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Coffee-with-strangers program aims to boost innovation

June 26, 2014

Coffee-with-strangers program aims to boost innovation

Once a month for about a year, business professor Bill Lovejoy emailed strangers and invited them out for coffee. His overtures all went to fellow U-M faculty members. The agenda was straightforward: Let's talk about our research for half an hour with no other expectations and see what ideas come of it.

It was an experiment on whether planned serendipity could lead to innovation. The concept grew out of one of Lovejoy's own research projects on how new ideas form in societies and organizations. Now it's expanding to become a campuswide experiment.

Under Innovate Brew, faculty members can sign up to be randomly paired with someone outside their field once a month for six months. Organizers know of no other university that has a program like it.

"Innovation is a social phenomenon. It's not an individual phenomenon," says Lovejoy, the Raymond T. Perring Family Professor of Business Administration, and professor of technology and operations, and art and design.

"A lot of it comes from mixing and matching ideas that already exist, but at a significant psychological distance from one another such that their combination is not obvious. You really want to talk to people with world views different than your own, who are likely to be those you will never meet following your usual habits."

To arrive at those conclusions several years ago, Lovejoy and Amitabh Sinha, associate professor of technology and operations, used complex computer simulations to model how new concepts take shape in a group of people. They found the quickest way to spark true innovation is by random but substantive conversations between strangers.

During Lovejoy's real-world test, he learned about the Creole language, robots in Japan, classical literature and Native American history, to name a few topics.

"I had about a 50 percent acceptance rate," he said. "Every one of them was great — well worth the 30 minutes invested. And the ideas and contacts are still there as a resource to draw on."

Lovejoy and Philip Deloria, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of History and American Culture and associate dean for undergraduate education in LSA, ended up designing and teaching a new survey course called Critical Issues in Healthcare. The class aimed to expose undergraduates to some of the different lenses through which to look at our medical establishment.

More than a year after the initial meeting with a different random coffee colleague, Lovejoy consulted him about a new research project to benefit from his expertise in anthropology and ethnography.

"These sorts of things bear fruit over an extended period of time," Lovejoy says. "It is the accumulated effect and not any one conversation that can change the way one thinks."

Thomas Zurbuchen, special counsel to the provost on entrepreneurial education and professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences, and aerospace engineering, envisions Innovate Brew as a feeder to other university programs, such as MCubed, that are designed to encourage boundary-crossing work.

MCubed funds new pilot projects that involve three faculty members from at least two different disciplines. While it requires new collaborations, it allows for the kernel of a project idea to already exist. Innovate Brew, on the other hand, aims to spawn "a new set of ideas that are in no one's mind yet," says Zurbuchen, who is also associate dean for entrepreneurial programs at the College of Engineering.

Zurbuchen, who has been known to start projects with people he's met on airplanes, has been a believer in the power of random connections and cross-disciplinary brainstorming for a while.

"You realize there's a toolset and a list of questions they're asking that's different from the ones you have. In a profound sense, you can open up space by combining them," Zurbuchen says. "You can find new solutions to the toughest problems, and you can also identify new problems to solve."

The Office of Research is a partner in this program.

"This is a school that has a hundred top-10 programs," said Jack Hu, interim vice president for research. "There are amazing people around, but we all work in small subspaces and it's not always easy to find people to connect with outside our areas. My hope for this program is that it will connect faculty and begins to tear down some of those walls."


Victoria McIntyre
on 8/11/14 at 3:08 pm

This just for faculty?

Ray Batra
on 8/15/14 at 3:34 pm

Yes - for this pilot stage, Innovate Brew is only for faculty though we will reevaluate eligibility at the end of the pilot. Thanks for your interest!

Ray and the Innovate Brew Team

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