Scientist, author and WEC 2012 speaker Jonah Lehrer believes that purposeful connections lead to continuing success and that meeting professionals are true innovators fostering those connections.
“Oh god, this is going to be a tedious conversation,” Jonah Lehrer thought as he stood backstage. Small talk with a man in the flooring business didn’t bode well for an exciting dialogue. But then the man started to tell Lehrer a story about the Swiffer mop.
“And this became the first story in my book,” Lehrer says. “I always think of that—when in doubt, ask a question. Don’t be afraid. Talk to the person next to you. You could learn a lot.”
Cross collaboration, diverse social networking and random interactions are some ways to foster creativity and innovation Lehrer details in his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. As with his previous New York Times bestseller, How We Decide, Imagine appeals to a wide audience curious about the brain’s inner processes and how these can help us solve problems basic and complex.
Lehrer’s view is that we either work together or fail alone, that in order for any individual or industry to succeed and grow, there need be purposeful connections.
“Steve Jobs had this great line that creativity is just connecting things. That’s true on so many levels, but the second part of that line is that most of those connections are going to come from other people,” Lehrer says. “Every new idea is actually two ideas reassembled, two old ideas mashed up together. Now, where do we find those ideas? Often they come from random conversations with other people—bumps in the hallways, chats by the water cooler, waiting in line at Starbucks, talking to someone at a conference who you would never have otherwise met. Those are the conversations that clearly seem to lead to new ideas.”
What’s more is that those conversations can play a huge role in long-term business success.
“If you’re in the planning business, then I think you want people to come away with the sense that, ‘I got something new at this meeting.’ It’s going to be about the human connection,” he says. “[I believe] the real value of a meeting is not the keynotes, it’s not the content on stage, it’s the connections that take place during the breaks. That’s where the real value is.”
Today, though, event participants are pulled between the ease and instantaneous that technology can offer via virtual events and the real-world sensations offered by face-to-face meetings.
“On Skype, you can transmit the actual content, you can sit at home in a comfy chair and never have to deal with the hassles of an airport or hotel, taxis or TSA security lines; you never leave your house, you telecommute,” Lehrer says. “You get the same content if you watch the live stream. And yet more people than ever are going to meetings and conferences because they know they can’t replace the connections. Skype is no substitute for meeting in the flesh.”
It’s late March, and Lehrer sits in a small, Dallas park. Grackles in the trees compete for conversation. Pedestrians walk past the water fountain with phones pressed against their ears. Lehrer, with the sleeves of his gray v-neck sweater pushed up, looks around.
“In terms of how meetings are going to change, I think there’s a tendency to want and make meetings reflect our high-tech world, the one that’s filled with gadgets and ways to connect online before and after and instant feedback through your smartphone or whatever, and that’s all good,” he says. “That can be very helpful, but I think it’s important to also remember that part of the allure of meetings is their analog nature. They are not like the rest of our working life.
“So it’s important to not change meetings too much. I know this will be disappointing to a lot of people, but I hope the meeting in the future is a lot like the meeting in the past, because what makes meetings so valuable and even more valuable in this day and age is the fact that they can be old-fashioned, they can be in analog. There is extra return on the value of in-person meetings.”
One of Imagine’s most interesting stories involves Pixar and the value it places on face-to-face meetings. Steve Jobs designed the animation studio with one purpose in mind: random interaction. He wanted ideas crossbreeding.
“Jobs’ attitude was basically, ‘What if this was like going to a business conference every single day.’ [Pixar is] this big atrium, and in that atrium you put the kid’s store, the coffee shop and the cafeteria and that still wasn’t enough,” Lehrer says. “Jobs realized you can build a beautiful cafeteria and serve great food, but computer programmers would still sit with computer programmers and animators would talk with animators and so on. You have to force people to mingle. That’s when he had the bathroom idea. He put two bathrooms in the middle of the atrium. That’s because he really wanted people to mingle, and I think that is the big part of Pixar’s success, creating the kind of culture where people are forced to connect. As they play at Pixar, they’re squished together, they share information and trade knowledge. That is essential for them. That is essential for everybody.
“That was the genius of Steve Jobs. The guy didn’t invent the iPhone or the iPad or the iPod. He knew how to manage the people who did invent them,” Lehrer continues. “He knew how to get the designers to work with the engineers, to work with the computer programmers. If that’s your business, you’re in the business of managing innovation, of trying to get new ideas, and I think that every business is.”
Meeting professionals are innovators and should constantly ask themselves how they can get their attendees to make more connections, no matter how casual they may be.
“Evidence suggests that—all things being equal—it’s really good to have a diverse social network and a lot of casual contact,” he says. “This is best illustrated in a study by Martin Ruef, a Princeton sociologist, who looked at 766 graduates from Stanford Business School. He showed that when you measure levels of innovation, those with the diverse social network, with lots of casual contacts, are three times more innovative than those with predictable networks. The research suggests that we still have plenty of room to have more casual planning and learn more from other people. The social network is really an underused potential repository of new ideas.”
Like Talking to Like
After a few years in Boston, Lehrer is back living in his native Los Angeles, home for more than half his life until he left to attend Columbia University. While there, he pursued undergraduate work in neuroscience and worked in Nobel-winner Eric Kandel’s lab. He then studied literature and philosophy as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford.
As a popular author and speaker, Lehrer has participated in hundreds of events, and they all have one trend in common.
“The big limitation that holds a lot of these meetings back—and it’s not the fault of the planner, it’s the fault of human nature—is this self-similarity principle,” he says, citing the work of two Columbia psychologists.
“They invited business school graduates to a cocktail mixer—people working in all different fields: high bankers, accountants and marketing executives and all the rest,” he says. “And they told them the purpose of this mixture was to mix, that they should spend time with people that are not like them. What the attendees didn’t know is that there was a little GPS [tracker] in their name tags. So they were being monitored the whole time so the scientists could track who they were talking to.”
The researchers discovered that throughout the night like talked to like: bankers to bankers, accountants to accountants, etc. The bartender was the only successful networker.
“We’ve got to fight against it. This is a human tendency. We’ve all got it,” Lehrer says. “It’s more comfortable to talk to people that think like us, who speak our language, who use our own acronyms. That’s always going to feel easier, so we gravitate toward that. The meeting planner, I think, is especially important to get people to mix in ways that may feel a little uncomfortable.
“I honestly don’t know how to do that. I mean, I think cities do that on a massive collective scale, but I think it’s important to come up with activities and venues and just ways to force people to mix even if it’s a little uncomfortable. Meeting people across boundaries is especially hard to do, and I don’t think there’s any secret recipe. I wish I had it. If I had it, I’d be in the meeting business.” One+
Jonah Lehrer will be the opening general session keynote speaker at MPI’s World Education Congress in St. Louis, July 28-31, and will discuss the power of being connected to others and how that affects creativity and innovation. Please visit www.mpiweb.org/wec to register and for more information.
future of meetings,
One+ May 2012,