This is the second part in a series of posts on the adjacent possible. I recommend starting with part one to get more context on my thinking about the adjacent possible as well as the first two ideas on this subject.
3. The culture is the air people, and therefore ideas, breathe
The rules for the use of collaboration tools mentioned above will be endemic to certain types of corporate culture. The surrounding atmosphere that people live and breathe in their office will have the largest impact on any attempts to encourage people to investigate and test the adjacent possible. Some people will wait for permission to be given or even ordered but for real experimentation to flourish it must become just an accepted part of the working day. It does not have to be something fully formed like Google’s mythical 20% time but just an acceptance that people can feed their curiosity and have the freedom to experiment at the boundaries.
Initiatives like 20% time i.e. a day a week to work on whatever you want as long as it benefits the company and is something new or innovative, is of course worthwhile but single initiatives however varied can become a burden over time as they grow into complex processes that are open to a few capable and perseverant folk. Like most things in large complex organisations they also grow large and complex. It is important to try these kinds of processes but they cannot be the sole measure of whether a company is innovative. They do of course contribute to the overall culture of the organisation showing that innovation will be rewarded.
The question I ask is how is easy would it be for two people from different departments to decide to spend a day or two working on something non-standard and then share or publish what they had done to the rest of the organisation. Rigid objectives, budget lines, timesheets all these important resource recording and directing mechanisms are required for the machine to run but they can certainly get in the way of anything outside the norm making the previous scenario feel almost impossible. ‘Sorry mate can’t help you unless you have a budget line I can record my time against’ ‘We can’t show this anyone as <insert stereotypical perceived innovation blocking department here> will kill us’ and conversations of this type make it feel like making anything new and different is almost impossible. People are often so overloaded with work because the resource allocation for an individual developer will probably be 110-120%. Having an environment and atmosphere that provides time and freedom for these ad hoc collaborations and provides a vehicle to share them with the organisation will be as conducive to the overall culture as any best idea competition.
4. Spaces designed for collision and cultivation
And what of the physical spaces we work in? Are they designed for collaboration as well? There are many studies and design articles on the changing workplace and building to ensure peoples paths cross often ensuring potential for cross pollination of ideas. I am currently reading a brilliant book about Bell Labs, the legendary research facilities of AT&T that created all manner of things including the solid state resistor that changed the face of electronics. Their labs were built to ensure people would bump into one another.
“By intention, everyone would be in one another’s way. Members of the technical staff would often have both laboratories and small offices—but these might be in different corridors, therefore making it necessary to walk between the two, and all but assuring a chance encounter or two with a colleague during the commute. By the same token, the long corridor for the wing that would house many of the physics researchers was intentionally made to be seven hundred feet in length. It was so long that to look down it from one end was to see the other end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling its length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions, and ideas would be almost impossible. Then again, that was the point.” Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory
Other companies have designed offices for these kinds of interactions and collaborations. Steve Jobs made sure Pixar had a huge atrium that every department had to pass through. Zappos also went with a similar approach when they redesigned an existing office building, closing off several previous routes into the office to force people through central areas. In addition they also built in flexible office walls and non-fixed desks, complete with ceiling level cabling so it is easier to unplug, enabling individuals and teams to move and morph into new spaces and configurations. Do offices in great big vertical towers only go to highlight rigid vertical structures and hierarchies that are not designed to mix? Hot desking as a concept is ok but do teams still sit with each other as a matter of course and is moving around the organisation really encouraged?
Another element of office design and usage that I think certainly helps is using the walls. The walls in most offices are either covered in wretched wallpaper, beige paint or the occasional wall decal or worse still motivational posters. These walls could and should be used to display work, to show progress, to highlight problems so that people who are passing can take a look. Well implemented agile development processes will get users to create physical representations of tasks and jobs using pen and paper and some means of fixing them to the wall. Publishing activity, showing progress, making the ‘working out’ visible to those physically near or just passing is a great form of advertising what a team actually does.
In an old post about cultivating hunches I suggested putting whiteboards on the back of toilet doors. It is about thinking more of how we use the spaces we occupy and work in over and above just somewhere to sit in front of a screen and a keyboard.
5. Publish by default – no more secrets
No more secrets, make things public by default, creating a culture of sharing can only increase adjacency; the importance of this sharing cannot be underestimated. Build basic description and communications into plans and working practices of the projects being undertaken around the world. Not just the dry status reports but well written descriptions of the trials and tribulations of a project/product as it ebbs and flows through its natural lifecycle. The publishing and therefore sharing of this information is the key to having a healthy flow of knowledge and potential adjacencies to be investigated by others.
I have stated before that I am a big fan of the UK’s Government Digital Service Team and they have built into their service delivery manual the concept of blogging progress frequently and freely. This recent example talking about the work involved to improve search is an excellent example of sharing, writing and publishing. Project teams sharing their progress, failures, processes, changes and successes in a pace accessible by all (maybe even outside the organisation) would be a very valuable source of information.
The default setting of most teams in organisations seems to be private. Our team often get asked if we can build other teams their own microblog and we usually say no. Use the same one everyone else does. They invariably decline. There needs to be a move away from this unwillingness to work in public. Without the act of publishing the organisation does not maximise the value of what it already, knows and tries and achieve.
This is the end of part two. The final part is available here.