The front cover of the December 19th, 2010 edition of the New York Times' Magazine showcases a story about innovation and brainstorming. It centers on up-and-coming "Idea Entrepreneurs"...some of them paid $200K per day for their services. Idea entrepreneurs are those seeking out niches in the innovation market - helping companies uncover new ideas to stay competitive. The technique most used is akin to "old fashioned" brainstorming - pinning sticky notes to walls, participating in relationship building exercises and some other mind-calming activities. The research has shown for quite some time that we have our most creative insights when the brain is in a "beta" or more meditative state.
So, what's the news for VDI members? All of the techniques showcased are done face-to-face. And with so many companies cutting back on travel budgets, many also hope to get innovation out of their virtual teams. Our data show that Virtual Distance makes a huge difference in innovation. When Virtual Distance is low, innovative behavior is more than 90% better. Another issue to consider is innovation cycles. There's the exploration phase (in which new ideas are one of the most important goals) and there's the exploitation phase (in which ideas are moved from concept to production). Virtual Distance may look quite different depending on which innovative phase one is involved in. And a third important qualifier to the innovation discussion is what "type" of innovation is the organization looking for? Radical or break-through? Incremental? Administrative? Technical? Product? Service? Depending on the type of innovation, Virtual Distance needs to be considered appropriately. For example - if you are looking for a radical innovation the types of sessions described in the NYT article might be best. If you are looking for an incremental innovation, tweaking something to make it slightly better, faster, cheaper, than online collaborative approaches might work best as it's possible that more people who have experience with such a product or service might be able to meet more often. However, let the reader beware - many radical innovations have been discovered through purely online initiatives (e.g. LINUX).
Take-away? If you want innovation to happen at your organization - reducing Virtual Distance is key. While it may or may not require face-to-face interaction, reducing Affinity Distance (cultural distance, social distance, relationship distance and interdependence distance) is most important during exploration phases and reducing Operational Distance (communications distance, multitasking, readiness distance, and distribution asymmetry) is more important during exploitation phases when emphasis on task completion, instead of creative idea generation, is emphasized.
What has your experience been? Where do you see problems? Opportunities?