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In 15th century Florence, the House of Medici had become one of the most powerful ruling dynasties in Europe. History looks back at the Medicis as having ushered an era of peace and stability into an otherwise volatile region. And yet everything they achieved politically was least among their successes. Outside of their public affairs, the Medicis were patrons of the arts and sciences. They sponsored people from all fields and disciplines to pursue their craft in Florence. For many in the Medici family, this was their passion project writ large. But little did they realize that by bringing a cross-section of artisans together and affording them the independence to create without precept or expectation, the Medicis would contribute to one of the most creative periods in human history: the Renaissance.

This story is instructive for two reasons. First, it reminds us that our beliefs, values, and ideas are innate. Whether we’re a 15th century sculptor moving from Venice to Florence or a 21st century company moving from Vancouver to Fort Worth, everything we know and believe travels with us. Second, under the right set of conditions—whether in a city or an office—our ideas can give birth to something even bigger and more consequential. As the Medicis demonstrated, when we break down barriers, improve accessibility to other people, and build a permission structure that values individual autonomy over prescription, we can unleash a groundswell of new thinking and expression. 

It’s from this story that management consultant and author Frans Johansson coined the term “The Medici Effect.” Johansson argues that while the Medicis never intentionally aimed to usher in the Renaissance, they established that breakthroughs can be achieved when you foster an environment that allows for seemingly unrelated ideas to mingle. Johansson’s theory is rooted in a notion he calls, “intersectional thinking.” It’s the belief that when you allow people from different disciplines and backgrounds to intersect, you increase the likelihood of growing everyday ideas into extraordinary ones.

These “happy accidents,” as they’re often called, occur all the time. The problem, however, is that we initially attribute success to logic and reason. “Our mind abhors these serendipitous explanations, and searches for convenient patterns instead,” says Johansson. “Ask for the keys to career success and you’ll get logical explanations, recommendations, pathways and approaches. Then ask someone how he or she became successful and suddenly it becomes a story of serendipitous encounters, unexpected changes in plans, and random consequences.” 

 

 

 

BREAKTHROUGHS CAN BE ACHIEVED WHEN YOU FOSTER AN ENVIRONMENT THAT ALLOWS FOR SEEMINGLY UNRELATED IDEAS TO MINGLE.

 

 

Steven Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From,” cautions that we are quick to attribute big ideas to a singular instance of clarity—a “eureka!” moment—when in fact, “a lot of great ideas linger on, sometimes for decades, in the back of people’s minds.” Johnson argues that ideas compound and require spaces like the 17th century English coffeehouses, “where you have lots of different ideas (coming) together; different backgrounds, different interests, jostling with each other, bouncing off each other.” Much in the way the Medicis helped cultivate the Renaissance, English coffeehouses were instrumental in bringing about the Age of Enlightenment. It was the coffeehouse’s communal nature and open architecture that nurtured the exchange of ideas. But arguably, even more important than acknowledging architecture’s role was a growing realization that “we take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffee shop, and we stitch them together into new forms and we create something new.”

When we accept that ideas thrive in the company of other ideas, we can begin to address how space can best support those interactions. It’s one thing to run a coffeehouse; it’s another to run a company with employees sprawled across building wings and floors. Steve Jobs understood this when he set out to design Pixar’s offices. 

“If a building doesn’t encourage (unplanned collaborations), you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.” John Lasseter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, immediately experienced what Jobs was aiming to create. “Steve’s theory worked from day one. I kept running into people I hadn’t seen for months. I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”

What Pixar was able to nurture is what author Matt Ridley provocatively calls, “when ideas have sex.” Ridley makes the persuasive case that humans and, by extension, the cultures they create, are built on exchange.

The exchange of ideas, he asserts, is a uniquely human characteristic, and is ultimately what allows cultures to thrive. By way of example, Ridley points to Tasmania, which, due to rising sea levels, became an island 10,000 years ago, completely cut off from Australia. “The people on it not only experienced slower progress than people on the mainland, they actually experienced regress.” Now, 10,000 years later, research is reaffirming that whether we’re discussing the geography of a landmass or the layout of an office space, continuous human contact and the transacting of information are vitally important to progress.

In a series of experiments conducted by Dr. Alex Pentland and his team at MIT’s Media Lab, office workers were equipped with electronic badges to capture information about their communication, ranging from body language and vocal tones to which colleagues they interacted with and how often. What they found was that communication was the most important predictor of team success, more than intelligence, personality, skill, and substance of the discussions combined.

That last factor—substance—is particularly interesting. The researchers found that idle chatter, even benign conversations about the weather, increased productivity. Dr. Pentland explains: “When you’re chatting with others, you see people’s reactions to things—how other people live their lives and how seriously they take this sort of thing and how seriously they take that sort of thing. What you’re learning implicitly and tacitly from chatting is how to manage your life in job situations. Part of that is about actual job issues, but a lot of it is about your attitude toward the job and your attitude toward other people.”

This line of thinking is challenging the gospel of modern management. The problem, Dr. Pentland argues, is that management literature assumes that humans are isolated and rational beings, when in reality, they are imperfect and, by nature, social, finely attuned to the nuanced moods and attitudes around them. In theory, highly structured and regimented workplaces are potentially undermining what would make their employees more productive and their companies even more successful. “It’s a bad thing to keep people chained to their desks because they’re actually out collecting information…people with different perspectives should sit near each other and work together.”

Dr. Pentland’s work is part of a chorus of thinking that is changing how we design at the intersection of people, culture, and space. Management and Organizational Behavior experts Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks have shown that the most effective spaces bring people together and remove barriers. Their studies on the impact of proximity draw on the work of Professor Thomas Allen, and the eponymously named Allen Curve. The Allen Curve shows that human interactions decline exponentially as the distance between workspaces increases. Allen demonstrated that beyond physical proximity, “functional centrality” to such things as entrances, restrooms, and coffee machines, proved most consequential.

To create conditions ripe for disseminating, exchanging, and growing ideas, Allen proposed creating spaces designed around shared resources that would attract people from across the office.

 

 

 

IT’S NOT ENOUGH TO JUST CREATE A SPACE—MANAGEMENT NEEDS TO EMPOWER EMPLOYEES TO USE IT.

 

 

Fayard and Weeks also highlight the importance of a permission structure. If a culture sets norms for behavior, “people generally deem a space to be a comfortable, natural place to interact only if company culture, reinforced by management, designates it as such.” Fayard and Weeks make the case that it’s not enough to just create a space—management needs to empower employees to use it. Human Resources expert Jeanne Meister suggests that to create such an environment requires management to recognize that employees each have unique needs from their workplace. By providing a culture of choice, it allows “employees to decide where they want to work in the office each day, be it a collaborative space or a focused, quiet place.” This marks a shift away from standardization, which defined the old way of space planning. Ironically, as the office has become more social, the experience for each employee is becoming even more personalized.

Throughout history, there are few constants. Among them: humans are innately different, yet uniquely connected by a common social fabric; and, ideas are innately human yet have no formal structure that connects them together. This incongruence is in part because we haven’t created the right environment for ideas—and the cultures from which they originate—to thrive. Much like a young seedling, culture needs to be nurtured. It needs the right conditions to grow and the ideal environment to propagate. It’s when things cross-pollinate that we begin to realize that the power of our culture is bigger than the sum of its parts.

These are the happy accidents we seek, but there’s no reason why they should be purely accidental. When we make an effort to break down barriers, improve accessibility to other perspectives, and create permission structures that value personal autonomy, accidental anomalies become intentional norms.

 

 

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