I know that you’re all aware by now of our framework for the planning of workspaces for people who develop products. The New Technical Workplace™ model evolved through more than a decade of observing and thinking about the work of people who design cars, consumer goods, components for others’ products, creative campaigns, tech startups, and so many other similar endeavors.
The conventional forms of the corporate workplace did not work for them. Not only did the form language of offices and cubicles and conference rooms not relate to them, their work and their cultures, it actively hindered their mission.
I observed that the work of creative and technical people in designing and developing products had unique characteristics that could not be satisfied through a furniture catalog. They could not be delivered by most CFO-led CRE offices. They could not be designed using conventional workspace planning processes.
Their work was organized outside of the corporate org chart. Their work was not about being a single spot in a processing chain because it was all about passion for the product itself. Their work was creative and their ideas sprung from anywhere and everywhere.
Over time I proposed five key characteristics of successful and productive workspaces for people doing creative and technical work. The team was organized around projects. They worked in proximity to each other but in varying scales and with different intensities over time. The presence of their customers and collaborators was important for inspiration, accuracy and speed. Their passion was around the products, so they had to be there in the workplace in every iteration of their development. And, since what they were generating was new, visionary, never made before, they needed a resource-rich platform to pull from and to support their work.
What does all this philosophy look like in practice? Strong hints can be found in one of the most creative product development labs in the world.
There’s a new book coming out called Sneakers. Yes, you know what it’s about. It’s composed or narratives from the top names in this very hot and globally competitive business. One of the chapters recently excerpted in GQ has reflections from Marc Dolce, once of Nike and now leader of the Adidas Creative Farm in Brooklyn.
I thought I’d grab a few quotes from Dolce’s chapter. They’ll do a pretty good job of illustrating how product development works and why it looks for a different kind of workplace.
I go into the workplaces of so many companies making products where I see nothing of the products under development. One client, from the finance department of a very large America manufacturer said to me, “Jim, I’m a finance guy. I could do my work almost anywhere. But I came to this company because I liked the industry and I wanted to be around its products. But look around our headquarters. Do you see any of our products?”
People get into these industries because they love the products. Their passion stems from design, or culture, or technology yet from wherever the spark arose, their passion is around the things being made. In the most creative of these places, the product is there in every phase of its development, in every iteration of an idea, in many failures and every success.
I’ve been in the industry for twenty years and I’ve never had the tools that we have here so readily accessible, where designers sometimes don’t even sketch and they basically come and start working in the maker lab, and start building and creating products. It’s so much nicer to be able to put a shoe on the table versus putting a sketch on the table.
The corporate organizational chart is irrelevant in product development work. If your organization has people are sitting in a functional silo, supervised by a functional manager, you are or soon will be obsolete.
Creative work is by its nature collaborative work, social work. In the best of cases, project teams are self-selecting, attracted to the idea, or pulled to it by people seeking a unique viewpoint or expertise.
Those teams then self-organize a workspace, shaping it to suit the dynamics of the project.
Within the Farm, no one has a permanent seating location. So every day you come in and you’re either working on a different project or task, or you’re working collectively with others. We also have team huddles every morning where we get people together and review the projects that are happening for the day and the week. We give people an opportunity to work cross-functionally.
One of the great things about making products is seeing how they influence the people who buy and use them. People in product design may speak about their appreciation for design, and when they do they are speaking about what their customers love. Whether to form or in function, or the combination, it is the customer reaction that is the validation of the idea.
The tech industry began teaching new principles to everybody in the product development business. Concepts like beta versions, fail fast, and rapid prototyping were expressions of the early collaborative engagement of everybody in the creative process, including the customer. That engagement gives early feedback and helps correct the aim of the team. Now, newer techniques engage the customer more directly, providing data and information into the next versions.
I also love the idea of co-creation: an ability for consumers to create the products that they wear on their feet. In the future, people may be able to print their own adidas shoes at their house, you know? They may not have to go to a store. They can maybe one day have a digital download of the file—like the way music gets downloaded now—and be able to create that product at home.
Some have said that technology enables the death of distance. But in product development work, distance is the death of the product. We know from the work of Tom Allen at MIT that interactions drop sharply over distance. At more than 150 feet from each other, people just don’t talk with each other.
Product development finds success with the fast, slow and spiky exchange of ideas and know-how. The social interactions that build trust and the idea exchanges that generate and develop innovations arise out of being in the same place at the same time, and over time.
I appreciated one client who spoke of the people in the plant as “the heroes of the creative process.” The people who know how to bend wood, or finish metal, or write a great code sequence are the people who bring great ideas to life. To separate them from the process is to fall behind.
We’re really trying to instill new processes that allow people to be more collaborative. As a designer, sometimes you work in isolation, but I think the best designers work in collaboration, when you’re constantly sharing and exchanging ideas.
I know that people tell stories about the legendary places of product innovation — the shed, the garage, the skunkworks. They are represented as places of very spare means. Corporate types like to tell the stories because they appear to be parables enabling minimum resource commitments to nascent initiatives.
But those were places full of everything the product designer or technician needed. The space may have been spare, that is, but the resources were rich. Those were the birthplaces of ideas because all the stuff for tinkering was there.
As Dolce says, new ideas for sneakers “are things that can’t be drawn. You can only get it by making it, by creating it.” He goes on to describe the Creator Farm as “Disneyland for designers.” He calls it “a change agent, a think tank, an open source creation center.”
There are 3-D printers, laser printers, laser etchers, vinyl printers, sewing machines, spray booths, band saws, even knit machines so we can knit our own uppers. Over the last six months, we’ve been able to make over 200 footwear samples and probably 150 pieces of apparel.
The New Technical Workplace™
When you look behind the given brief, or program, for designing the workspaces for product development, you begin to hear these stories. They illuminate the need for a different way of thinking about how work is changing, about how work is actually done, about how space can make work much more satisfying and valuable.
As Dolce says, “What that basically means is it’s a place for creators to gather, to collaborate, to explore, to play, to sometimes fail, and to create things that we haven’t seen before.”
The New Technical Workplace™ comes from stories like this.