#HireFriday: How collisions and culture create innovation

One of the most difficult things to explain about why a company is a great place to work is that defining company culture to outsiders is nearly impossible. A company’s culture is almost 100% inside baseball, meaning it’s made up of all of the inside jokes and all of the shared experiences that the company has.¬†However, one of the ways outsiders can judge a company’s culture is by how much support that culture is given to grow and flourish.

In his latest book CTRL-ALT-Delete, Mitch Joel talks about serendipity and how innovation happens. Mitch’s expression is collisions – the number of random interactions that you have per day with people at work. The more collisions you have, the more likely you are to have those hallway conversations that generate discussions, ideas, and inspiration.

Logically, it follows that fostering as many of those collisions during the workday as possible would be the greatest way to create fertile ground for innovation and inspiration. The catch is that collisions have to be baked into the infrastructure and operation of the company as much as possible. For example, Steve Jobs spent an inordinate amount of time designing Apple’s newest headquarters building in Cupertino to encourage as many random passages in hallways as possible, centrally locating many resources to force people to walk outside of their peer groups and work groups.

Here’s a simple test you can use to judge how well your corporate environment fosters collisions, assuming you have more than one employee. On your smartphone, on a notepad, or in any way you can remember, record the number of casual face-to-face conversations, one-to-one phone calls, or one-to-one digital conversations you have with other employees that are NOT scheduled meetings in any given week. If you’re a company that fosters collisions, chances are this number is 20 or higher, meaning that on average, you have an informal collision every couple of hours. If you’re clocking 5 or fewer collisions a week, chances are you have an innovation problem in the making.

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At SHIFT, we’ve invested a lot of time and resources creating environments favorable for collisions, from simple things like office coffee machines in our kitchens to couch rooms and dining room tables for more casual meetings to frequent, all-invited brainstorms. Here are just three examples, ideas you can implement at your company.

Year-round paid internships. We offer paid internships throughout the year (fall, summer, et. al.) and interns get a chance to work with multiple teams on multiple assignments. For those interns who are a good fit (and an opportunity is available), they stay on as full team members but with the vision and experience of having worked with many teams. This helps them begin their careers with the biggest picture possible. Build your teams with people who expect and thrive in a collision-rich environment, and they’ll continue to foster it and expect it as they grow their careers. (did we mention we’re hiring?)

The Bio Book. Each new employee is asked to contribute a one-page summary of what their new team members should know about them besides their basic work history in what’s called our Bio Book. Often, this results in fascinating, humorous discussions with coworkers about shared interests or things you didn’t expect at all. For example, one of our team members owned and taught at a Pilates studio. Another is a flamenco guitarist. Yet another speaks fluent Polish. All of these random facts are stored in both a bound compendium and are searchable online – and they come in handy much more often than you’d expect.

Salesforce Chatter. (disclosure: they’re a client) Having three offices that are geographically distant can make interoffice collaboration difficult and collisions nearly impossible unless you have a single view of the organization, which is the role that Chatter fulfills for us. Early on, SHIFT made the corporate decision that silly stuff like memes, in-jokes, and other less productive stuff should be moved to Chatter along with real business, but that we would encourage frivolous as well as serious use. As a result, it’s become the digital water cooler for the company, a place where team members want to be. In addition to being a source of levity, Chatter fosters collisions, from interoffice brainstorms to assisting each other with proofreading, contacts, and much more.

Obviously, there are far more than just a few items that create a corporate culture of collision and collaboration, and fostering an environment of collisions requires unanimous and unambiguous leadership support. However, if you’ve already got a friendly, tolerant corporate culture that encourages lots of hallway conversations, adding in these few mechanisms could be what helps you break through to a new level of innovation. Try them out!

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology

p.s. I did mention we’re hiring, right?

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