Ties That Bind and Release Innovation

Networks are largely irrelevant to humans unless you look at the strength and quality of the ties within them

Technology is allowing us to connect in ways that were once unthinkable. While tech tools afford us a means to keep safe and productive while we work remotely, the implications for what kind of productivity this means are far less certain.

A report from Drew Pearce at Dropbox outlined findings from a recent survey on the effects of remote work that found, among other things:

  • Workers miss connecting with colleagues in-person
  • Brainstorming ideas was more difficult

The specific items that generated these findings and the responses are profiled below.

https://blog.dropbox.com/topics/work-culture/what-remote-work-is-missing
https://blog.dropbox.com/topics/work-culture/what-remote-work-is-missing

Technology and culture writer Stowe Boyd makes the case that much of the software tools designed to support remote work — this kind of connection + brainstorming — misses the mark while drawing on some of the early research on networks and the concept of ‘weak ties’. I agree, but not entirely for same reason.

What links these together isn’t just people and technology, but culture. And its that missing ingredient that may shape how we innovate for the months and years to come.

Culture Creation & Innovation (Part 1: The Tools and Tech)

A colloquial definition of culture is: “the way things are done around here.

If we use that as our start, we’ll see that remote work is already changing that in mediating the experience of communication, sharing, and generating new ideas. While visual brainstorming tools such as Miro, Mural and Milanote or now Lucidspark all provide means to work synchronously and share or ‘post’ ideas up on a virtual whiteboard, it’s not the same as in person and not because of the act of putting an idea on some form of ‘sticky’ or board, but because of timing, cadence, and rhythm. These are invisible, yet powerful drivers of culture.

Brainstorming has been widely criticized for producing a type of premature convergence: the early ideas get the most attention. They also favour a certain personality and thinking style: those who are confident, outspoken, comfortable with putting ideas out into a group, and also quick-on-their-feet. This immediately favours men, those with the highest rank or profile in the room, and extroverts.

One way to circumvent this is to provide people with time and space to think about ideas. Another is to allow people to build on, re-shape, add and re-organize ideas (which is why sticky notes are so useful for this activity). These take time and the ability to look at ideas in space. Both of these are substantially curtailed when we shift to online tools. A sharing screen might be up for people to contribute for a limited time and then gone as the group switches back to a Zoom or some other medium.

OR, we need to keep these screens up on different physical screens (e.g., multiple monitors) . This means people must have the tools, be able to attend to multiple screens simultaneously and work within the allotted timeframe. Add in Zoom fatigue and the challenge with taking movement breakswhich are possible, but more awkward and logistically challenging remotely – and we have introduced a set of physical, psychological, and cultural barriers to developing ideas and collaborating.

The timing, cadence, and rhythm of creating, sharing, and discussing is completely thrown off.

Culture Creation & Innovation (Part 2: The Humans)

As we repeat these processes over time what we start to find ourselves doing is create a form of path dependence and locking in certain tools and ways of working. This is likely a combined effect of familiarity, sunk costs (we already paid for a license, spent time learning the tools) and the resulting expediency it creates.

Other tools — more physical tools that benefit from interaction — like LEGO, Play Dough, and markers are now left aside.

Taken together we have a set of tools and technologies that are limited to a specific kind of interaction to the detriment of others and a culture around using those tools and producing certain kinds of ideas from that use.

What you will get is a certain kind of innovation and that will be limited. The ability to expand perception, see alternatives, and explore new avenues is essential to building empathy and ensuring the ideas we generate are not only possible, but plausible. It can also be argued that they are more likely to produce solutions that avoid ethical gaps.

What we are doing is shaping a design culture with our tools and through our technologies. The solution — save from just coming back together face-to-face which, in a time of pandemic, is not practical – is to create a more critical culture of innovation design and look beyond the tools. It’s about a human-centred approach to the design of organizations and innovation in the age of working remotely.

For example, spend the time and focus energy on ways to creatively address the issues like the ones raised above. How do we bring people together in ways that allow meaningful, human engagement within the constraints posed by physical distance? How might we use physical tools in a manner that can fit with technological ones to generate ideas, support collaboration, and build community? How might we lead by example and shape a culture of collaborative design that is independent of the tools we use?

These questions are starters. Where we end up is something that can either be a set of ideas stuck on a virtual whiteboard or something different.

There are no single answers to this problem, but there are strategies to build a design culture that can support and sustain creative thinking, design, and implementation. If you’re looking for these and need help, I can help.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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