MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

Filtering by Category: sustainability

B2B2B2C – How should we design for the emerging business models in the health insurance industry?

The design of the insurers workplace will become one of the most effective devices in the strategic toolbox of breakout industry leaders.

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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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What does organizational culture have to do with lease negotiation?

But are there other factors, perhaps less apparently tangible or more speculative that, if overlooked, may mean that the occupier organization loses significant site benefit as well as longer-term revenue and performance benefit many times the value of what is saved through conventional site selection and lease negotiation terms?

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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.

Is MTV Scratch the next binder on the wall at GM Headquarters?

GM's best strategic play may be not with MTV but with the oil companies and the government and a sustainability philosophy. Constraining one, stimulating the other, and comprehending the third might bring people back to cars – cars providing authentic experiences designed, built and sold by people who've had those experiences.

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The office as an App, redux

David Galbraith offers an interesting vision for the transformation of thinking about and designing houses. My interest is less in the specifics of his design, but more in the consideration of this approach to almost any space where we live or work.

We continuously accept a lexicon of form – “living room,” “dining room,” “office” – that no longer appropriately serves the way that we live. We accept these forms and functions because they may be the only choices the market makes available to us, or because of social norms that we feel we cannot challenge or do not know how to challenge, or because they are imposed upon us by another authority.

Considering how what we do would be expressed in a web app offers a context for insights into how work and life could flow better and satisfy more.

The web apps we select to download or use are those that are well designed both in visual and functional character. We appreciate mostly those that are agile in character, that reduce complexity, that are light in system demands, that have a simple logic at points of decision, that flow well. We appreciate those that provide, when we want or need it, a link to augmenting or amplifying information or features. We choose the ones we like because of the quality of the experiences we have with them, which are mostly engaging and efficient.

I don’t recall that we’ve had a client who has approached us with an initial and core request to provide a better experience. Most typically, the language that accompanies the commission is an oblique goal metric like reduced square feet per person that occludes the real goal of the organization to become more engaging for the people who do its work and more effective in achieving its purpose.

Many of the tools and techniques our profession has attempted to use to move our client’s language into experiential considerations work only where experience is the business – in retail and hospitality contexts, for example. Clients in corporate, scientific, or institutional domains typically squirm at the imprecision of an experiential parameter.

Why do  people who carefully choose and use web apps use an entirely different language and criteria when commissioning the places and spaces where they live and work? Why is more thinking and emotion invested in an app that costs next to nothing, but nothing of similar critical thinking applied to the experiences in the spaces that cost millions? Could the use of the Web App metaphor be a more effective tool in transforming thinking, perceptions and investments?

(See also The Office as an App, part one)

Design's future

We design sustainably. We are thoughtful about the sources and uses of the materials we select. We design our systems critically to assure that we are not consuming energy unnecessarily and, in some cases, we even design to generate energy to put back into the grid.

We seek to convince our clients to reach for higher LEED certifications, and we are proud as we count the certifications and awards we've gained through our work.

When we reach further, we even tend to design in ways that we anticipate will consume less or generate more in the activities of the people who live, work, and play in our buildings.

In most of these cases we work inside of the project and inside of our own profession. Is the future now asking more of us, however?

It seems that a very good New Year resolution would be to engage our clients in a conversation around sustainability in a deeper way. While the catalyst for our initial conversation might be the finite limits of the project they bring to us, should we also talk about the system in which that project exists?

What is it that you, our client, are doing in the world? What can we do together to expand the conversation to more broadly consider your purpose and business and find ways to also design other points in the chain of value creation to be more efficient or more effective in human and environmental terms?  How can we, together, develop a long-range vision for how this project may affect the context in which it exists and perform in a way that benefits not only your organization but also the social and economic system it affects, and then revise the program for the project to reflect those long-view goals?

Our conventional performance metrics of "on time, on budget" seem terribly shallow these days. This interview of John Thackara by Rob Huisman of the Association of Dutch Designers provides some interesting context for our conversations going forward.

Are you an architect or designer who has been able to move into a relationship with your client in a more substantial way about society and its future? Is your client engaging you for your creative skills to enrich a larger world-changing agenda? We all would be inspired by the stories and the methods of your success in that experience and approach.