Saturday, July 26, 2008

Want More Spontaneous Collaboration? Dust Off the Chalkboards.

Imagine around every corner in your organization, you didn’t hear the din of quiet but the buzz of live chatter. To your left and right you see small groups of your colleagues immersed in excited conversation around of all things—a blackboard (or, a chalkboard depending on the term used when you were growing up). Ideas are filling the board. People are debating, rubbing out and adding ideas. Passersby stop, ponder and add their “two cents worth” before moving on.

This is standard practice in the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, a theoretical physics think tank. It was founded in 2001 by Research in Motion’s president Mike Lazardis to nurture breakthroughs in cosmology, quantum gravity or string theory and other mysteries of the universe. The researchers are freed from administrative and teaching duties to sit, walk or bike around and think.

While the majority of us don’t have the luxury of just thinking, we do have the freedom to create more opportunities for spontaneous collaboration. Hallway and water cooler chats are renowned for generating new connections, ideas, innovations and breakthroughs in decision making. Why not add a blackboard to enhance the creative process?

This could be a tough sell. It is embedded in our society not to have such things around. We left chalkboards behind first in grade school and lastly in college and university where remnants existed in old lecture halls. Even flip charts are hard to find in our modern buildings. Instead, we have our heads buried in computers, PPT presentations or our individual notebooks when in meetings. None of these are high touch enough to get our collective creative juices going.

In the crime program “Numbers”, we see the blackboard magic at work. One of the key problem-solvers is shown frequently in front of his blackboard contemplating various algorithms and interconnections to make sense of a crime’s mysteries. Colleagues from the university drop by to aid in his musings. A computer is nearby for complicated calculations and data research. There’s also a lot of sitting around and tossing ideas back and forth. High touch and high tech complement each other.

We are not unfamiliar with such experiences. Retreats and workshops commonly make use of low tech flip charts and other hands on communal thinking processes to stimulate “out of box” thinking. But, flip charts, let alone chalkboards are not commonplace outside of these venues or on site meeting rooms.

For many of us, when we were kids, the teacher stood up at the front and wrote on the blackboard. Maybe it’s now time to dust off this scenario with a modern touch: all of us up at the front at the blackboard here there and everywhere in our places of work. At minimum, the level of informal exchange of information will climb exponentially. Out of that soup of ideas, something exciting will spontaneously gel.

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