Flying Seraph
Truly Amazing Innovation Needs A Building 20

What kind of conversation do you imagine happens when Noam Chomsky (linguist) meets up with Amar Bose (acoustics/audio) and Paul Samuelson (economist) at morning tea?

This kind of gathering was a regular feature of Building 20 at MIT during and post WWII. Some of the most amazing breakthroughs – in wide-ranging, disparate fields of knowledge – occurred as a result.


It was partly due to the building. And partly due to the unusual diversity in the people it housed and the way they rubbed up against one another.

If you’re charged with fresh thinking, if you’re after real breakthrough, take some simple lessons from this humble building – described in this way by Prof Jerry Lettvin (Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering):

‘You might regard it as the womb of the Institute. It is kind of messy, but by God it is procreative!’

Lesson 1: Space for creativity

Building 20 was erected (constructed is too grand a term) and always meant to be temporary. It went up cheaply and in a hurry – mainly to house the guys of the Radiation Laboratory. (They perfected Radar in the early 1940s.) Soon Linguistics moved in. A Nuclear Science Lab. An Electronics Research Lab. The Educational Research Center. Missile Guidance specialists. And some world class Economists – among others.

The ‘temporary’ mindset prevailed. People were assigned rooms in unconventional fashion – not clustered together by faculty as is typically the case. They congregated at the first ever vending machines. They met and formed friendships. Conversation and debate ensued. ‘Weird’ collaborations emerged.

Lesson 2: Complexity requires collaboration

The more specialised we become, the less likely it is that one person, acting alone, can make big breakthroughs. Building 20 formed the perfect platform for people who knew almost everything there was to know – albeit in a very specialised field – to rub together and open one another’s eyes to ideas, work-arounds, modifications and tensions that simply weren’t in their prior experience.

In a world where you collaborate and succeed, or fail alone, the most amazing collaborations ensued.

Lesson 3: Connected, but very different, participants

A while back, in conversation with a really smart colleague, I remarked that our game was becoming increasingly like an orchestra. Conducting lots of very different characters. He pushed it further. Jazz, he said. More improvisation. Fewer people. Connected by the music. But playing completely differently. Improvising much more.

Brian Uzzi, the sociologist, supports this. His research – looking at musicals – is pretty clear: he looked at hundreds of teams involving thousands of artists. He found that the relationship among collaborators was key: too close and they broke no new ground. If they didn’t know each other at all, they struggled to work together and exchange ideas.

Your Building 20

This chaos – induced mainly by a ‘temporary mindset’ – yielded countless mind-blowing breakthroughs. Nine Nobel laureates, too.

Pixar is simply a more modern version of Building 20. Steve Jobs’ design ensured that artists, computer boffins and writers would rub shoulders often.

You’d be surprised how much difference you can bring to your business simply by enabling your Chomskys, Boses and Samuelsons to collaborate.

It takes: The right physical Space. A celebration of Diversity. The Fusion of different skillsets. A common language to support collaboration. The Social connection that fosters trust.

There you have it – your own Building 20 – as permanent or temporary as you need.

Please follow me on Twitter: @MarkSareff

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