MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Google and GM – too big to innovate? Can the form of the workplace help?

In a fascinating coincidence of attention today, the business press is mentioning GM and Google in the same breath. What's the subject? – How to achieve the organizational agility that delivers innovation speed.

GM's Fritz Henderson, quoted in the Automotive News and other places, suggests that both organizational simplicity and cultural transformation are on the agenda as essential components for its success in the "new GM." Most of GM's critics focus on the company's product quality and innovation lag, so it is interesting to note this shift from the Bob Lutz "cars that people want to drive" to the Henderson "we need to be able to make decisions faster." Inherent in the difference is, apparently, the assumption that good product ideas and potential for manufacturing quality exist there, but an organizational design hampers the ability to take it all  to market.

"As part of the General Motors moving forward, you don't normally think of us as speedy or fast, and that's what we should be. But when you're fast you do make mistakes. My view is if you're slow you make more mistakes you just don't notice it."

Across a very wide gap in apparent organizational culture and success, is the fabled Google. Long the model of organizational agility and product innovation, the company is now afraid that its size, culture, and management style are impeding its speed and competitive differentiation. There apparently is a growing turnover at the company as the pace of product innovation hits management roadblocks and people leave to get into a faster, more agile, and committed environment, and one that delivers the satisfaction of success.

Mr. Knapp said Google managers offered him the chance to start the project within the company, but he declined. He worried he wouldn't feel the same pressure to succeed. "If you're really aggressive, you want that sink or swim environment," he said.

The article on Google has some interesting indicators of certain factors for success. An emerging Google product getting a lot of attention these days is Google Wave. It was developed by an Australian team with a grant of talent and other resources and the option of isolating itself from the core, and mass, of Google operations.  Some of the factors for success –

  • The ability to focus on the task
  • The benefits of energy and commitment that came from internal project promotion
  • Visibility to, and attention from, senior executive leadership
  • Control and ownership of the project

This subject attracted me today because only earlier this week, in another confluence of news, I read articles on tours of the the headquarters (hmmm..there's another subject, for another time)  of Microsoft, Google and Facebook. In each case, developers from other companies were at these headquarters to collaborate or to pitch product ideas. As I read through the tour notes and looked at photographs, I naturally thought about the influences of form, culture, organizational design, process design, place, speed, agility, innovation – and performance – on each other.

Being a form follows function guy, I also naturally believe also in the inverse. I also believe that for form to perform in service to function, function has to defined and expressed in the language of performance – what are we trying to achieve here and why, and what do we need to do to get there.

So, what might be some concepts shaping workplace form and organizational performance to review for their effectiveness by both Google and GM as they try to restore their individual leadership in the development and marketing of innovative, desirable and valluable products? Here are a few –

Openness – This is a well studied and understood component of innovation and creativity, but is not an absolute, and is not simple to achieve. A well-developed open environment also has volume, distance, acoustical and thermal tuning, and a hierarchy of formal language to provide the right working environment, visual orientation and comprehension of parts as components of the whole.  Openness is an attribute contributing to speed – exposure to information, ease of response – but not executed well may also defeat speed – interruption, loss of focus, misunderstanding of role. While "openness" may be a factor in the merging value of "transparency" it should not mean "invisibility."
Differentiation and identity – Orienting a team, developing focus, getting attention, understanding contributed value are all dependent, in part, on the visible and visual differentiation of the team and its work. As a member of a team, I have pride of place, focus on the task, clarity of purpose, and recognition in the organization. A key component for success is the comparative identity and differentiation of the team and its work. This is very hard to develop in a high rise and may, in any form of building, be defeated by "standards."

Choice – The workplace is not "open" or "closed," and is not "offices" or "cubes" or "conference room." The entire lexicon of the workplace has to substantially change to achieve the right kind of envirnment to fit the DNA of the innovative organization. This type of work is dynamic. People working creatively and delivering innovation are constantly shifting tasks, roles, workmodes, place and schedule, and there is very little in a conventional workplace design that is supportive (much may be destructive) of this work. A key factor in having access to the right resources to perform well is to provide choice in the workplace environment, and this means a much richer set of alternative settings than implied in the conventional lexicon.

Comprehensibility – This is an important attribute of openness developed well. As I scan my eye across a place and can see the formal architecture of its organization and operation, its products and its processes, I can immediately "get" the organization and its purpose and values. If I am en employee, I know what to do and where to go; if I am a visitor, I may need no further presentation. There is much made in the study of creative environments of the art and artifacts of these places. I acknowledge and encourage this also as part of the expression of the organization, yet I fel that the best art and artifacts are in the visual display of the work – the processes and products and people – that makes the company different. Similar to "identity," comprehensibility requires visual difference – understanding the pieces as parts of the whole.

Lightness – This may be a better way of expressing all of the above. The sense of agility and being free of barriers may be the most important single factor in organization performance. I think you can measure organizational lightness by light, which is both seeing and feeling daylight, and having the sense of airiness delivered by spatial volume. Being light also means being untethered, which means that equipment proliferation, wirelessness, and network access are essential components. And lightness means access as well, by which I mean freedom from the necessity to schedule a resource off the track of creative workflow.

Adaptability – Another factor of lightness, and an essential factor of agility and speed, is adaptability. The rapidly shifting workmodes of product deveopment processes are best enabled by an indivual's or team's ability to shape the environment to meet the needs of the moment. This is about the introduction of unconventional equipment and furniture resources into the workspace, and also about the reduction or elimination of physical infrastructure that carries the burden of cost and time in its modification.

Google's openness has apparently cost it visibility. GM's closedness has cost it focus. Interesting ironies, and indicators that it's time for an workplace design tune-up.
© Jim Meredith, 2009

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