Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s newest CEO, has been battered by a firestorm of sharp criticism since a leaked internal memo revealed her decision to ban telecommuting among her employees. I understand the concerns around workplace flexibility, but consider what is lost when employees work in isolation: “eureka moments.”
Launching a tech company and keeping it afloat in today’s hyper-competitive global market is like building a rowboat in the middle of the rollicking ocean. Trying to save a tech company that is flailing or failing, is even more difficult. “Impossible,” many would say.
Perhaps Yahoo!’s ship is salvageable, but not if its engineers and mechanics work apart. The problems they’ll encounter are unique. Virtual meetings with headsets and PowerPoint slides will be of little use. What IMs and online chats won’t do is lead to the type of casual discourse that enables the birth of truly creative solutions – and Yahoo! needs a lot of creative solutions right now.
As Mayer puts it, “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.” In other words, bringing people together in the same space allows happy accidents of innovation – or “serendipity.”
“Why can’t we all just meet in person a few times a month?” ask the critics.
Occasional “brainstorming” sessions don’t cut it. Steven Johnson, the best-selling author and Internet guru known for his explorations of the intersection of science, history, technology, and culture, backs this up in his seminal work, Where Good Ideas Come From: “One trouble with brainstorming is that it is finite in both time and space: a group gathers for an hour in a room, or for a daylong corporate retreat, they toss out a bunch of crazy ideas, and then the meeting disperses…too often the relevant hunches aren’t in sync with one another.” Or as organizational consultants Dave Allen and Matt Kingdon put it in the digital magazine, Think Quarterly, “Innovation is a contact sport.”
So when it comes to the ultra-challenging situation of a bloated, failing tech company, turn to the source of innovation – that thing that happens when people with unique and non-replicable brains come together (not apart) in random ways and figure out a problem. Those eureka moments are hard to force, but setting up the right environment can help coax them out. When they happen, they’re magical.
And if Yahoo! can be saved as a result? That will be pretty magical too.
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Brad Hoover joined Grammarly as CEO in 2011, with the goal of improving communication among the world’s 2 billion English writers. Connect with Brad, the Grammarly team, and more than 575,000 Grammarly Facebook fans here.
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