Secrets of a collaborative, creative culture

Want your employees to generate great ideas together? Try hooking your coffee machines up to a network. At least, that’s one of the insights John Seely Brown shared in a speech on creativity at the University of Southern California earlier this year.

Brown, who is the former director of Xerox’s famously creative Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), former chief scientist at Xerox and now a visiting scholar at USC, explained that, at PARC in the early 1970s, all the coffee machines in the building were connected via the Ethernet networking technology that had been invented there. An announcement would automatically go out over the network every time someone made fresh coffee, and employees would congregate at the appropriate coffee pot ” where PARC had installed floor-to-ceiling whiteboards and couches, to encourage collaboration.

In his slides, Brown identified a variety of practices important to the “soft stuff” of creating a culture conducive to innovation at PARC. Here’s his list:

  • “subsidized and great cafeteria
  • cross disciplinary teams nearly always
  • long lunch tables — so disciplines ate with each other
  • wall to wall whiteboards near all the coffee machines
  • coffee machines on ether net
  • labs never larger than 60 people, usually 45.
  • heavy use of intern program for hiring
  • High rate of failure expected.
  • Never micro managed.
  • Big audacious projects the norm ” 15 folks or more for multi years
  • Craft folk appreciated as much as researchers. (treated the same)”

While some of the items on Brown’s list are specific to that time and place, what’s striking is the emphasis on practices that break down barriers between employees ” and that focus on physical issues like building layout, food and coffee as ways of building community.

In other words, you don’t actually have to network your coffeepots to learn from an organization that did.

Related link: John Seely Brown in MIT Sloan Management Review on Creativity vs. Structure: A Useful Tension