Innovation isn’t the purview of lone geniuses being struck, lightening style, by inspiration out of the blue. Rather it comes from creative, intelligent people who routinely encounter different perspectives and are frequently exposed to new concepts. As Steven Johnson writes in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, “Chance favors the connected mind.”
Based on that principal, here are four expert tips to help stimulate innovation in the workplace:
1. Connect Thinkers. One way to encourage creative solutions is to engage thinkers with different skill sets from across your organization. Steven Gold, Senior Partner for Entrepreneurship at Babson College, directs the college’s Summer Venture Program, which supports the most promising MBA and undergraduate entrepreneurs from Babson and other nearby colleges.
“We have 24 entrepreneurs working on different businesses in the same space,” Gold says. “Every day, sharing goes on—from contacts and ideas to emotional support. It’s the best part of the program.” To encourage that sharing in a busy environment, the workspace includes a centrally located whiteboard on which anyone can write a question, describe a roadblock, or request a resource. Others passing by take note of what’s posted, mull it over, and provide responses when they can.
Google has used the same technique. In a blog post titled “The Eight Pillars of Innovation,” Susan Wojcicki, Senior Vice President for Ads and Commerce, describes how the company hung an “ideas board” on a wall in a well-traveled hallway.
“On a Friday night,” she writes, “an engineer went to the board and wrote down the details of a convoluted problem we had with our ads system. A group of Googlers lacking exciting plans for the evening began rewriting the algorithm within hours and had solved the problem by Tuesday. The best ideas at Google are sparked just like that – when small groups of Googlers take a break on a random afternoon and start talking about things that excite them.”
2. Rethink Workplace Design. David Silverman is a principal at Silverman Trykowski Associates (STA), an architecture and design firm headquartered in Boston’s Innovation District. STA works with a wide range of businesses, from major universities and global marketing agencies to start-up nonprofits. The company specializes in design that addresses key factors like productivity, efficiency, morale, and enterprise success.
Silverman has found that providing a variety of meeting spaces that can be tailored to the task at hand encourages workplace innovation. “Ideally,” he says, “you want break-out collaborative space where teams can brainstorm, as well as private conference rooms in different sizes.”
Even when space is limited, it’s possible to offer common areas that support a variety of uses and preferences. For example, at STA they removed a large desk in an unused reception area to turn it into a lounge with casual, movable seating, a flatscreen, and a whiteboard.
“It’s not a conference room – a place where you have to close the door,” Silverman says. Instead, he calls the space a living lab and a public thinking area. The seating can be arranged in different ways, and the white board is on wheels so it can be repositioned easily. “Adaptability is the key,” he says. “The area can be used for structured presentations or casual group discussions. People seem to relax more in this space, which is good for creativity.”
3. Invite Fresh Perspectives. Organizing forums and inviting speakers are other ways to bring employees into frequent contact with fresh perspectives and rekindle mental energy.
“We’ll host speaker events and town hall meetings where we invite people to think about a problem and potential solutions,” says Sam Aquillano, co-founder and executive director of Design Museum Boston, an organization that works to connect professionals in different industries through the common theme of design. At one town hall meeting in Boston’s Innovation District, attendees developed the idea of a public-bench design competition that ultimately drew 172 entries from 23 countries. It also generated an inspiring interactive exhibit that provided benches for a developing waterfront park.
Whenever possible, Aquillano stages events in high visibility locations, such as building lobbies and cafeterias. “To make our events highly accessible, we put them in places where people already are,” he says. “Providing morning coffee or other refreshments helps, too.”
4. Bring Entrepreneurs In-House. A creative option for companies with unused office space is to rent that space out to start-up companies and non-profits. Both the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe have utilized this tactic as their down-sized staffs require less space.
Furnished casually and surrounded by working journalists, the Globe’s spare office space has been rented to high-tech start-ups and used to host a programming-code marathon. In an interview with The New York Times, Globe’s publisher Christopher Mayer said that in addition to allowing the company to fully utilize an asset, the new relationships have helped to energize the workplace and connect the paper to the community.
“Putting people together who think differently is a very fun, valuable experience,” says Babson’s Gold. “Being exposed to other perspectives is refreshing for all of us.”
In another of his books, The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson likens innovation to what happens in a flood plain: “A dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.”