MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

4 approaches to slowing things down in order to get out front

4 approaches to slowing things down in order to get out front

Weeknotes, May 26, 2012

Yet again this week, considerations about being “ahead” of our clients were in our thinking. This is a relatively complex place to be.

Being ahead of our clients is a condition of being ready to propose concepts and solutions before they have come to an awareness or comprehension of the information that they need in order to make good decisions.

Being ahead of our clients is also an issue of envisioning the concepts and solutions that we are confident will be greatly helpful to them in their enterprise, while they may not yet be ready to accept the “risk” of investing in concepts that leap over the intervening decades of development in workspace thinking since their last workplace design project.

They are typically constrained by a variety of factors – low confidence in making a bold move, perceptions of politics in the organization that may imply risk in bringing new ideas forward, lack of exposure or familiarity with the benefits that could be captured from available concepts and potentials, and other factors. Most of these, it seems, arise from having spent too long in one place managing an existing set of resources without having contact with a world of workplace management thinking and workspace design insight that has moved place-making rapidly forward.

We, however, are generally unconstrained as we enter the situation. We have been working for decades on similar issues. We bring to the current context a cumulative set of investigation, speculation, experimentation, innovation and implementation derived from a succession of clients from a spectrum of domains and with diverse challenges and objectives. This body of experience makes us eager to apply what we’ve learned to each new project.

The challenge, then, is how to reconcile these two very different states of readiness. How do we avoid, as we begin to understand our client’s mindset, adjusting our approach to aim only for the middle or getting stuck in the middle because we must produce while our client learns? How do we, realizing we’ll be unable to achieve the excitement and satisfactions from delivering an advanced concept, avoid disappointment and disinterest in the current context? How does our client avoid disappointment and disillusionment with the eventual realization, on moving in, that they could have aimed further out, should have been carried further out by their designers?

Slowing the process to get out front – 4 approaches

There may be other approaches that can help resolve this dilemma, but here are four to think about and test –

What has your experience been? Have you used these approaches and have they been successful? What other approaches would you suggest? Let us know in the comments, or by email.

Slow the conversation to enrich the solution – In most of our experience, the design team comes to a much more satisfying solution if our client has engaged a creative “consulting” team first. The biggest barrier to breakthrough results is a poorly defined problem. And a poorly defined problem is typically a facilities problem – deliver so much square feet of space for this many people at this budget for this fee in this time. None of that problem definition says anything about what you are trying to do as an organization as you strive to bring value to the world. Start by engaging a curious team who want to know more about your company, your culture, your purpose, and how you are different. Engage a team that is especially interested in your perception of the behaviors of your staff that represent your leadership goals, and the experiences you think they should have that will engage them in achieving your purposes. Develop, and rigorously apply, a set of guiding principles and success metrics – The goal of your project is not to be “on time and on budget.” Goals and objectives like that mean that the project team is working only for themselves. Instead, prepare and present a briefing on the mission of your organization, the values it holds dear, the purpose it fulfills for its customers, and the challenges it faces. Then engage your design team in an extended discussion around those subjects and ask them to generate a set of guiding principles that will lead them to measurable solutions targeted to advance your organization’s purpose. Generate and test a good range of alternative concepts – Allocate sufficient resources inside and outside the organization to explore alternatives. Alternative concepts can help to more rigorously define the problem, significantly clarify intentions and develop metrics that matter, engage more in the process and uncover latent or politically hidden problems that restrain organizational performance, and develop solutions that are more creative and more innovative and that return much more for the investment about to be made. Build a network of inputs around outcomes – I believe that, among the most important disciplines of those who seek to serve their organizational purposes better, one is to build a rich network with others who have done, or who themselves are in the midst of, a workspace transformation project. There can be rich rewards in asking tough questions about what the workspace is intended to do, what link there is between those purposes and what was designed, and what now is taking place in the organization as a result. I have been especially surprised that, in more than two decades of practice, I have never heard of a potential client calling one of references, inviting him or her out to lunch, and asking about how their organization is performing as a result of our work.


As a postscript, there is, in all of this, the inherent problem of corporate purchasing. Inherent in projects solicited by an RFP and awarded through competing proposals are faults of trust and speed. The people who will ultimately occupy the spaces we design will have been, usually, poorly served by an internal function that uses a process that squeezes resources for everybody engaged in the process. The spareness of resource allocation demanded by the procurement process means a speed in execution that, in turn, means that users will not be engaged in the discovery and design process, facility managers will be unable to change direction or enrich the planning and design process as their awareness of the mis-aimed intentions of the RFP become revealed, and we as designers will be unable to do much more than speculate about the real organizational purpose and goal and apply a templated solution and cross our fingers in hopes of the best for all.