In my quest for more data about Karen Stephenson’s work, I came across an old New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, the happy camper behind The Tipping Point. The article, “Designs for Working: Why your bosses want to turn your new office into Greenwich Village“, originally appeared 2000 Dec 11. He starts off with a scene from the great Jane Jacobs book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which immediately earned the rest of my eyeballs. I read Death and Life as an undergraduate after reading The Economy of Cities (1970) for a class that I scored a 95 in, but unfortunately was taking pass fail. Death and Life opened my eyes to what life could be like after spending the last ten years locked on a section with only six houses and having to tend a monstrous garden all summer. (Oh, woe!) For a guy who gets physically ill when he doesn’t talk to people all day, it was a severe treatment and Jacobs provided a stiff antidote. Not to mention a small preparation for moving to south Chicago a couple of years later.
The gist of his article — which he stays on, very unlike me — is that while Jacobs’s ideas for the city may have failed until recently (and people inexplicably still move out to the suburbs) they have been taken up by office planners. It turns out that you have not been talking enough with your co-workers, especially those with whom you do not work. I have always been admonished to shut up and let them do some work, for Pete’s sake!, but apparently Gladwell has discovered other firms that are trying desperately to create a networking environment. The goal is to create an atmosphere conducive to weak ties.
Strong ties you know: bonds like family, the guys you bowl with, the women you meet at Panera on Monday night for whatever it is that you talk about. Weak ties are those that are, well, weak instead of strong. That guy that you talked to last week while his bowling team rolled yours into the gutter, that mother of your son’s soccer teammate that you see at the games. Those folks. Turns out that these are the people that are most likely to help you innovate.
Apparently, your family are all way too nosy and keep on bringing up how you’re going to embarass the family. “What would your grandmother say? Thank God that she didn’t live to see you try this crazy scheme!” Weak ties, those folks you know by name but not much else, are the ones that have so little invested in the relationship that you can pass the wacky ideas past. And, since weak ties are normally across knowledge domains, they will likely tell you something about their field that may be relevant to your own. Which is exactly what Martin Ruef says (more or less) in “Strong ties, weak ties and islands: structural and cultural predictors of organizational innovation” (Industrial and Cultural Change, 11(3):427-449).
It turns out that going into business with your cousin may be more trustful, but going into business with someone whom you barely know is more likely to lead to organizational innovation. Grannovetter discovered or predicted as much back in the early 1970s. And life goes on.
Anyway, Gladwell wants to tell you why your next office is going to have even more cubicles and less offices. And why the big boss should ideally be in the center of the room at a desk with no walls at all. Hope he doesn’t pick his nose.
Image Credit: Looking down at Château-d’Oex from our chateau on after a snowfall. © E. Forrest Christian.