Is Innovation Easier from Home?

Innovation often results from a balance of solitary creativity and in-person collaboration.

The thinking that is required to be innovative can be easier in a quiet environment. The open-plan office, which was becoming the norm prior to the pandemic, does not have quiet as its hallmark. For that reason, I wonder whether we will find that an increase in innovation occurred during the months most office employees spent at home to avoid COVID-19.

There is another school of thought—one that may be much more dominant—that innovation is easier when collaboration is easier. That mindset is shared by Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, according to a recent piece by Apple Holic in Computerworld. Cook believes a hybrid workplace, in which some in-office time will be required, is what works best: “My gut says that, for us, it’s still very important to physically be in touch with one another because collaboration isn’t always a planned activity,” Cook explained. And from another part of Holic’s piece: “Innovation isn’t always a planned activity. It’s bumping into each other over the course of the day and advancing an idea you just had. And you really need to be together to do that.”

Those two statements are interesting because, taken together, there is a suggestion that innovation is a collaborative process. But is it? I wonder if it might not better to ask a few of your most gifted employees to come up with ideas on their own and then seeing which is best. Or seeing if there is a way to take the best of each of their ideas and combine those characteristics into one superior product. The advantage of individuals innovating in private, without knowledge of what their colleagues are doing, is a greater diversity of new ideas. There also is an advantage in solitary work of people being able to follow their creative thoughts out fully without being cancelled or cut short by colleagues who don’t understand or like the idea. Their colleagues might be right about the shortcomings of the idea, but isn’t it better for the employee to pursue their idea to the fullest, bringing the manager the fully developed thought and vision? The manager then can be the one to decide the concept doesn’t have merit or whether the concept has one or two, or more characteristics, that can be salvaged and used to improve one of the employee’s colleague’s ideas.

When people spend significant time together, whether online or in-person, their ideas tend to start mirroring each other, similar to the way a group of people who are in the same family or social group often dress alike. There is a value in not going overboard in encouraging collaborative work. You may find that, rather than inspiring innovation, the time together has inspired group think.

With hybrid work models touted as the new standard when people return to offices, companies have an opportunity to make the best of two worlds—individuals coming up with ideas on their own in the quiet of their home or another environment where they can carve out solitary time and groups of people bouncing ideas off each other in-person in a collaborative atmosphere. You have the chance to ask employees to do the initial work of innovation themselves, bringing to the cooperative, in-person environment a fully formed concept to present to the manager and peers. The manager and peers then can ask questions and find ways to optimize the best features of all their ideas.

Meetings could work in a similar way. The manager could e-mail or text employees the goal of the meeting—a question that needs to be answered or a challenge that needs to be solved—and then ask each participant, on their own, to come up with an idea and brief presentation for the meeting. Then, taking turns, each person would have a chance to present their idea, including a question-and-answer session after each presentation. After the meeting, the manager can evaluate all of the fully thought-out and presented ideas, choosing the best one or combination of all the ideas. Or meeting participants can be asked to vote for their favorite idea by e-mailing the manager after the meeting. If you ask meeting participants to raise hands to show which they like best, or go around the room asking for opinions, you risk sliding back into group think. Each person will look to the way the other people responded to decide how to respond themselves.

Innovation requires a balance of solitary and in-person time. How will your company take the lessons it has learned about facilitating remote work to harness the power of both ways of working?

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November / December 2020

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