How to get brilliant people talking to one another

When I was a policy wonk I went to some very odd events. On one occasion I found myself giving a talk about public attitudes to nanotechnology at an academic conference in Columbia, South Carolina. Like many academic conferences it was a bit hard to follow unless you’re deeply immersed in the very specific vocabulary of that particular discipline but there was one talk though that really got me thinking. It was by a Harvard academic called Peter Galison.

Galison was talking about the idea of Trading Zones — a term he used to describe the places and situations where major scientific or engineering breakthroughs had taken place. In this instance he was talking about the Manhattan Project.

Galison contends that there was no one person there who knew how to make an atomic bomb. All the experience and knowledge needed were in Los Alamos — but in the heads of a bunch of people who had — in the main — never met before. The key person was Robert Oppenheimer who wasn’t the best scientist or engineer in the world (although he was very, very good) but who realised that the only route to succeed was to get these people to work together. In the midst of one of the most secretive projects in history, Oppenheimer embarked on a process of radical openness and communication between the scientists — from many different disciplines and the engineers. He encouraged them to explain their work to one another and to ask each other to solve each others’ problems. He also made sure that everybody there felt equal. Even though there were young engineers working alongside Nobel Prize winning scientists, academic rank went out the window. It was all about what knowledge they could ‘trade’ in order to solve the overall problem.

The idea of Trading Zones came back to me as we were planning the first Social Innovation Camp. We realised that we were bringing together people who ordinarily would never have worked together and it was then that the ‘tone’ of Social Innovation Camp was created. We made a very conscious decision not to use any language that would alienate people or to slip into using the jargon of any particular group that we were bringing together. It’s perhaps best epitomised in “Hello.” but it’s everywhere when you start to look. The way we wrote all the copy for our invitations, the way we ran our call for ideas, the way that we facilitate workshops without people having the slightest idea that they’re in the middle of an ‘ideation process’.

And it works. One of the things that people often say about Social Innovation Camp weekends is how much they’ve enjoyed working with people who aren’t like them. One of the most gratifying things was that all the presentations at the end of the weekend are understandable too. (again it was a deliberate move on our part to invite outsiders in to the final pitching session so that all the projects had to explain their ideas in language that anybody would understand).

Creating a common way of communicating is one of the most important things in collaborative projects. Diversity of experience and viewpoint is vital in creating new things but without having a way of talking that diversity can quickly become a barrier to working together.