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posted: 3/6/2013 5:00 AM

Water cooler springs innovation

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We can assume that the data-driven Marissa Mayer studied the data and algorithmed everything in sight -- before deciding that Yahoo employees would henceforth cease telecommuting and report to the office. She could, however, have merely ordered them all to gaze at Pablo Picasso's stunning painting of five nude prostitutes -- the celebrated "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." It dates from 1907 and resulted from Picasso's collaboration and competition with Georges Braque and other Parisian painters at the time. Paris, in today's jargon, was one vast water cooler.

In 1989, the Museum of Modern Art in New York mounted an exhibition titled "Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism" in which even the untutored eye could see the effect one artist had on the other. Picasso and Braque were showing their work to each other and then, in my imagination at least, rushing to their respective easels to push their art even further.

I romanticize what happened, but the basic notion that innovation comes out of collaboration or, if you will, competition ought to be beyond dispute. It is why it is not the suburbs but cities, with their densities and collections of talented people, where culture is created. Cities are our cultural hothouses -- or at least they used to be. (What will happen to cafe culture when everyone is staring into a laptop instead of carrying on about Kierkegaard is something to worry about.)

Science, too, needs the friction of people intellectually rubbing up against each other. Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, Route 128 and such are the product of talent that was assembled in one area (often by a university -- Stanford, MIT) and the talented simply talking to one another. It works.

The production of innovation -- the spark that produces yet another spark -- is what Mayer absolutely needs at Yahoo. She is Yahoo's fifth CEO in a bit more than five years; the company's in trouble. It needs ideas (also a new name), and when she tried to figure out how to fix things, she scanned the virtual private network (VPN) logs to see how often her out-of-office employees were checking in. Not enough, she concluded. But even if the traffic had been greater, that still would not have done much for innovation. This comes from the strange thing that happens at the water cooler.

Mayer's order produced a veritable firestorm of controversy. Environmentalists quickly weighed in, brandishing that toxic phrase "carbon footprint." But the most heated rhetoric came from Mayer's gender mates, women -- especially those who go by that most hallowed of all words, mom. Mayer was adjudged an enemy of all moms because she was, it was solemnly alleged, forcing women to choose between the mental and physical health of their children and their careers. In some cases, she was.

Yet probably the most serious charge was hypocrisy. Mayer is a new mom herself, but rather than stay home and telecommute, she had a nursery installed next to her office. Maybe in years to come, she'll make it a basketball court.

In 1925, AT&T created Bell Labs. It was originally located in Manhattan but moved to an innovative building in Murray Hill, N.J. The building was the idea of Mervin Kelly, who went from researcher to president of Bell Labs. He believed in "critical mass" -- of assembling different sorts of scientists and encouraging them to mingle. The place was designed so that its workers were always bumping into one another. The hallways were purposely long to compel as many encounters as possible so scientists in varied disciplines -- physicists, metallurgists, electrical engineers, etc. -- could learn from one another.

Jon Gertner called his book about Bell Labs "The Idea Factory," and indeed it was. Among other things, it produced the transistor, the laser, the cellular phone system and much, much more. To an astounding degree, it helped create contemporary American life. The lesson was not lost on Apple or Google, companies that value innovation and, incidentally, try to ensure that their employees will talk face to face. Google even seeks the optimum cafeteria line, not too long and not too short, so workers will talk and not leave.

I am writing this column from home. It is where I work -- totally alone. I appreciate the convenience and creature comforts of telecommuting. (I am now listening to Bach.) But I dearly miss the newsroom, a community of experts and eccentrics where the chance remark could spark a retort, an observation, an idea -- a column! Even in my own head, I am no Picasso. But neither in reality was Picasso without Braque.

Richard Cohen's email address is

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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