I walk our dog, Bella, two or three times a day. I enjoy it almost as much as she does. I’ve also found that walking a dog is a great way to meet people. (If only I had known when I was single). It’s nice to meet the neighbors. But what’s frightening is that we all think alike.
As Bill Bishop pointed out in The Big Sort, we’ve sorted ourselves out by political viewpoints. Republicans live in Republican neighborhoods and Democrats live with Democrats. We don’t mix and mingle much. When we meet people, we tend to hear things that confirm rather than challenge our views. We live in echo chambers. Tom Friedman calls these monocultures as opposed to polycultures.
Monocultures can make you crazy. If you only read and hear ideas that you agree with, you’ll only reinforce pre-existing connections in your brain. You won’t create new connections. From everything I’ve read, the brain thrives on connections. The more, the merrier. Tom Friedman writes that polycultures are much more sustainable than monocultures. I suspect that a polycultural brain is much healthier than a monocultural brain.
We also know that mashup thinking is one of the best ways to stimulate innovation. You take ideas from different boxes and mash them up. This is not out-of-the-box thinking. It’s multiple-box thinking. Take X-rays and mash them up with computer processing and you get CT scans. Take phones and mash them up with computers and you get smart phones. Take MTV and mash it up with cop shows and you get Miami Vice.
The more we have monocultures, the less we’ll have mashups. The more we talk to people just like ourselves, the fewer innovations we’ll have. It’s by putting different things – products or ideas – together that we get innovation. We all have partially formed ideas. Only by interacting with people who have complementary ideas can we develop bright new innovations. (I suspect this is why Apple recently hired Angela Ahrendts from Burberry).
Given all this, I’m constantly amazed that companies deliberately create monocultures throughout their facilities. Engineers sit with engineers. Finance folks sit with finance folks. Marketers sit with marketers. Each little zone is a monoculture. People with the same outlook, backgrounds, education, and conditioning sit together. They don’t talk to people with complementary ideas. They talk to people with the same ideas.
If you want to stimulate innovation in your company, mix it up a bit. Even a random seating chart is probably better than a department-by-department arrangement. Group people with different interests and backgrounds together. Then change it every now and then to establish new patterns and innovative connections. Just remember, where you stand depends on where you sit.