Chance meetings, asynchronous collaboration and Innovation


Putting people in the same room doesn't necessarily spur innovation. Remote and asynchronous collaboration do work and can lead to great discoveries

In a tweet posted this week, Y Combinator’s founder (and one of Silicon Valley’s most respected thinkers) Paul Graham was regretting that “one of the biggest things lost in remote work [was] chance meetings. These are very important, but hard to quantify.” Reuniting coworkers under the same roof to increase collaboration and creativity had been one of the main drivers behind the spur of open offices, co-working spaces and startup incubators. Even the great Steve Jobs’ last act was to design Apple’s headquarters to maximise opportunities for creativity and collaboration. But what if chance meetings and open spaces just gave the illusion of collaboration and actually slowed down innovation? At least that’s what I think. Let me explain.

The science behind office design?

I’m never the last one to pull out research papers when arguing an opinion. But even scientific papers can be misleading. For example, a 2012 study at the University of Michigan found that researchers in the same building were 33 per cent more likely to collaborate than coworkers who occupy different buildings, and net of the distance between their offices, for every 30 meters of zonal overlap, collaborations increased by 20 per cent. Impressive? Not so fast.

Nowhere in the study, you find a definition for collaborative activities, nor measurement of the collaboration output. Do 2-hour meetings with no tangible outcome count as collaboration? It would seem so since meetings have actually increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, to the point where executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s. And to which end? In a survey of 182 senior managers, 65% said meetings kept them from completing their own work and 71% said meetings are unproductive. But what about the fact that people in the same room can ask each other questions and help each other? Well, not that simple.

The elephant in the room

One ritual I’ve had with both team members and startup founders (at EPITA startup incubator) is something I called the weekly review. Each week, everyone had to share their success and challenge of the week to everyone, even if they didn’t work on the same project (like in the startup incubator case). Well, almost 100% of the time, when someone shared a challenge, someone else in the room had a tangible solution to offer. But if it wasn’t for the weekly review, none of them would have actually asked the question to their roommates.

So it would actually seem that having an effective collaboration process is more important than whether or not people working together are in the same room or are engaged in synchronous communication. Take for example open-source projects. Researchers from Kyoto University Graduate School of Informatics tried to understand how open source projects compete with those developed by software firms, while their contributors rarely meet. Their findings suggest that spontaneous work coordinated afterwards is effective and rational culture helps achieve agreement among members.

Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time

Software company Basecamp is also a big believer in asynchronous coordination. Replying to Paul Graham’s tweet, Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried disagrees with both the stated value (of chance meetings) and the fact that they have to happen in real life.

At Basecamp, collaboration happens most of the time asynchronously and remotely (most employees are remote). Someone comes up with an idea, writes down a detailed document, shares it online with colleagues and waits for comments and reviews. Each reviewer is given time for deep thinking before answering. This behaviour is the complete opposite of the general tendency of having brainstorming sessions and quick workshops to spur innovation. A meta-analytic review of over 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others. Brainstorming is particularly likely to harm productivity in large teams when teams are closely supervised, and when performance is oral rather than written.

So maybe, instead of missing out chance physical meetings, this year’s lockdown period encouraged people to start collaborating remotely and asynchronously. A bit like intellectuals who debated theories by exchanging letters for centuries. Exchanges that ended up being the foundation for many breakthroughs, including the age of enlightenment itself.

In summary

  • Open offices, co-working spaces and incubators give the illusion of collaboration but mainly result in more meetings, with no proof of their impact on creativity
  • Having an efficient collaboration process is more important than just putting people in the same room
  • Spontaneity and collaboration can happen online, like in open source projects

Additional resources

If you’re interested to get more content about collaboration and creativity, I recommend the following resources:

📖 The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices- a book on the MIT Media Lab and how putting together scientists from different disciplines in the same building led to the creation of great inventions (so the contrary of my theory 😅)

📄 Balancing “We” and “Me”: The Best Collaborative Spaces Also Support Solitude- a Harvard Business Review article by Christine Congdon, Donna Flynn and Melanie Redman

📼 How to Successfully Manage a Remote Team- an interview of Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried by Inc.