Remember when it was possible to get lost? Global positioning systems (GPS) and satellite-based navigation tools have rendered losing one’s way an anachronism. Something is lost, though, in the inability to get lost. And that something is serendipity.
So what’s wrong with that? And what does this have to do with collaboration? Travel involves some structure. You may know approximate departure and arrival times. You may have an idea where you’re going and even some sort of a plan. Like travel, collaboration involves some structure. Balancing structure with serendipity is necessary to creating collaborative value.
Adopting a structure that lets team members use creativity and collective brain power nets far better results than dictating their moves. Instructing collaborators each step of the way as GPS instructs navigators falls flat. When people get lost, they may discover something new or find a different way to get back on course. They may also determine there are several paths and that options exist.
Stopping and asking for directions lets us engage people rather than devices. Some months ago, a colleague who is a geographer and I tried an experiment while driving in France. We knew where we were going and we had some sense of how to get there. We skipped GPS and used no maps. Instead, when we veered off course, we stopped and asked directions. My colleague studied GPS in graduate school, but she realizes the technology’s limitations. She equates the “turn left, turn right” approach with command and control. Instead, she prefers to wander and discover new things. We lost our way a time or two with interesting results.
In one case, a Frenchman retorted “Don’t you have GPS?” In another instance, we stopped at a small- town bar and asked the imbibers for directions. They motioned us to sit down and have a drink, which we did. And they engaged us in a conversation about the differences between small-town and urban culture in France before getting us back on course. This serendipitous encounter connected us with people and ideas in a way that using GPS could never have accomplished. Like collaboration, our encounter offered a richer experience as other perspectives entered the mix.
The electronic mapping craze is now going indoors. I know a furrier in a mid-sized Midwestern city who keeps getting requests from Google to map the interior of his business. Security is a major concern considering the value of his inventory which includes exotic mink and other fur coats, and he has zero desire to publicize the layout of his store. Best I can tell, no banks have yet provided floor plans to Google.
The downside of never needing to ask for directions is that our lives and our travels become overly planned and controlled with little room for chance. This mirrors the struggles of organizations striving to become collaborative while their structures hold them back. Enabling serendipity is a key element in adopting a collaborative organizational structure. In command-and-control organizations, formality eclipses serendipity. It’s as if everything is scripted. Organizations on a collaborative path design physical and virtual work spaces with chance encounters in mind, as The Bounty Effect: 7 Steps to The Culture of Collaboration book details.
I live in San Francisco where many people ride company buses to work in Silicon Valley. In the morning, they board buses on which Wi-Fi and other amenities are provided. At work, food is available in free campus restaurants and canteens. Haircuts and dry cleaning services are also available. They ride the bus back in the evening. The idea is that without having to think about transportation, food and other services, team members can focus on innovation at work. The problem is that without having to deal with many of life’s necessities, people can become less resourceful. Work days become too scripted leaving little to chance. The lack of opportunity to “get lost” can interfere with progress.
Spontaneity breaks down barriers and silos among levels, roles and regions. A chance encounter with a colleague in another function or business unit may spark an idea for a process improvement or a new product. If our time and movements throughout the work day are overly planned, we lose the opportunity to engage colleagues on the fly.
GPS and satellite-based navigation technology have made the world smaller, but we must make sure that these tools and overly-controlled environments have not made our worlds smaller by preventing the serendipity and spontaneity necessary for travel and collaboration.