Anybody want to connect?
Making connections is the basis of creativity and innovation. It’s very rare that somebody comes up with a full-blown idea on their own. Instead, they master a domain and then extend it. They learn a paradigm and then change it. They make the connection between this idea and that one. They put two and two together.
So, how do you actually make connections? I think of it as a three-level problem. First, we make new connections within our own brains. Second, we connect with other people who are more or less like us. Third, we need to expand our horizons and connect with people who aren’t like us. Here are some practical tips for each level.
In our own brains — as numerous authors have pointed out, the brain is plastic. It can change itself and enrich itself even after it stops growing. Can we teach our brains to make new connections? You betcha:
- Read things (or watch things) that you disagree with. If you only read authors who agree with your political or philosophical bent, you’re only reinforcing existing connections. Reading authors you disagree with will help you establish new connections.
- Use you non-dominant hand more often — connect to your “other” side.
- Study a foreign language — we think with words. Learn some new words and you’ll learn to think differently.
- Play games that exercise your brain — try bridge or crossword puzzles or sudoku. They all require you to see things differently and remember things accurately.
Other people like us — let’s take the context of a company’s headquarters building. How do you build connections between employees? We’re all familiar with team-building exercises. Let’s look at a few less obvious ways to connect:
- Reduce the number of coffee stations — get people to congregate at central locations. As they bump into each other, they’ll talk to each other, too.
- Reduce the number of bathrooms — same idea, get people to congregate in central locations.
- Design physical spaces that get people to carom off each other — look at the old Bell Labs architecture. Long, narrow hallways with offices arrayed along them. Step out of your office and you’re on a highway full of people. It’s hard not to bump into somebody.
- Book clubs — sponsor a book of the month club for all employees. Hint: don’t just do business books. Range farther afield into history, sociology, fiction, and so on.
Other people not like us — who is not like us? Well, if I’m in the accounting department, then sales people are not like me. Making connections with sales people might just lead to great new ideas. I see a lot of team building within departments (a team retreat for the marketing department, for instance) but not so much between departments. Here are a few ideas:
- Random seating — why is it important for accountants to sit with accountants and engineers to sit with engineers? Randomize things so that people sit by people who are different.
- Onboarding programs — help new employees make contacts across the company; not just in their own department. Early connections last a long time.
- Team building with other departments — emphasize collaboration rather than competitions. Form coss-departmental teams or go on retreats together. Get people to know each other.
- Travel more — face-to-face meetings are the best way to get to know people, especially people who are different from you.
- Connect with customers — develop programs that require your employees to work with your customers. Make the effort to bridge the gap.