’ of his or her people. He or she must, however, be able to make tough decisions, for example by slashing headcount.

If I visit a doctor I hope he or she will understand my condition and then be able to diagnose the problem and offer relief. I will also expect a certain measure of sympathy from the doctors and nurses I encounter. It makes me feel seen as a person, not just as a ‘case’.
But I do not expect him or her to share in all my pain and misery. Sharing in the misery of all their patients would make life unbearable. Caregivers must protect themselves against ‘empathy fatigue’, also known as ‘secondary posttraumatic stress disorder’.

Returning to colleagues and clients: our observation is that there is not enough empathy in the workplace, people will feel a lack of understanding and respect in the face of normal differences.

The link below will take you to a 10-minute animation around this theme. It deals primarily with a need for greater empathy at the level of human relationships in general, the social level. But nothing stops you starting small, with a little smile or a really meant ‘I’m sorry for you’.

Season’s Greetings!

Lian and anitilopeThe festive season is almost upon us again. We therefore run down our lists of people to whom we must send greeting cards. It is part of the tradition.

But has it not also become a ‘ritual’, lacking in real meaning? If we care about those to whom we send our greetings, why is it that so often a whole 12 months has gone by since the last greeting?

Cards received are dutifully displayed on the mantle or taped onto our walls. If the sender of a received greeting has not already been sent one by us, we sometimes make amends, with a card in the next post. Or is the truth that we do not care that much, but send cards or other forms of message to those distant relations or friends out of a sense of ‘duty’.

Should the festive season not be a period when we do take more time? We could call those who matter to engage in a real conversation, enquiring about their well being, and taking the time to listen to their responses. We could visit them, where geographical separation permits. We could take the time to show other people that they matter to us.

‘But there is so little time during the hectic festive season!’ Of course, there is always a lack of time. However, if we value special others, surely we can make the time. For if we can’t, one may ask: are they really that special? If not, why even bother to send all those cards with their pre-printed messages, quickly signed during an evening, without thought but from a sense of duty?

If you are really in the ‘festive spirit’, try and connect with others. Tell them what you value about them. What could be a better ‘present’ than that? Ask how life has treated them, and listen with unfeigned interest.

The photograph above captures a bit of the ‘spirit’ I’m trying to convey. Be kind to loved ones, and to strangers as well. Make, or renew, some connections!

Happy Holidays!