MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

How place makes space for employee-generated innovation

Successful internally-generated innovation – both the amount of ideas as well as the implementation of those ideas – can be greatly amplified through the planning and design of place. I know this both from my own practice and from the cues and clues that arise in the work of others who study how innovation arises in the corporate context. One good validation came from a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. In their report,  "Who Has Innovative Ideas? Employees," JC Spender and Bruce Strong say the trick to uncovering and building innovation potential is in knowing how to tap into employees. They propose the importance of the formation of what they call "innovation communities" and  outline seven key characteristics that they have identified as being part of the success of this concept.

Right at the top of their list is the recommendation to create the space to innovate. This spatial imperative is resonating through the work of many others these days, including the "bowling alley" analogy of Geoffrey Moore, the "creation spaces" concept of Hagel, Seely Brown and Davidson, and the "scenius" concept proposed by Eno. In each of these concepts, an essential beginning move is the development of a place of attraction that will draw people together, develop a sense of community, and ultimately become the magnet for others and a replicable model for idea generation and execution.

Let's take the mystery out of innovation and its inspirations. Most great ideas for enhancing corporate growth and profits aren't discovered in the lab late at night, or in the isolation of the executive suite. They come from the people who daily fight the company's battles, who serve the customers, explore new markets and fend off the competition. In other words, the employees.

Almost every other one of the Spender/Strong recommendations resonates with the same underlying principle that makes the space imperative so important – all innovation is social. As they and others point out, the concept of the lone inventor has been overturned by the recognition of the strength of collaborative idea generation and development.

Success in this approach is, however, not a given. It arises out of an environment of trust – the places where people have had the opportunity to "dwell" with each other, get to know each other, develop a sense of shared values and, through the resultant trust that is developed, generate a culture of openness and collaboration. These communities of innovators and the benefits of their work arise best from a sustaining culture that is built first and fastest in physical space.

The essential horizontal crossovers and vertical connectivity are developed and nurtured through the casual, incidental, social contact that takes place through visibility and proximity. The all-important tacit knowledge – what Spender/Strong call, unfortunately, "unused talent and energy" – that enriches mutual pursuits can then begin to flow. As success is achieved, and their stories are told, the enterprise can then achieve the power of the "pull" they reference and the culture that they call "collateral benefit."

A new headquarters for the Auto Club of Michigan was one of the first major projects where I explored this idea. The association realized that in order to sustain and grow its services, it also had to grow. The executive team had begun to explore the idea of cross-functional project-based teams to accomplish this. As we renovated and expanded their 2500-person headquarters, we encountered significant resistance to leading ideas about a more open workplace. We did, however, design a very special environment for the teams charged with business innovation who were usually engaged together for periods of between 4 and 13 weeks to do their work. This three-story cube suspended in a perforated rotunda was not only a perfect working environment for the innovation work mode, but also a symbol for the transformation of the company. This and other spaces supported a transition from a closed, hierarchical organization to a more social and communicative organization, and led to the successful acquisition of several other midwestern auto clubs and the achievement of a leadership position among similar financial services, insurance and travel organizations.

More recently, in work for the WPP Group, I proposed a counter-intuitive "two seats for every employee" strategy to overcome resistance to collocation and integration of of previously competitive and independent advertising and media companies. Breaking down all the walls between the 1300 people and the dozen companies that came to occupy the same space, the two seats concept provided a variety and diversity of "social" spaces where people could dine, meet, plan, exchange ideas, develop concepts, trade stories, and transform the organization. The concept became the model for subsequent collocation and workplace transformation initiatives for the creative services conglomerate.