The Dyson model of innovation

#rugame screenshot
thanks to @mike_bogle for the screen cap

I was discussing the concept of ‘meetings’ (and why we persist in having them) yesterday with a colleague and subsequently on Twitter. While most people tend to think face-to-face interaction is valuable, that’s not the aspect of meetings I’m taking issue with. I’m talking content and process. Think about the last meeting you had. Chances are it consisted either of a number of people reporting on data/processes/news/whatever, or some kind of decision-making/planning. It most likely involved you sitting around a table with a number of others, most of whom are taking notes either on paper or in Word, and probably had an agenda and minutes (we won’t go into the spleen-venting session that was probably included as well). And if you’re anything like me, you were bored, frustrated or both.

This is where I think we’re going wrong. Bored and frustrated people don’t innovate. People won’t innovate when the model they are repeatedly asked to engage in is low-tech, inefficient and old-school. I suspect universities (extrapolate out as widely as you like) are inadvertently shooting themselves in the foot with their administrative and managerial processes. It’s the Dyson model of innovation – expecting innovation to take place in a vacuum.

Now, I won’t argue that reporting isn’t necessary (well, I might, but I understand the case that it’s not), but the internet is not a new invention and thus more efficient methods of reporting have been available for quite a number of years now. Why aren’t we saving the face-to-face interaction for the good stuff? The new ideas? Solving big problems creatively? Why aren’t we using administration to lead by innovative example?

I’m going to challenge the rule that meetings need to be routine, structured, minuted and mutually exclude the concept of fun. I think we can be doing this better. Simple changes in environment or structure could lead to big differences. Take the #rugame series that I’ve been attending – effectively, these are just monthly meetings, but with two key differences: they take place in Warcraft, and their goal is to discuss ideas. To the first point, consider how the environment influences thinking. First, there’s an element of intrigue bordering on naughtiness for logging into a game during work hours. Then, even though it’s just a bunch of people sitting around a table in a room, most of the ‘people’ aren’t human and have an impressive arsenal of armour and weapons. Some have brought pets like wolves, demons, bears, trees or ineffable manifestations of evil. People can interact with each other in all manner of interesting ways via emotes, and in this particular case (click to enlarge image) a dance party has been spontaneously called. Consider how all of this affects the mindset of attendees. It’s an environment much more conducive to curiousity, exploration and risk-taking.

To the second point, consider how the goal of the meeting influences thinking. The #rugame meetings are held purely to discuss new ideas – those that are already in practice, and those that arise from questions about what might be possible. At any time, anyone is free to ask ‘what if?’ without having to put it on the agenda and sit through reporting on figures first. The admin for these meetings is done before and after via a wiki, leaving the actual meeting as a dynamic discussion space.

Now, before you counter me with the obvious statement that Joe Normal academic is not going to pay to get WoW and bother rolling a toon and learning how to use it just to come to a meeting, I’m well aware of this. But a meeting doesn’t have to take place at the extreme end of alternative to make a difference – I’m willing to bet the last meeting you had over coffee in a cafe was more productive than the last one you had in a seminar room with an agenda. Maybe consider sharing something amusing or unusual (I’m not above pulling The Oatmeal up on a data projector in certain company) to break out of structured thinking. Provide fitballs instead of seats. Use Second Life instead of Connect/Wimba/etc. Anything that encourages people to think a little outside the box. The more we can start letting some air into the innovation vacuum we’ve created for ourselves, the better. Are you game?

EDITED TO ADD: I had meant to include @daveymelb‘s work in innovative learning spaces in this post – you can see it here. Love his Ideapaint project for redesigning meeting spaces.

2 Replies to “The Dyson model of innovation”

  1. How can I put this? You are showing your youth here, I think.

    At least, you are in that stage of your career where you are actually getting on and doing stuff yourself, with perhaps a few collaborators, and you probably only have a few different major things your are working on.

    But, to criticise all format meetings is like saying that all lectures are bad, just because you are imagining the most boring chalk-and-talk sessions. The lecture format is a powerful tool when used appropriately. Think TED talks, for example.

    So, like with all tools, you have to use them appropriately. And when you get to more innovative, doing-the-work sessions, rather than managing-the-work, then it is probably better to get away from the more formal agenda-and-minutes, site around a table and talk, kind of thing. Again drawing a parallel with education, you need different activities.

    However, the main purpose of a meeting is to bring together a group of people who would not necessarily meet, to have some worthwhile interaction. Before they meet, those people need to know that turning up will be worth their while, and have some reasonable expectations what will be expected of them during the time – that is, you need an agenda of some sort. If the meeting is at all worthwhile, then there should be some sort of meaningful outcome. If that outcome is of any value, it should probably be shared is some form. That is, you meed minutes.

    Finally, another blog post that helped me understand why other people need formal meetings even though I don’t often find them helpful:

  2. In my experience I have found that the ‘culture’ of a meeting is much more significant than the ‘environment’…

    I have been to meetings where the agenda is built around sharing information. One person telling, many listening. Rotate. This is a very poor use of collective intellect, and as you suggest can be done more effectively via email, wiki etc.

    I have been to other meetings (much less frequent sadly) where the focus is built around innovation. Often these have single item agendas, and value argument, evidence and consensus reaching. They make full use of the social capital available for the time set aside. In this case, ‘minutes’ cannot adequately make up for not being there.

    Also in my experience the latter is often found in organisations that prioritise continual improvement, whereas the former where quality assurance (and maintaining the status quo) is the underlying aim. So there may be bigger issues at large here.

    So I think what you suggest here is important, but could do with some refinement – you might find the idea of ‘culturally loose, managerially tight’ vs. ‘culturally tight, managerially loose’ organisations useful here.

    I do not agree with Tim that youth is to your disadvantage – you can see the problems with our inherited processes. And to your great credit you are not afraid to write about it.

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