Has 2020 slowed the pace of future innovation?

Studies show that meeting people outside of our regular daily network is an important source of ideas, and serendipity plays a big role here. In the year of social distancing, this is likely to impact innovation

Shalini Lal
Updated: Nov 18, 2020 07:08:05 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

As a young doctoral student, I was often advised to find my research questions at the intersection of two otherwise established ideas. My advisor was fond of saying that “gold lies at the boundaries”. New knowledge develops rapidly when ideas cross-pollinate and build something entirely new.

Yet cross pollination of ideas does not happen so easily. When you have trained all your life in one discipline, discovering promising ideas from other disciplines is in fact a very time-consuming process—and one with very uncertain outcomes.

It is no surprise then that cross pollination of ideas happens best when people across disciplines come together to collaborate. The problem is that knowledge and work in general is often organised around disciplines (or functions). Which means that you are far more likely to know people within your own discipline (or function) than others—unless of course you happen to get to meet them through chance encounters.

The kind you have when you happen to get to know the people who work around you because their offices are right next to yours. Or when you hold out the elevator door for someone and got talking.

And, this is even true when there are significant career gains at stake.

A study at MIT examining over 40,000 published papers and 2,350 patents between 2004 and 2014 found that cross discipline collaboration was strongly influenced by physical proximity. If your offices were close by, you were far more likely to strike up a conversation, and some of those conversations would eventually result in collaboration.

And these effects can be quite sharp. The same MIT study found that you were three times more likely to collaborate if you were located in the same working space compared to being within 400 meters of each other. At 800 meters apart, even this dropped by half.

Architects and workspace planners have of course known this for years. Physical spaces can very deliberately be designed to aid chance meetings and conversations. Special care can be given to how common spaces like the stairs, elevators, cafeteria are designed to influence interaction.

Outside of academia, this holds just as true.

I met the co-author of my book when she had come to my office to discuss how a psychometric instrument she was trained in might help strengthen our organisation's leadership program. We didn’t collaborate till many years later, but our first meeting was entirely by chance. Meeting people outside of our regular daily network is an important source of ideas and serendipity plays a big role here.

2020 has been a year of social distancing. For our own safety, we have stayed home and away from chance encounters. So will this also be a year when innovation slows down?

Well, a recent article by Oxford’s Future of Work Institute certainly seems to suggest this. While empirical evidence on this will only emerge over time, the large scale cancelling of conferences and other large meetings has reduced the possibilities of chance meetings. And while work has continued virtually, most meetings follow a familiar pattern of meeting with already established work partners.

The truth is—if you have to set up a Zoom call first, it greatly reduces the probability of accidentally meeting someone new.

But that is not all. Another source of slowing down innovation may come from a growing distance with the customer.

The Miami Business School has been tracking the response of organisations across many diverse industries through the lockdown. Research released just weeks ago reveals that as many as 74 percent of executives surveyed in August and September 2020, feel they understand the customer less today.

The far fewer opportunities for direct observation or deeper customer connect may be behind this. After all, when you can watch someone use your product, and talk to them informally, you learn things you would not even know to ask.

Many years back, I worked for an organization that made tractors. As part of the product familiarisation process I visited several villages in Punjab and met our customers. It is there that I realised that one popular use of tractors was for transporting sand from rivers.

To be able to do that well, a tractor needs to be able to climb uphill through slushy banks without getting stuck in the mud—all while pulling a large load of sand. This was something that our tractor was definitely not designed for, and yet this ability influenced purchase decisions. Today sand mining is illegal. But even back in the day, it is unlikely that a tractor owner would have offered up this information when asked about about the tractor's performance while sowing or harvesting. Even knowing what questions to ask requires a deeper understanding of a customer. And it is these kinds of insights that are tough to come by virtually.

It is no surprise then that trained design thinkers swear by observation as a rich source of understanding for innovation.

So will 2020 slow down future innovation? Well, we don’t know the answer for sure—at least as yet. But we do know that it is quite likely. And as offices haltingly return back to a hybrid model of working (part remote part face-to-face), understanding the dynamics behind innovation can inform the shape this takes.

Dr. Shalini Lal is the co-founder of Unqbe and works at the intersection of ‘people and organisations’ and ‘the future of work’. She has a PhD in organisational science from UCLA and has been a senior HR leader.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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