By: Gary Davis
The author draws upon the theory of “emptiness” and other principles of Zen Buddhism to evaluate the desirability of remote vs. person-to-person interaction during the course of innovation, especially new idea development. This evaluation is pursued within the context of three related idea process parameters: interdependence, intuition and intensity. An in-person work environment is recommended for the intense phases of new idea processing.
A recent news article made a strike against the common COVID-19 pandemic work environment for innovation by claiming that “remote meetings dampen brainstorming” (The Washington Post, April 27, 2022). This author (Gary Davis) has frequently examined processes of business innovation through the lens of the East Asian philosophy of Zen Buddhism, now about 1500 years old. Briefly, what would various principles of Zen have to say about the work environment issue? (See Gary Davis, “The Intensity Factor in Innovation: Principles from Zen Philosophy,” innovationmanagement.se, October 16, 2013.)
The Zen perspective stresses complete awareness of one’s physical, social, sensory and even emotional environment. This allows for intuitive as well as strictly observational and analytical insights—an important aspect of idea creation and business innovation.
The initial innovation phase of problem identification and listing solution suggestions may fit easily into a remote or telework environment. A remote connection, in fact, can encourage idea contributions from employees who are shy or otherwise uncomfortable in an intimate group setting.
Idea Interdependence—Theory of Emptiness
At some point, enough ideas accumulate on the list. There is a consequent need, perhaps urgent, to consider, analyze and evaluate all the proposed ideas or problem solutions in a joint fashion. This is where the “three i’s” of Zen philosophy for innovation come in: interdependence, intuition and intensity. An in-person group or team is more appropriate at this stage. Company contractors, customers and suppliers may be included also.
First, each proposed idea may have numerous causal or derivative connections to other ideas, including shared underlying organizational values and possibly oppositions. Here we draw upon the concept of “emptiness” (sunyata), generally credited to the Mahayana Buddhist thinker of India, Nagarjuna (lived ca. 150-250 CE). Ideas, as is the case with other “things” (and even the personal self) do not exist independently but only as an ever-changing nexus of causal relationships within an infinitely interrelated context stretching, in theory, out to the edges of the universe, and back and forth through time (The Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom, 2005). Steve Jobs, himself a student of Buddhism, said that “Creativity is just connecting things” (Wired, February 1995).
What does this interdependence imply for innovation? A linear analytic approach will not likely work. One must be attentive to all the different contexts that an idea or set of related ideas “exist” in—e.g., technological, company organizational, business operations, consumer, supplier, government-legal, academic identification, historical-evolutionary, etc. Such holistic attentiveness should embrace all the causal relationships tied to an idea through different domains and directions. Again, according to the Buddhist emptiness principle, a new idea cannot be totally independent of existing ideas or their corresponding causal nexus.
This prescription may seem too complex or overwhelming in practice, especially for just one person, and even more so for one person working remotely. An intuitive thought process is probably essential at some point—i.e., grasping in one’s mind a changing subset of different and new causal directions that one might go in while simultaneously being receptive to a “sudden enlightenment” idea combination that solves a particular problem. Steve Jobs also stressed the importance of intuition in creativity.
Innovation as Intense and In-Person
Moving on from interdependence and intuition, innovation in the Zen mold requires the “third i” of intensity. One person can easily lose track of all the connections and subpart relationships within a changing causal nexus of potential new ideas if the decision-making process is too slow, dragged out, linear/sequential, or casual and inattentive. Technically diverse teams and a focused supporting cast operating within an intensive period of creative engagement may be required. Multiple thought experiments, debates, testing and prototyping should be part of this intensity.
To conclude, the intensity phase of the innovation process described above is probably best done within an in-person, onsite work environment rather than remotely. Team members interacting in person should have a heightened sensory and conceptual awareness of other team members’ contributions and viewpoints. Physical mockups and lab demonstrations can be closely inspected. This, in turn, should facilitate the intuitive and communicative aspects of choosing among many competing but connected ideas, and possibly integrating apparently conflicting concepts. Following the Zen non-duality principle, premature yes-or-no decisions should be avoided, such as jumping to a previously popular, “tried and true” problem solution. Mutually persevere towards something better—more effective, efficient and enlightened. At this stage, workers only participating remotely may lack a full sense of creative engagement within the Zen innovation complex of interdependence, intuition and intensity.
About the Author
Gary Davis is an economist working in Washington, D. C. He has published articles on Eastern philosophy for business innovation in several management journals, including Innovation Management. In 2009-2010, he published an article, “Contexts for Innovation,” in magazines in both the U. S. and Malaysia. The article recommends a synthesis of Eastern and Western strategies for business teams. He has studied innovation processes in connection with a position as research team leader. Gary Davis has presented economics papers at seminars and national conferences (e.g., of the Southern Economics Association and Society of Government Economists). He also gave a presentation on innovation to a U. S. Federal government seminar. He holds Master’s degrees in Economics and Public Administration and a Doctorate in Public Administration from George Mason University, Virginia.