Collisions: How Interactions Become Actionable

In 2014, I saw Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh speak in downtown Las Vegas. Of all he said, what stuck with me most was his notion of ‘collisionable hours,’ in other words: hours spent colliding with people sharing ideas. He conjectured that transplanting people in different communities has the potential to improve them by introducing diversity-in-thought and fresh ideas. I always thought the theory was interesting, but I never really experienced it much in-practice until Cornell Tech built and opened its doors to its new campus on Roosevelt Island.

Universities all around the world structure curriculums to enhance potential for interdisciplinary interactions; it’s quite possibly one of the best arguments one could have to go to college nowadays. It’s also why most institutions require math, science, and humanities general education requirements (among others) to graduate. Cornell Tech, however, was methodically designed to maximize those opportunities.

As a graduate student in the health tech program at the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, I’m surrounded by masters students pursuing their MBAs, law masters, and technical degrees like computer science, operations research, and electrical engineering. Enrollment this year was at approximately 250 masters students, and I’m amazed everyday how the campus was designed to improve the probability of collisions.

Take, for instance, one of the days I recently experienced:

  • I dropped by my technical advisor Deborah Estrin’s office without scheduling an appointment. Our conversation evolved into a discussion about ReverCare, a startup I co-founded with some peers as part of Startup Studio. I told her I was struggling synthesizing all the input we’ve received from our users into our product prototype, one that we aimed to have hyper-personalization. She immediately introduced my team to an entrepreneur whose company helps product teams experiment with and generate user insights.
  • Afterwards, I bumped into my friend Ardalan Khosrowpour, a Runway Startup Postdoc in the Cafe downstairs. I told him our product was unique in that the user experience might have to be tailored to users of wide-ranging tech literacy, so he connected me with Stephen Lang, UX designer-in-residence at The Foundry.
  • Later that day, I met with the ReverCare team and we started to think through some of the legal implications of gathering data about our users. Rather than getting too deep into a rabbit hole, we immediately FaceTime’d Ari Yannakogeorgos, a friend of ours and LLM candidate. He talked us through data privacy law and gave us some resources to sift through.

Though it’s not necessarily representative of my everyday, it really does highlight that I’m surrounded by a culture that is supportive, generous, and agile. As such, I’ve identified a couple patterns I believe enhance opportunities for catalyzing these interactions in other environments as well:

1. Create spaces that cultivate interactions

There should always be opportunities to meet people you don’t everyday and have cross-function topics of discussion. WeWork has championed this originally through co-working space, but they continue to push these boundaries with other ventures like co-living through WeLive.

Cornell Tech also designed its campus for maximal interaction. Through communal spaces with open-floor plans, students also reap the benefit of every faculty department being housed in the same building. Gabe Ruttner, a friend who started the company Ursa out of Cornell Tech, told me many of his early business development relationships have been sparked by introductions to campus visitors. He recently said to me: “This place is a community in its truest sense. The environment offers much more than just a set of desks.”

2. Design structured interactions between people of different backgrounds

Organizations and businesses should strive for different departments to collaborate on projects together; bringing these varying perspectives will undoubtedly yield inventive thinking.

One of the ways they do this at Cornell Tech is through required experiences like the Studio Curriculum, but there’s also potential to take classes with students in other programs: in fact, it’s recommended we take courses in other departments. In addition to learning in conjunction with business, engineering, and law students, I also had the opportunity to work with them on projects. We have monthly scrums where we pitch our projects to other Studio teams and ask for their candid, critical feedback; we’re also sure to leave our feelings at the door.

3. Create open communication channels

Create communities that are constantly open to helping each other out, and always ask people, “what’s your biggest challenge right now?” to determine how you can be most helpful. Try to get buy-in from everyone in the ecosystem, regardless of their seniority.

Use platforms like Slack, GroupMe, and groups on WhatsApp. They’re faster than e-mail, and they really let you take advantage of the Network Effect. It may seem counterintuitive, but it actually saves you hours from needing to schedule lengthy meetings to get everyone communicating. This does not, obviously, replace face-to-face meetings; it just reduces their frequency and duration. Another one of our practices is to bring everyone together for a targeted Town Hall. We do these monthly as a student body, but they also occur with specialized topics like student life with our Dean Dan Huttenlocher or program directors to discuss the curriculum. No matter what, aim to involve all leaders from every area and level.

Cornell Tech also recently allowed me to ‘take-over’ their Instagram stories for a day as an individual student. My mention as a health tech student prompted a Roosevelt Island resident to reach out and propose a way we could work together. By allowing me to officially represent Cornell Tech, I was able to more seriously engage with residents in a more personal way I couldn’t on my own.

4. Get everyone on the same page

Find ways people can go through a shared experience.

A student recently told me his favorite aspect of Cornell Tech is our Sprints. Sprints were inspired from Jake Knapp’s book Sprint and take place monthly for us. It’s a block of time where there are no classes and we commit to a 24-hour work block (except the time we’re sleeping) with our multidisciplinary teams. It’s also certainly when we get the most done.

Companies could also similarly benefit from asking their employees to wholly commit to developing and prototyping an idea for a week by starting with the simple question, “how might we…?”

5. Don’t forget to get out of your bubble

Though much of the time I spent in graduate school is with fellow students, one of the most refreshing aspects of being a part of the Roosevelt Island community is my participation with local organizations: the school, senior center, and art gallery to name a few.

I even took a course that encouraged us to observe a local organization and work with them to create a technology or design a service project to address one of their challenges. We initially strove for intra-organizational impact but quickly realized we should also have inter-organizational forums to unite their respective leaders and again elevate the Network Effect.

That is what Cornell Tech intended when it won the NYC Tech Campus bid in 2011. Its aim was not to solely have an identity as a “Campus of the Digital Age”, but also one with a deep connection and commitment to serve its local inhabitants. Transplanting a bunch of academics on a narrow island will surely shift its dynamics, and ideally they maximize positive collisions and therefore serendipity.

What’d I miss?

This is definitely not a comprehensive guide to fostering a collisionable environment but hopefully it’s a helpful start. Maybe someday we can all harness that energy from water cooler talk and direct that to an idea or action you wouldn’t come up with on your own. But then again, perhaps we really DO want to have that conversation to determine once-and-for-all if that dress is truly white and gold or blue and black.

Have any other ideas how you could maximize collisions among teams and organizations? I’d love to hear them; please write any comments below.