The Proximity Principle: Innovation, Face-to-Face

Sometimes, simple things can have amazing results.

The best instigators of creative innovation have understood a simple, fundamental principle. Bring together a group of well disposed, talented, diverse and yet, in some ways, like-minded people -- between two and twenty, ideally -- put them in an environment where they can focus, pose them a problem that requires a highly creative solution, and then encourage their candid and free-flowing interaction over the issue. The high level activity that can result from this can be thought of as a collective form of concentration or a meshing of minds in real-time and space.

There's something simple and yet deep about this distinctive process. You can't replicate the elevation of thought that can emerge in such a group by any means other than the give and take of face-to-face conversation. You can't do it by email, e-chat, text messages, or conference calls. It won't work the same way with Skype or any other sophisticated video and audio conferencing service. These are all greatly useful supporting tools. But the best cauldrons of creativity require physical proximity, face-to-face. That's why meetings, done well, can be the engines of innovation.

Of course, many forms of creative collaboration can take place through any means of communication. And the more complete and instant the communication channel is, the better the results will typically be. But there's a special phenomenon of thought that can arise only when people are physically present with each other, spiritually attuned, and mentally engaged with a shared focus.

You can't pack a bunch of obnoxious jerks into a room and expect great results. The proximity principle requires that the people involved, or at least as many of them as possible, share some important common values, attitudes, and emotional dispositions. Experience and intellect normally help. Shared commitments certainly can drive the process. But differences come into play in vital ways as well.

In too many organizational contexts, people tend to cluster exclusively in functional teams, and by selective affinities. We gravitate toward what makes us comfortable. And yet, that's a formula for mediocrity, which hardly makes any person who cares comfortable at all.

More companies than ever are encouraging people to get to know their colleagues across functions, in other parts of the organization, and with very different skill sets. Steve Jobs famously insisted on designing office layouts so that people would run into each other during an average workday, and meet others in the company they might not know, in settings that could facilitate a moment of pause and conversation. This tactic to allow the proximity principle to work informally as well as formally then spread to many other tech companies. As people across industries have learned, architecture and office design can either help or hurt innovation in an organization.

This is what makes sense of Yahoo's recent and publicly controversial ban on people working regularly from home, requiring them instead to come into a shared office space. William Powers, author of the book Hamlet's Blackberry, a powerful guide on how to keep our communication devices from ruling our lives, recently told me about a successful business he helped launch in the Boston area that has subsequently been bought by Twitter. He said, "Last year I collaborated on a technology project with a Cambridge, Mass. start-up called Bluefin Labs. I tried many times to organize my team so we could work together remotely, using Skype, conference calls, Gmail chat and other means. It never worked, not for the creative stuff that really mattered. We had to be physically together for the magic to happen. So most weekdays, I did a five-hour round-trip commute from my home to Cambridge. It was arduous but necessary."

The real magic requires physical proximity. An op-ed in the New York Times this week called "Engineering Serendipity" described how even basic productivity can be enhanced by the chance conversations and expanded social networks that result from people sitting at larger tables in a company cafeteria during lunch times. Proximity pays off.

The philosophical background for this is simple. The fact that we are beings with bodies is no accidental feature of our existence in the world. Even for the most distinctively mental of activities, the full particulars of embodiment need to be respected. Bodily propinquity creates a matrix for creative thinking that's unique. Physical presence has no substitute. There's an engagement and an energy arising from the most basic form of personal proximity that can't be produced in any other way.

Socrates philosophized on the streets of Athens and at dinner parties with other individuals and groups of people, rather than just retreating into an isolated place where he could have enjoyed quiet solitude and uninterrupted time to think. As his example proved, face-to-face conversations can be educational, disruptive, surprising, and enlightening.

It's no coincidence that the greatest flourishing of philosophical thought in Western history was to be found there in ancient Greece where many creative thinkers knew each other personally and talked together, daily, in person. The renaissance artists of Florence and the impressionist painters of France provided other vivid examples of this. So did the Royal Society in England, with its far-reaching group impact that basically launched much of early modern science. The Founding Fathers of America produced new and powerful political innovation that's simply unparalleled in history, and the ways they challenged, stimulated, and encouraged each other in person mattered. A further example of this phenomenon would be the array of painters, sculptors, and writers in Paris between the late nineteenth century and the Second World War. Consider as well the historic breakthroughs of the physicists who lived and worked together at Los Alamos. The hotbed of creativity in Silicon Valley is another storied example. Many more such cases could be cited.

Camaraderie, fellowship, friendly association, and the conversation made possible by physical presence can cause something to happen that can't be replicated by individuals working in isolation and thinking within the confines of their own minds. We certainly need private time, quiet time, alone time. A measure of solitude can feed the soul. But without lively face-to-face interaction as well, the greatest things don't happen.

There is an old and often cited proverb: As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another -- and, of course this is a process never confined by gender or race or age. The results of this principle can be seen in the best sporting teams, military units, neighborhoods, and in families. It can be found in creative, progressive businesses, and in the various professions. A proper form of interpersonal stimulation leads to a greater level of excellence through what we might think of as combinatorial creativity.

Conversations that take place, even in casual settings, can spark major creative leaps and novel, important innovations. The same interaction can also, at the same time, generate the inspiration or motivation to put those ideas into action, along with providing what is then the sort of network of partnerships that alone can help bring great new things into the world.

So, talk to someone new today. Go to a meeting with a new attitude. Hang out with a colleague for a bit and ask what he or she might be working on or thinking about recently. Orchestrate some get-togethers. Take advantage of the powerful possibilities of proximity.