MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

Filtering by Category: social design

I deeply appreciate the delight...

We looked at different professions or industries and recognized that there is an emerging new landscape of work that is shaped by considerations of product, proximity, presence and process, and where the "monuments" of equipment shape the arrangement of people dependent on those devices. When the scale of product (automotive, for example) implies stability or durability of place, how do we accommodate teams (design teams, for example) who move between product programs?

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The disaster of Yahoo's return-to-the-office mandate...

Yahoo should find a space and time in the near future and do the kind of internal reflection and research into the power of the design of the workplace that could yield something more valuable for them, and more valuable and liberating for the rest of us.

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Where architects may fail – and how to avoid it

When we instead describe the space by articulating the activities and interactions of the representative avatars and how we can respond to their needs, we then design more openly and completely. We design, in other words, in thoughtful connection with the experiences of the users of the building. The result for us, and for our client, was a new type of space designed to foster a transformation in the culture, behaviors, interactions and performance of the organization and its people.

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Is this the way we want work to be done?

Rather than defining the character of the workplace through the metrics of an earlier century, and rather than redesigning the workplace based simply on the enabling characteristics of technology, our initial reframing question should be, "Is this the way we want work to be done?"

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Change leadership

In each of these cases, we retarded the expected move to the physical attribute of change – the physical spaces and places where these organizations will of their work – until we had discussed with them their businesses and found expression of their core purpose, developed with them a concise expression of guiding principles and, through observations and other tools, described the defying characteristics of their people.

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Can an unexpected ending make for a stronger beginning?

I think that the moves this client was making, perceived by them to be big moves up until now and that took a certain bravery in the risk of the previously unknown, may have become familiar and comfortable to them along the way. Taking a breath to resolve other clutter may have them return to the project with a sense that one step in their evolution may already have been taken, virtually, and they may now be ready for a bolder move.

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Encouraging people to mingle and ideas to flow

"...encouraging people to mingle and ideas to flow"

It is interesting to look into the hospitality industry for the way it perceives trends in the needs of its customers and tests alternative settings to meet their objectives.

Today, the New York times notes –

As the line between office and social life continues to fade, with more people checking e-mail after dinner or texting friends between business meetings, hotels are taking the cue in redesigning their meeting rooms.

Multiple chains are transforming some of their traditional and somewhat antiseptic meeting rooms into more comfortable lounges aimed at encouraging people to mingle and ideas to flow.

It's a bit too bad that similar experimentation and development does not take place more easily in the places where it matters most – in the office.

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Is an office more distracting than a seat at the bench?

It may be that all of our assumptions about "distraction" and defending against it may, in fact, generate workspaces that are less productive. It may be that working together in the open generates an engagement and an attention that is more effective in getting things done.

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Sketching and testing to develop rich solutions leanly

...the process of sketching and testing alternatives generates insights and builds a shared mental model among the design and delivery team and with the client. This approach typically assures alignment with the organization's values and nurtures the "personal, passion-igniting elements" that are at the core of great projects.

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Everything about the design of the office has just changed

Everything about the design of the office has just changed

Via comes a bit of news that changes everything about the design of the workplace and, I'd offer, everything about conventional corporate real estate.

“Steve Ballmer has an 80-inch tablet in his office. He’s got rid of his phone, he’s got rid of his note paper. It’s touch-enabled and it’s hung on his wall...It’s his whiteboard, his e-mail machine...and it’s a device we’re going to sell.

“The idea that there should be a screen that’s not a computer, we’ll laugh at that in two years.

“Every screen should be touch, every screen should be a computer and should be able to see out as well as see in. That is the way the world is heading [and] those screens are going to be big, small, wall-sized and desk-sized.”

Imagine an "office" with a tool of this scale. Imagine what teamwork looks like with tools like this. Heck, imagine what "individual" work looks like if you don't have tools like this.

What's a desk anymore? Really. Imagine working in a piddling 10' x 15' office with your IT department's standard issue. Imagine being left out as everybody else gathers around the people manipulating the 80" displays. Heck, imagine what "individual" work is, anymore.

Okay. Now imagine work under an 8-foot ceiling.

Everything about work has changed, but very little of the workplace has.

Now, it will.

Company lunch

With a tongue-in-cheek tone, Nick Bilton recently made a rather interesting observation about life at the headquarters of internet giants like google and facebook. Noting that the amenities in these workplaces were so good and so extensive that people never had to leave the building, he wondered if this absence fro the experience of the life the rest of us lead actually reduced the innovation potential at these companies.

Last year, as Larry Page was retaking the helm at Google as chief executive, he told Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times, “One of the primary goals I have is to get Google to be a big company that has the nimbleness and soul and passion and speed of a start-up.”

Nimbleness is fine, but most start-ups I visit don’t have heated toilet seats and on-site dry cleaning.

If you look at the hottest start-ups and social companies today, they don’t even have real Web sites. Path, Draw Something and Instagram are all primarily mobile experiences. Other social apps like Viddy and Pair, which are quickly gaining in popularity, are also strictly mobile.

But this is the rhythm of Silicon Valley. It is, indeed, its life force. The bold start-up grows, gets comfortable and misses the next big thing, which the newest hungry start-up spots while working among the rest of us.

Coincidentally in the same week, Apple posted updated plans for its new headquarters in Cupertino. By now, everybody has seen the "spaceship" concept, a huge circular building with everything, it would seem, that Apple employees would want.

Apple employees apparently want to eat out, however. So Apple is now planning an off-campus restaurant for its staff, where they can get away from headquarters...but not in contact with others. The planned restaurant will be unmarked and open only to Apple employees.

“We like to provide a level of security so that people and employees can feel comfortable talking about their business, their research and whatever project they’re engineering without fear of competition sort of overhearing their conversations.

That is a real issue today in Cupertino because we’ve got other companies here in our same business.”

Will Instagram displace Apple as the great strategic story of the decade?

Will Instagram displace Apple as the great strategic story of the decade?


The most important part of the Instagram story may not be the billion dollar purchase prize, but the transformational influence that Kodak's failure in the light of Instagram's success may have on corporate strategy and design.

Corporate cultures are influenced by short horizons. In a recent Forbes assessment of the Kodak bankruptcy, Larry Keeley observed this condition –

At least once a week, top executives tell me that new growth businesses in their firms are intriguing and potentially important, but they simply "don't move the needle." Said in plain American: "The hot new thing simply cannot produce enough revenues this quarter to improve my bonus as a senior executive." So those projects are starved of resources instead of nurtured.

And in the New York Times, Nick Bilton observes that –

Even if Polaroid or Kodak could have developed Instagram, it’s likely that the project would have been killed anyway. What would be the reaction of almost any executive presented with a business plan to save the company with an iPhone app that had no prospect for revenue?

We've become very interested in this concept of "stock and flow" from other influences, but highlighted by the Instagram story.

What are your experiences with this "stock and flow" pattern?

Stock and flow, Part 2

There seems to be this point in every project about strategic transformation –

New concepts are thoughtfully generated to respond to the strategic vision and to enhance the success of the organizational transformation. They then meet resistance. This resistance is a fear of the unknown and is expressed in operational terms that assert the unique value of the current lexicon of “how things are done around here.”

We’re in the midst of this reaction in a project intended to transform the way that biomedical research is done at a state university. The reaction arises primarily from a facilities planning team who provide the buildings and spaces to the research institute. They have been joined by the user community who are reacting to their tagging questions – “You guys wouldn’t want to work in that open of an environment, would you?”

The response is, of course, “Well, no!” It is followed then by the claims of the need for a conventional office with opaque walls and a door. “I have 25 years of research records that I have to keep in my office,” says one. “We spend 80% of our time in our offices writing the grants that support our work and this institution, and we can’t do that work out in the open,” says another.

The research lab leaders, the Principal Investigators, are then happily assigned 120 square foot managerial offices appropriate for a state bureaucracy – a desk, a manager’s chair, a credenza, a sideboard, two guest chairs, a lay-in ceiling, an overhead fluorescent light, paint and carpet, a window, a door.

What’s wrong with that?

Well, for one thing it’s sad. We’ve made so much progress in designing working spaces that are so much more experientially rewarding, environmentally sustainable, resource appropriate, and performance enhancing.

For another thing, the result is probably the wrong answer to the wrong questions.

Finally, the result probably means that the intended purpose of the building – to advance the speed and success of benefits to patients – will not be fulfilled. We know this, because we know that innovation is driven by social factors – awareness, interactions, informality, egality, etc. – but the provided design solution is about other stuff – hierarchy, entitlement, privacy, etc.

What’s really missing is careful and thoughtful observation of the way that work is really done and where. What’s also missing is awareness of the big shift that has already taken place and is accelerating in so many other quarters–  the shift from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows, the shift from things to people, the shift from static metrics to flow metrics.

We’ll get to more of this about stocks and flows  in a subsequent post. But for a primer, let’s go back to the Principal Investigator’s claim that 80% of what he does and where he delivers value is in the office.

In a series of interviews we did in developing an understanding of the project, not one of those was conducted in a PI’s office. In the lab tours we attended to observe working conditions, we never saw a PI in her office.

We did capture a number of other data points (informally) that might be represented like this:

If this is anywhere close to typical and accurate, then it is clear that very little of the PI’s work is done in his office. More importantly, the work that is done outside of the office, the real 80% of the PI’s time, is where his value truly is developed and delivered.

If the PI’s office is “stock” and his activities are the “flow,” it is easy to visualize that the real value, and the real focus of our design attention should be in the flow – in the “white space” of the plan, the places in-between, the places and spaces that accelerate flow.

The dream setup – getting to a workplace design that supports the way work is done

If you haven't already checked it out, The Setup is a great little site, answering the question of what people use to get things done.

Although a bit on the geeky side, I always find its entries to be an excellent reflection on the workspace. Each of its posts is a single person answering a stock set of questions about who the person is and what they do, what hardware and software they use to do their work, and what their dream setup would be.

In a bit of a delightful mashup today, I found this description of a dream setup below and the [unconnected] photo above.

Someday perhaps I will go around carrying only a book, a change of clothes, a pen, a water bottle, a folding umbrella, and a little capsule that turns into my livelihood when opened. Rollable hi-res screen and keyboard, tiny computer the size of a cell phone or smaller but as light as a pen, with high-speed satellite connectivity anywhere on the globe. In this world, my sleeping bag, pad and windproof hammock weigh only a pound put together. For half of the year I travel the world, alone and with companions, with a small bag slung over my shoulder like Kwai Chang Caine. We sleep outdoors, travel on trains, and a few days of the week sit some place cozy and create beautiful software or solve interesting problems that improve the world.

I had just finished a programming and design workshop today with a client concerned about "going too far" in providing a significantly lighter and more agile environment for its staff, despite a strategic imperative to change its culture, its organizational design, and its operating processes, and to leverage that change to recruit top global talent in service to a mission to improve the world.

Some of what I believe to be the biggest barriers to change in organizations are the organizations that provide the places where the enterprise does its work. The reflective model of The Setup might be a good tool to use to understand the defining workspace interests of the emerging generation of creative and innovative people.

Getting out of groupthink and into pursuing opportunities

There has been a lot of conversation in recent days about the form of the office and how to design it for those who work in it. This is enormously interesting to me because this conversation, like many others in culture, politics and business, is an exciting signal of the search for real innovation and of a desire for a revolution in the way we provide the places and spaces where we do the things we do.

Argument and revolution

The “conversation” that I reference is the point and counterpoint in recent debates about which way is best – the old comfortable way or a recent newly proposed and tested way. A round of confirming and contradicting commentary was recently evoked by Susan Cain's article in the New York Times. While trying to make a case for consideration of the closeting needs of introverts, she broadly bashed the new, open workplace as a product of "groupthink" in its pejorative connotation. Using the same term in almost the same week, Jonah Lehrer referenced the incredible volume of creative product emerging from the famous Building 20 at MIT, "one of the most creative environments of all time," generally credited to the informal interactions happening between people of different backgrounds and interests. And Alison Arlieff weighed in with the groupthink that collaborative spaces aren't all they're cracked up to be. Closed office vs. open office.

The “revolution” that I reference is my belief that a third form with a new language will emerge. This third form will have immediate credibility in the forehead-slapping “of course” mode and will make both of the currently debated forms artifacts in a rapidly receding history.

Getting out of groupthink – New forms will be generated from a new lexicon

I propose that the current arguments are nostalgic and a bit arrogant. They are arguments of an estate that recognizes it has lost its case but does not yet know where to turn. And they are arguments of a self-appointed enlightened who believe that the right way is the way they proposed to counter the old way but is now being uncovered as having had insufficient rigor, and that now has piles of data bias making a great case against it.

I think that the core issue we are now confronting arises from the loss of meaning of familiar terms like “office” and “workplace” and, even, “work.” “Office” is a term left over in the slow evolution from industrialization and carried the implications of production and supervision in its form. Attendance, for example, was a key characteristic of its managerial mode. “Workplace” implied a single setting, the place where work was done, the place that was separate from the other stuff we did, the place that was defined by time, location and character. “Work” was something separate from “life” and disregarded the reality that, even in the old mold, one defined the quality of the other.

In almost every meaningful, productive, and rewarding context now, these terms are antique.

“Work” certainly has changed dramatically from the dreary and dreaded stuff we did for “the man.” Most of what we call work, the valuable stuff, is creative in some form. Most of what we do is self-defined or collaboratively determined with a team oriented to a goal that is more frequently something defined by them and not by a manager.

There is no single “workplace” any more because we do what we do in multiple physical settings and multiple virtual settings, as well. Time, also, is no longer a limiter in what we do. We carry huge amounts of information on tiny devices everywhere we go, and we connect with our networks anywhere we are. In an odd inversion, we may find solitude and focus sitting with our headphones on in a public cafe and, when we are ready for socializing our ideas and learning from others, we go to the office.

The office best serves as a place for connecting with a network of knowledge and resources to get purposeful stuff done. The productive social buzz and innovative activity that now takes place there is called “distraction” and blamed on an “open” office by those who claim a value of “focus” to name whatever it is that they do behind their six-foot tall cubicle walls. They are missing the reality that entitled square footage for playing computerized solitaire never had, and now certainly no longer has, value. They miss that the work that is valuable is not the consumption of time but the generation of new ideas and approaches with a team of other highly motivated people. Those people, when they need focus, find a place for focus. Otherwise, the buzz of collaborative activity is the visible manifestation of the generation of value for the world.

Pursuing opportunities

Arguing about which of the existing ways of designing a workplace is wasteful. It is a form of the groupthink that the debaters debate. Work is no longer done in one place, and the office is no longer one thing.

Reflecting on what we do, and how we really do it, and then generating, testing and developing new environments for the activities and behaviors of work is productive and valuable.

As Kevin Kelly says, "Don't solve problems; pursue opportunities."