If you’re trying to do something that no one has ever done before, no one can tell you how to do it. Your best hope is to learn from the ideas and advice of your peers. So why not surround yourself with them all the time?

This is the guiding philosophy of the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC), the trailblazer in collaborative office spaces, and the mother ship of eight hundred newborn technology companies in Cambridge.

Here to share his best insights and advice is Tim Rowe, the CIC’s fearless leader, who founded the CIC to solve a personal roadblock, and ended up helping launch a national co-working movement.

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To enhance creativity, increase density

When it comes to creativity, one of the factors that matters most is being in the right intellectual hub. You need talent around you, and people with ideas. Those are key ingredients to this particular cake you’re trying to bake.

Then, people need to be really close together. It’s like that old game of Twister, where you really get to know each other better. Get the right people together, in the right proximity.

Then, you just need to make magic in terms of connecting them. Not everyone is comfortable going up to someone and breaking the ice. This is really I think where the CIC is unusual. We have of different, creative ways we break ice and work more closely.

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Get rid of employee bonuses

I don’t believe that money is much of a motivator, and I don’t believe that employees should have bonuses. You should pay people well, welcome them to the community, and make them know they are taken care of. Then, after that, you need to forget about money. The things people do that they care about are never for money. I see people with day jobs they don’t care about, who then spend most of efforts on volunteer activities for which they get paid nothing. We have this mistaken assumption that money is driver of our decisions, particularly in our work life. For the small percentage of the population for whom that is the principal driver, they don’t actually make great employees.

What leads people to people to put their back into what they’re doing? They have to care. Your organization has to be purpose-driven. If you’re not doing something with a purpose, you’re going to need to be ok with people doing it just for the money.

If your team thinks an idea is great, let them run with it

Even if your company has a purpose, your employees need to be able to set their own agendas. Your job as a leader is just to illuminate opportunities to your team. My management style is this: if my team thinks an idea is cool, then they can go for it. I’m not going to ask them to do something. I might brainstorm with them, and then an opportunity might emerge that they can go after with all their heart.

I believe you can run any business that way, as long as the business is doing something worthwhile. You may have a company that makes a certain amount of donuts every morning. In the old days, someone would just hand you a schedule and say, “go make all the donuts.” Those companies are still around, but if you are working on something creative, you can’t work like that. Personally, I would think about all the donuts that need to get made in the morning, and say: “ok, team, how are we going to make these donuts?” Someone might volunteer to get up early, and one person might volunteer to be up late. Then, you end up with people who like working and enjoy being there.

Innovate, don’t just invent

Ultimately, what I’d like to build is a global network of very effective innovation-supporting communities. I lived for a number of years in Tokyo, and it’s an amazing, creative place, one of the world’s oldest continuing surviving cultures. It’s a country the size of California, with half the population of US. Yet, it doesn’t connect well with the rest of the word. How do all of us in the innovation space bridge that cultural gulf, so we can take advantage of the great minds around the world and connect them to each other? The world is pretty good at invention and R&D, but we’re pretty bad at innovation, which is taking those ideas and applying them to the real world, so that we actually change the world with those ideas. I want to figure out how to connect incredible resources around the world.

If something makes zero sense, change it

When we got started in 1999, there were no co-working spaces. A bunch of friends and I had just graduated from MIT, and we were all starting startups. My wife and I thought that we might need an office, but we had no idea how that worked. So, I let her work on her start-up, and I said I’ll figure out the whole office thing. The process of finding space was completely crazy back then. You had to sign a lease with a landlord for three to four years, and if you couldn’t make rent, you’d be selling your house or car to pay the landlord. That sounds crazy to us now, but that was the only option around. I thought, this makes no sense. The solution we came up with was to rent a large place and sharing it. If we had enough companies, probably one of them would do well, and we’d be fine.

My plan was still to start my own startup, but the work running this space ended up being tremendous. Somebody stole a laptop, so we realized we needed to hire a receptionist. How on earth do you hire a receptionist? The spare time turned into all my time. We grew, and before long, we had a dozen companies in there. We moved into a bigger space, then some venture capitalists came and said they’d like to invest. I said, why? One thing led to another and now we have eight hundred companies.

That’s how we got started. Think of us as a collective. That’s in our ethos—we’re by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs. Our goal is to build the connections between creative people, very similar to IVY. The difference is that our members are startups that want to change the world; IVY members are people who want to change the world. The connections are similar in both organizations, in that the bonds are deep and social and lead to many interesting things.


The Cambridge Innovation Center

A Message for IVY Members 

If you’re not already doing it, consider working in collaborative workspaces. If that concept is new to you, then you owe it to yourself to find out about it. I’m not being self-serving here, since we’re not in very many cities—so I’m essentially telling you to work with our competition! If you like IVY, this is a version of IVY that that you live 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So that might open some new opportunities for you.

We’re mostly made of startups, but I like to think of them as projects. These multi-project heterogeneous environments are incredibly stimulating, like universities that connect you directly to the real world. Instead of just thinking about a problem and analyzing it, every project at the CIC has a concrete endpoint, offering something to someone who can use it. It’s the evolution of a university. It doesn’t replace universities, but maybe it’s another layer that compliments one. So if you’re up for that kind of experience, you should try it.

Tim Rowe is an IVY Thought Leader. To learn more about IVY, please visit www.ivy.com.