How can organisations become more innovative? In this article, we explore the links between colocation and innovation, and how colocation can help you and your company innovate more.

How to innovate

There are many good books, articles, and information about the importance of innovation, as well as how to innovate.

Yet, despite the large variety of knowledge available on the subject, most of us still do not understand how and why innovative ideas arise. We might have truisms in mind when we think of innovation, such as ‘define the problem you want to solve,’ ‘promote a culture of innovation,’ or ‘brainstorm.’ Although true, these platitudes do not offer substantial advice on what the source of innovation is.

In this article, the aim is therefore to provide a brief overview of why and how innovation happens. By the end of it, you won’t be left wondering what to do and be more innovative, both on a personal level and in your organisation.

In short, being more innovative at work or increasing innovation output at your organisation is as simple as working with others on-site. This practice of working alongside others in person is called colocation. Without the colocation of colleagues, teams, companies, or institutions, innovation is nearly impossible. In this blog post, we explain why.

Side note:

Writing this at a time when many people feel they are being forced to return to the office might seem tone-deaf. However, this is not an article that disparages people’s real and reasonable desire to work from home (or from anywhere, for that matter), it is an article that was written to remind us that there is real value in people working together in the same space. While this article promotes the idea that working together in the same location is a good thing, it by no means suggests that working on-site all the time is the only way of working.

What is colocation?

Colocation can be defined as the act of different people – usually from different departments or with different sets of expertise – working together in the same physical location. ‘Location’ can be used in both a narrow or broad sense: offices, department floors, labs, buildings, campuses, neighbourhoods or cities all refer to locations where individuals can work together or colocate.

In this article, the focus is more on the narrow sense of colocation, namely the colocation of individuals in the same office, lab, or building. However, the main argument – namely that colocation lies at the root of innovation – still applies to colocation in the broader sense where research departments, innovation hubs and campuses operate in physical proximity to each other.

Colocation’s meaning in the context of this article can be summarised in the words of Marty Cagan, leading expert in Product Management and Innovation (founder of the Silicon Valley Product Group):*

Colocation means that team members literally sit right next to one another […] close enough to easily see each other’s computer screens. [… T]here is a special dynamic that occurs when the team sits together, eats lunch together, and builds personal relationships with each other.

For case studies or examples of colocation (both successful and unsuccessful) carried out by companies or large organisations, follow the link and fill in your details. We’ll happily send you the information.

How innovation happens

How do you develop innovative thinking? How do you think innovatively within an organisation?

The answer is both simpler and more complex than you think. Thinking innovatively at work or creating an innovative organisation lies in the interactions between people.

Interactions include conversations but are more encompassing than just discussion. Interaction implies a shared context and shared experiences. It includes planned as well as spontaneous moments. Interactions can thus range from a structured meeting to casually observing how your colleagues react in certain situations.

In short, innovation arises in an environment of ‘rich’ and nuanced interactions; not in boxed in situations that are stripped of nuance (such as a zoom meeting or an email, for example). Workplace banter, shared meals, or simply overhearing an interesting conversation can all lead to innovative ideas being generated and taking shape.

Why is innovation generated in these rich and nuanced day-to-day interactions taking place within a shared context? Because without this shared context, we’re less likely to encounter and engage with perspectives or actions different to our own. On the other hand, when we share space with others, we are more likely to come across and entertain new ways of thinking, ideas that challenge our assumptions, and different ways of doing things. This is why colocating with other people is so crucial to innovation.

The key lies in having access to one’s team members, colleagues, or fellow researchers and in simply being there when these moments occur. This is why online tools often are not enough: they do not offer the opportunity for people to interact casually and to engage in unstructured conversations where creative ideas can flourish.

In summary: Innovative ideas are generated in moments that we share with others, within a shared context, shared experiences, and shared (his)stories. For this reason, colocation is necessary for innovation.

Generating innovative ideas or innovation is thus both deceptively simple and complex. Simple, in the sense that is merely by being around others and working together that innovation occurs. Complex, in the sense that innovative ideas cannot be generated at will. There is no formula or 5-step plan one can follow to ‘get’ innovative ideas from a conversation or an interaction with another person.

The above, however, is only a summary of why colocation encourages innovation. For a more in-depth report on why colocation increases innovation, click here and fill in your details. We’ll be happy to send you our free white paper on why colocation is central to innovation.

How to implement colocation and increase innovation at your organisation

The companies that are serious about innovation are the companies that are deliberate about colocation.

For a comprehensive guide on how to promote colocation at your organisation or between members of your team, download our white paper about innovation and colocation here. Follow the link and fill in your details for a list of things to do for successful colocation and increased innovation (as well as things to avoid!).

Marty Cagan, 2018, Inspired: How to Create Tech Products Customers Love, 2nd ed. Wiley: Hoboken, NJ., p. 36.