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Proximity Matters

In "The Truth About Open Offices," the December issue of HBR cites a 2008-2012 study of a major technology firm where "...remote workers communicated 80% less about their assignments than co-located team members did." As we continue our search for the holy grail of collaboration, agility and creativity, we employ psychologists, architects, positive behaviorists and motivational speakers. We move walls, raze doors, raise desks, sit on balls, stand in meetings, sit in meetings, stand at desks, eliminate meetings, repurpose phone booths for privacy, allow total privacy in the comfort of homes and so much more.

Changes in our external environment is important and sometimes signals a shift toward a more flexible culture, but as studies show, not enough of one. In my own experience, the most effective shifts are behavioral, break with organizational norms and integrated or (my preference), "wired" into the work.

In the same HBR issue, the authors of "Breaking the Barriers to Innovation" discuss "BEANs" (Behavior Enablers, Artifacts and Nudges) that they have found to be effective in breaking down counter-creative organizational habits. I love the BEAN acronym, and below I list 5 simple and effective nudges I've used over the years to break down, shake up, and get people comfortable being uncomfortable.

#1 "Plus One"

Ask Managers to bring a "plus one" to the next important Senior Leader meeting. This will likely be their right-hand or most trusted person. And if it isn't, that too is important information.

Benefits: See who your manager considers her/his MVP. Watch the dynamic - is this a "yes-person?" Watch them participate to find out what's going on "on the ground." This serves to provide visibility and motivation to the next-in-line.

#2 "Groupthink Guru"

This is a role assigned

to one team-member who will watch for signs of groupthink and challenge the group to expand beyond the current, potentially limiting set of views or solutions.

Benefits: "Wires" change capability into the group and allows individuals (especially if this is a rotating role) to practice challenging, reframing and facilitating skills.

#3 "Lunch Roulette"

Borrowing from Boehringer Igelheim, this activity can be facilitated by a company website, which randomly pairs employees for meals. Participants select a date and location and click a match me button.

Benefits: Obviously internal networking that is inter-departmental and cross-hierarchical can be quite valuable to the individuals and the organization. There will be nay-sayers, but not in truly forward thinking companies.

#4 "Perspective Taking"

This is a coaching exercise that does double-duty in any meeting as an ice breaker or a warm up. Ask an employee or a team to take the perspective of an individual (e.g. customer) or a team with distinctly different point of view from their own. Describe a situation, and ask them to take on the "other" persona. What are they seeing, feeling, saying, doing?

Benefits: Cracks open the dialog, enables creativity, collegiality, empathy. Sometimes can trigger fear and negative emotions too. Good facilitation is useful here (as everywhere).

#5 Max Mixes

Used in medium and large-scale meetings and town halls, a randomized "take-a-number" process, directs people from different areas to sit together and provides the opportunity to get a glimpse into each others work-lives and views.

Benefits: empathy, collaboration, perspective-taking.

There are BEANs for every organizational challenge and change initiative. They are often simple, experiential and shift perspectives and behaviors much more effectively than some costly efforts, which serve only to nod in the direction of innovation and creativity. Those aren't worth a hill of beans.


Cover image is of me in the '90s hashing it out with a team in Moscow



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