Why Hallways Matter

If you were setting out to do something that had never been done before, how would you build your team? As it turns out, it depends on the nature of the task: 100 years ago, the Wright Brothers were able to realize human flight with nothing but their own minds and the tools in their garage. But if you're going to revolutionize the world today; say by training a monkey to move a mouse cursor with nothing but it's mind, you might need to do things differently. That's what the Brain Science Program at Brown University set out to do back in 2002. They assembled a group of mathematicians, medial doctors, neuroscientists, and computer scientists and set them on the task of understanding how brain activity could be decoded and interfaced with a computer. Not only did they get it, successfully teaching a rhesus monkey with implanted neural electrodes to control a cursor on the screen, but in doing so they accomplished something far larger than any one individual (or even a pair of brothers) might have been able to accomplish.

As problems have gotten more complex and our knowledge of particular fields deeper, the amount of expertise that needs to be brought to bear on particular problems has increased. This has pushed project teams to be larger and more diverse. After all, building team composed of a variety of experts with different skill sets and interests allows the group to draw on a knowledge base much broader than any one of them would have been bring to bear. This means more knowledge and more interesting combinations of that knowledge. Frans Johansson, author of the Medici Effect, terms this phenomenon "intersection", which describes the process of combining "fields, disciplines, or cultures [in order to] combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas."

And that's where hallways come in. The process of intersection and interdisciplinary problem solving can't necessarily be wholly planned since it isn't known, a priori, which combinations will be valuable and which will be duds. The head of Brown's Brain Science Program noted for example that "unexpectedly bumping into a statistician in the hallway one afternoon [might] lead to a discussion that solved a particular problem I had been struggling with." Innovation thus relies on serendipity, so the best that one can do to encourage breakthrough ideas is to promote the chance encounters that spawn them.

This is the core idea behind a number of famously creative spaces. When Steve Jobs was designing Pixar's headquarters in 1999, he arranged the building around a central atrium so that Pixar's diverse staff would run into each other more often. When it turned out that people weren't walking through the atrium, Jobs forced them to, by moving the bathrooms, the mailboxes, and meeting rooms into the center of the building. Pixar producer Darla Anderson said about the move:

"I didn't want to have to walk all the way to the atrium every time I needed to do something. That's just a waste of time. But Steve said, ‘Everybody has to run into each other.’ He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot. And you know what? He was right. I get more done having a cup of coffee and striking up a conversation or walking to the bathroom and running into unexpected people than I do sitting at my desk.”

AT&T's Bell Labs, the font of innovation that produced the transistor, fiber optics, wireless communications, as well as a host of other revolutionary technologies, was designed similarly, with long hallways and an open door policy that promoted chance interactions and frequent conversations. MIT's famous Building 20 (also known as the "plywood palace" for its flexible interpretation of the building code) housed groups as diverse as a nuclear science laboratory, the linguistics department, the machine shop, the R.O.T.C., and a piano repair facility. No one might have guessed that those intersections would have been valuable, but by the time it was torn down in 1998, Building 20 had come to be known as one of the most creative spaces in the world. Today's interest in "open office" floor plans (such as my cavernous workspace at Stanford) are designed with the same motivation in mind: structuring the physical environment to facilitate unplanned interactions between a diverse group of experts working on different problems and different approaches.

In this view, creativity is essentially a numbers game. Einstein called it "combinatory play", highlighting the fact that with more people meeting up and inspiring one another the more opportunities there are for novel and valuable ideas to be developed. And as it turns out, this is a fairly simply but brutally effective way to boost creative process: maybe taking the laptop to the coffee shop is a good idea after all.

For more, check out Frans Johannson's "Medici Effect", available as a free download here as well as a really excellent New Yorker article on "Groupthink" here.