Maximizing collisionability

Posted: April 23, 2014 at 7:11 am in community, events, talks

Last night, Tony Hsieh of zappos.com spoke at the Long Now on the topic of Helping Revitalize a City. He described Downtown Project, which is the company he designed to create a thriving community (tech, art, fashion, family) in downtown Las Vegas.

As he discussed the project, he brought up a great concept that I want to apply to my own life, which is the idea of “collisionable hours”. The idea is that a community is built by maximizing the number of times that community members might run into each other: at the bar, at a cafe, on the street, etc. Suburbs have low collisionable hours since residents go into their garage, hop in their car, drive to the store, drive straight back home, and therefore spend little time in public spaces where they might have unplanned collisions. City neighborhoods can have high collisionable hours, when everybody is out walking around to get their errands done (shades of Jane Jacobs). So for the Downtown Project, they now evaluate projects based on maximizing collisionable hours.

This made me think about maximizing my own personal collisionability. How do I put myself into more situations where I have unplanned interactions that can spur new thoughts? I made some effort at that in my Year of Yes last year by going to new conferences and trying new things, but how can I build on that? One thing I’ve started is a monthly SF Salon, which is a great excuse for me to see SF friends and talk about ideas. I also need to start posting more here, as I think that increases the chance of random people on the Internet finding me and interacting with my ideas.

That points out a difference I have with Tony Hsieh – he’s focused on unplanned physical interactions, which I think are valuable and interesting (I depend on them for parts of my job at Google). But I’m interested in building a community of ideas as well, which I think can be done online. We’ll see if I make progress on that.

Two other vignettes that I think are relevant to the collisionability discussion:

  • When LBJ first got to Washington as a congressional aide, all the aides stayed in a communal dorm. He would get up in the morning, go to the communal bathroom, shower, brush his teeth, shave, and chat with others. Then he’d go back to his room, wait 5 minutes, and go back to the bathroom and do it again. He would do this 4-5 times a morning, which is how he met everybody and started his path to becoming the most influential person in Washington. That’s maximizing collisionability!

  • At the YxYY conference last year, we had a great session on “Finding the Others” inspired by this Timothy Leary quote:
    Admit it. You aren’t like them. You’re not even close. You may occasionally dress yourself up as one of them, watch the same mindless television shows as they do, maybe even eat the same fast food sometimes. But it seems that the more you try to fit in, the more you feel like an outsider, watching the “normal people” as they go about their automatic existences. For every time you say club passwords like “Have a nice day” and “Weather’s awful today, eh?”, you yearn inside to say forbidden things like “Tell me something that makes you cry” or “What do you think deja vu is for?”. Face it, you even want to talk to that girl in the elevator. But what if that girl in the elevator (and the balding man who walks past your cubicle at work) are thinking the same thing? Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others…

    What we concluded was that finding the others required putting oneself out there into the world and increasing your “surface area” to make it easier for the others to find you. In other words, increasing your collisionability.

Anyway, I liked the concept, and plan to use it more in my own life. And if anybody reading this has ideas or people that I should be colliding with, please put me in touch!

5 Responses to “Maximizing collisionability”

  1. seppo Says:

    Interesting concept. One of the weird things was that when I was working, one of the odd things about my job is that it was almost completely interrupt-driven, and my goal was to be as open to interrupts as possible, because it a.) let people know that they could and *should* talk to me any time, and b.) that was when all the weird but really important shit got brought up.

    I miss that – a lot – because it meant that I could be massively influential in any given day because my job was essentially to either figure out why someone had something they needed to bring to me that wasn’t important to me but was to them and make sure we were aligned when we stopped talking, or that they had something important to them AND to me that I wasn’t aware of, and I could go make it happen.

    That was an incredibly pleasurable time, because it meant that I basically knew *everything* that was going on at work (or at least something very much like it), and could interact with a huge number of people every day, get multiple perspectives on what was going on, and then do my best to improve things given that information. Now, working alone, collisions are basically zero on any given day except with my kids, and while I love them, they don’t provide quite as much information.

  2. GRANT MCCRACKEN Says:

    Well said, sir. Yes, redundancy and overlap build networks and make them hum. And then we will need to think about “escape trajectories,” moments of respite that are equally important to ideation and creativity. One too many social collisions, and I start to hyperventilate. That could just be me.

  3. Eric Says:

    Seppo, I have really enjoyed it when I have interrupt-driven jobs like that, because I feel I work best by reacting to others. I really enjoy helping others be more insightful and more productive, so when I get a chance to do that, it is very satisfying. And the bit where I have a good idea of everything that’s going on is also enjoyable. From what I’ve been told, the lack of people to talk to is one of the biggest challenges of working from home, whether as a parent or not. Good luck!

    Grant, great point that the ideal number of collisions is different for different people. My post on networking describes my observations of how different people networked, which is another way to describe social collisions. Finding the right balance between collisions and respite to drive innovation is an interesting challenge – one that all organizational and workplace designers face.

  4. Zan Says:

    It’s my first week of studying/working on my own after 6 years at Google, so this type of topic is top of mind. This week was a free week, about getting settled and exploring the city a bit before getting down to work next week.

    One of the things I immediately miss most intensely is the community of people to interact with on a given day: the quick casual emails continuing a longer conversation, the people reaching out to me for something, the internal Google+ conversations about many interesting things but with common threads/topics, and the comfort of being around many people I’ve known for a long time. And, it’s more about the small things – the interactions that are harder to replace because you can’t set up a lunch in order to catch a smile across the hall.

    At the same time, one of the things I’m most excited about is spending more time with my city and being around a much wider range of people with different interests. I’ve already found a new middle eastern grocery store that I love, with a very helpful guy working the shop who gave me cooking tips. Last night I accidentally got off at 24th street instead of 16th, and ran into a friend on the street walking home. Today the goal was to check out the public library as a work space, and I ended up catching lunch at the food trucks near City Hall. This turned into a lunch conversation with another guy eating alone who recommended the UCSF medical library as an amazing work/study space, and some nice people watching (you know you work in tech when seeing people in suits is a surprise :)). The downtown public library makes me feel hope for the world. People from so many walks of life coming to this place to study, learn, work, stay out of the rain, and strive for something. And, when I was running on a sunny morning last week, I took a few steps walking up one of the big hills and a passer-by called out to say “what are you doing, you’re almost there” … which not only got me to run up that hill but all the others on the way home :).

  5. Jim Pulcrano Says:

    Great post. Thank you. You might also want to investigate Pendleton’s work at the MIT MediaLab on “social physics” – though he is big data driven, the concept lends itself to collisionability.

    I love the LBJ story. Do you have a source or reference for this?

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