How Remote Work Can Work as a Powerful Tool for Innovation

posted on February 16th 2017 in Innovation & Remote work with 0 Comments

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Did you watch Pixar’s animated short film “Piper?” The story is about a young sandpiper overcoming his fear of the waves, but it teaches so much more.

Pipers searching for food on the beach run away each time a wave crashes in. A young piper, once being overwhelmed by a quickly approaching wave, decides to stay hungry instead of approaching the shoreline once again. But then he observes a tiny hermit crab burying itself down in the sand to hide from a wave and imitates his behavior. This behavior did more than protect the piper from the incoming wave. When opening his eyes under water, he also suddenly discovered hundreds of shells before him  -a feast that he and the other pipers always looked for in the sand.

With a closer look, the little bird’s adventures tell us a lot about a secret of innovation and remote working. Let’s have a look at how.


The scientific approach to innovation

Articles on innovation are a dime a dozen and you’ve probably read them all. What you probably haven’t read yet is the fact that innovation is based on clear cognitive principles.

So before coming back to the little sandpiper, let me introduce you to the amazing innovative capabilities of our brain.


First: Innovation is about connections.

Innovation arises from new, unexpected, and unusual connections of our already existing content of knowledge. And from the disentanglement of seemingly related content which we know as categories.  “Just because a hammer is the tool of the carpenter and the laser the tool of the physicist is no reason not to apply the laser to carpenter’s work tomorrow,” says Management Consultant Peter Drucker.  This is often described as “connecting the dots,” that is, the making of new connections within already existing knowledge structures, from which new patterns are generated.


Second: Innovation is a cognitive performance.

Cognitive processes are an essential condition for the whole innovation process. That means knowledge is key to innovation. This may sound less sexy than the platitude innovation has its source in some sort of inspiration from above, natural talent, or that people are simply the “creative type.” But it’s getting even unsexier. It is not only knowledge in a broad sense that builds the substructure for innovation, but it is expertise.


Third: Innovation is a process.  

Many people perceive innovation as some sort of change that is completed when a predefined goal is reached. However, from the cognitive point of view, innovation is a process that is generated out of a learning system. There is no set end to innovation.


Why expertise is important for innovation

We learned that innovation isn’t something new, but the recombination of already existing thoughts and ideas. However those combinations cannot be carried out until at least one component is based on expertise. Professional knowledge of a subject is required before you can see how it can potentially connect to other fields. Imagine learning a new language or to play a new instrument. You need to master the vocabulary, grammar, expressions and notes, sounds, and intonation to the point where you could talk or play blindfolded. Only after that level of mastery can you make jokes or wordplays in the new language, or improvise on your instrument.



There is a purely physical reason behind this. Learning makes your synaps stronger as electrical impulses fire between neurons. Additionally, the neurons reorganize themselves. The stronger they are (meaning the more electrical impulses they received) the more dominant the neural networks get and the easier information is accessible. Eventually, this helps you reach an expert level. Now your established neural cluster allows you to create new connections.


Why not being an expert is important for innovation (…wait. What?)

This may seem contradictory, but in some ways, having an established neural network (your expertise) can actually impede creativity. Why? Because our brain likes things being sorted and arranged, so it builds rules, concepts and categories. The more established a network is, the more rules and categories exist. Remember that weird boyfriend you had who sorted his underwear by prints in the underwear drawer? Yep, that is what the brain does. This stifles creativity.



Experts often appear to be trapped in existing and known structures. To generate creativity, it is important to reevaluate content and workflows and perceive them in other contexts, as if you had no expertise at all in this field. This can be described as the “novice effect.” A problem-solving person thus needs expertise and, at the same time, the ability to disengage or to see individual knowledge elements in a larger context. Thus, a large quantity of knowledge isn’t sufficient without the ability to see its relevance with regard to the problem to be solved.

(How can you achieve this? Learn more in my next blog post.)


How the piper solved this dilemma

We learned so far that creativity needs both expertise and the capability to disengage from it. How can you achieve this? Let’s go back to our little bird at the beach.

The piper’s “expertise” is to dig for shellfish in the sand close to the shoreline and run away with every wave crashing in. When the little piper was too late and threatened to be carried away by the wave, he accepted the behavior of the hermit crab -he dug into the sand and held the air underwater.

Why is this behavior innovative?

Little piper left the category “piper” (pipers don’t dive for shellfish) and moved to a new category, namely the seemingly unrelated category “hermit crab.” He changed his behavior (of course unintentionally the first time) by combining his existing “piper”-expertise, digging for shellfish, with a completely new approach -the one from the hermit crab. This new combination allowed him not only to find shellfish way easier than before, but also to find so many more with so much less effort that he was able to share with the other pipers.



How can your team benefit from the piper experience?

We learned from the piper’s adventures that innovation arises in contexts of interdisciplinarity, a new combination of elements of different categories or even disciplines.

In order to be able to innovate, your business has to adopt the piper’s behavior. This doesn’t mean to always have shellfish for lunch. It means to blend concepts we normally file in different areas, to make separate ideas coexist in our minds and then in our work. Remember what Peter Drucker said? “Just because a hammer is the tool of the carpenter and the laser the tool of the physicist is no reason not to apply the laser to carpenter’s work tomorrow.” Or in this context: “Just because burying oneself in the sand is a tool of the hermit crab….”

This also applies to your business!

A powerful tool for building up new connections is to expose your teams to experiences, ideas, services, products and people who have nothing to do with your expertise or the business area you are in. This is best done remotely. Simply leaving the everyday workplace (the sandy beach where all pipers dig for shellfish!) and attending events, conferences, or workshops about completely unrelated topics or doing team trips can begin to initiate changes in our neuronal networks, then in our thinking, and finally in our behavior. Remember: Innovation is a learning process!

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