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November, rain. A cold and dark start to the day. Only eager beavers think about going to the office. Especially those who have the option of working from home huddle behind their screens in jogging outfits. It also tends to be convenient, working digitally from home. No travel time. Flexibility. About 10 years ago, we called that “The New Way of Working,” now we call it Hybrid Working. The latter has since been made possible thanks to video calling and digital whiteboard applications. Of course, we do meet up with the team in the office one day a week, so as not to lose touch with each other.

It sounds great. In fact, it is great. Or is it? Working digitally is disastrous for innovation. I’m not talking in the first place about getting new ideas by connecting with others, I’m referring to growing and realizing ideas.

The blobs

An innovation manager of a large food concern once told me, “In our organization, a creative idea grows through blobs. Those blobs have to get bigger and bigger for a creative idea to reach the market as an innovation.”

And so it seems. Larger organizations in particular have a ‘formal’ innovation process, as paradoxical as that may sound. Why does one creative idea make it and not another? It is down to the blobs.

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I can imagine these blobs as a kind of viscotic clay shape with a thick outer shell and soft interior. I think of it like this, suppose that each team or each department is a blob. Now how do you manage to get your idea from your blob to another blob? For that, it is handy to know who works in the other blobs, how thick that shell is in order to permeate that blob, what blobs the blob is up against, and so on.

Between teams

The success of putting a creative idea into practice does not rest with a single team or an individual: instead, it is found between teams. Successful innovation depends on relationships between people from different teams. The informal network. This kind of informal network needs ‘serendipity‘ to form and to grow. Serendipity is difficult to organize digitally. So, let’s take a closer look at some attempts.

The digital libation

In the early days of Corona, these were a great success: digital drinks. Unfortunately, these have not faded away now that we are allowed back in the office. After all, it’s so nice to stay at home. We sit around with pre-delivered and well-intended organic apple juice and organic veggie chips waiting for our turn to talk. Although this is definitely not the main problem.

It is pretty simple: for digital get-togethers, you need a link. That link stays in the blob. A random colleague cannot just drop by and ask if they can also try an organic chip.

On to the next attempt.

The effort of making an appointment and keeping it

A good colleague from your informal network – that’s who you can have another informal digital cup of coffee with. Firstly, you need to take the trouble to make an appointment. Secondly, there is no direct result attached to the appointment, so these appointments often don’t eventuate. Although if you do run into that good colleague in the queue for the creamed mushroom soup, you spontaneously end up having a lunch date.

One more attempt.

The vaguely familiar colleague

What about that vaguely familiar colleague? Well, you won’t approach her to meet up; you have forgotten her name. And if you did remember and set a time, you wouldn’t have a clue what to talk about.

But if you run into that vaguely familiar colleague in line for the salad bar, then you do strike up a conversation. In this case, small talk fills the gaps. In fact, during that chat, you are introduced to that vaguely familiar colleague’s coworker, who was just scooping up the olives with feta. Even if the vaguely familiar colleague has to apologize because she cannot remember your name, the new contact later proves to be worth their weight in gold.

An informal network provides entry into other blobs, so ideas can flourish through these blobs. It is the Silent Power of an organization and a Driving Force behind innovation. An informal network expands in size due to serendipity and serendipity strengthens the informal network.

Organizing online serendipity

Creating an informal network is something that happens in the physical world on the fly. How do you do that online? I warmly invite you to share your ideas with the rest of the world. We need them.

About this column

In a weekly column, alternately written by Eveline van Zeeland, Eugene Franken, Helen Kardan, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla, Colinda de Beer, and Willemijn Brouwer, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like. These columnists, occasionally supplemented by guest bloggers, are all working on solutions in their own way on the problems of our time. So that tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.

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About the author

Author profile picture Willemijn Brouwer's mission is to unmask all facets of creativity and design. She writes with the credo: who wants to design the future must know the history. Willemijn works as a lecturer at TU Delft and as an independent trainer/consultant.