Myths of Innovation

As Property and Workplace Advisor to the Sydney fintech hub Stone and Chalk, Pepper Property has helped to create a workplace that facilitates innovation. So what might drive innovation in your organisation? According to the founder of HATCH, Monica Parker, speaking at a Stone and Chalk Masterclass it's not what you think.

A glance into a typical modern workplace would suggest that innovation thrives in an open plan office with co-workers collaborating in frequent brainstorming sessions.

The truth is that many modern workplaces lack 'thinking space' and may stifle innovation by encouraging over collaboration. Why? Because the data behind activity-based work environments is skewed towards extroverts. In focus group sessions, extroverts speak first and with confidence, ensuring their work preferences (sitting in communal areas and having lots of meetings) dominate the findings. Unfortunately, such designs completely sideline introverts, who need space, peace and time alone to produce their best thinking.

And, make no mistake, you need both extroverts and introverts to spark innovation: both groups are equally creative. We tend to credit extrovert genius Steve Jobs as being Apple's inventor. In fact, Jobs only took the Apple computer to market. It was invented by his partner, the introverted Steve Wozniak. Without Wozniak, Apple would not exist.

Also, the most productive collaboration occurs, not in organised brainstorming sessions, but in natural interactions. In a famous example, Building 20 was MIT's radiation lab, hastily established during World War II. This rundown, temporary building ended up incubating fundamental scientific advances for two reasons. First, the people working there had complete autonomy how to use the space, enabling introverts to carve out private corners for deep thinking. Second, the scientists had to walk through the building - past each other's work - provoking unplanned conversations with the people they bumped into. This 'bump factor' encouraged knowledge transfer, with people from different disciplines adding their perspective to each idea.

Does this mean we should abandon brainstorming?

In short: Yes. In fact, research as far back as 1958 has found that brainstorming sessions are dominated by extroverts and unlikely to produce diverse thinking. Instead, they tend to be prone to group think and unconscious bias. As Malcom Gladwell reports in his book, Blink: The power of thinking without thinking, the number of women in top US orchestras increased rapidly after auditions were held behind a screen - preventing the unconscious bias of the selectors.°

Four ways to increase innovation at work:

Rather than relying only on conducting brainstorming sessions to increase innovation, here are some other proven ways to support innovation and creativity in the workplace:

  • Cause - remind people why their jobs matter. Employees who find their roles meaningful are three times as likely to stay with their organisation.¹
  • Control - let people choose how and where to work. Cornell University research shows that giving teams autonomy makes them four times more productive and reduces staff turnover by up to 35%.²
  • Contemplation - give people time and space to think. Currently, 71% of employees don't take a break because they're afraid managers will think they're slacking-off.³
  • Community - create a sense of connectedness. This plays to the tribal nature of human beings and creates a sense of belonging.

° Blink and the Wisdom of Crowds
¹ How to find meaning during your pursuit of happiness at work
² 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey
³ 71% of us are Too Busy to Take a Lunch Break

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