The automakers in Detroit have for decades shaped a mean aesthetic in the design of the product development workplace. An inflection toward cost metrics in both fact and impression has kept the automakers and their suppliers from developing the kind of workspaces that draw and engage the people and teams with diverse skills and insights essential to lead the development of new products, services and businesses in this rapidly emerging world of electrification and autonomy.
The Detroit-centered industry holds a deeply embedded sense of unworthiness, a feeling that even though this is the place that industrialized and modernized the world, the place that more than a century ago shaped and defined the world we live, it doesn’t deserve thoughtful quality and good experiences in the places where its people work. There has also long been the lore in the American automotive marketplace that Big Three purchasing managers enter the workspaces of suppliers to assess whether they are spending “too much” there. “Oh!” they are quoted as saying. “So this is how you’re spending our money!”
You see this misplaced attention reflected in this profile of Ford’s leader of its self-driving car program. From the beginning, he is defensive and “fixated on the modest cost of his drab office floors.”
Bryan Salesky has been entrusted with $1 billion by Ford Motor Co. and given a mission to bring the pioneering American automaker into the age of driving robots. All that money to figure out tomorrow from a company feeling more than a little insecure about its present comes with an unavoidable psychic weight. It becomes top of mind when Salesky looks down at the floor.
“It’s not like I lined the place with marble,” Salesky says as he walks through Argo AI’s Ford-funded offices, spread across two floors of a new building in a hip section of Pittsburgh. “I don’t want everybody to think that we’re so well-funded that we can pour money on things ridiculously. So we’ve got polished concrete floors instead of beautiful tile like a law firm. This is not a law firm.”
Automotive OEMs, apparently, look first at the expense of the finishes in its workplace, and the perceived image associated with those finishes and materials.
It seems that has diverted Salesky from focusing on how the workplace can support teams expected to develop the innovative products and services, or how it might express his alignment with his custmer’s orientation to new ways of doing business, or how it might be resourced to power his company’s drive to build new business models, or how an authentic approach to design might satisfy its desperate need to attract and engage a new mix of creative talent. Salesky, now a supplier to the auto industry, has instead had to consider the impression that anything more than concrete would have on the purchasing agents of his customer firms.
The “psychic weight” of designing a good place to work is too great for the American car companies. The quality of the workplace, the purpose of the workplace, the way the workplace engages people to come together to solve creative problems and do innovative and creative work, indeed any message about quality in the environment of work, product, culture and society, is erased down to bare concrete.
Contrast this with the approaches that other companies are making as they establish richly resourced [co-working spaces ](https://hbr.org/2018/09/why-companies-are-creating-their-own-coworking-spaces) where the ideas and products that define their future are developed.
Demonstrating the ROI of this is difficult — most don’t even try. Some eschew metrics altogether, gambling they will learn as they go when it comes to measuring what’s important. Many prefer the soft metrics, such as satisfaction and engagement mentioned above, and still others defer measurement into the future.
Unconstrained others from other places have, in the meantime, taken Detroit’s ideas and have been more clever with them, developing better products and processes, and now are entirely reframing the industry’s business model. Even though Detroit was the original startup of the past century, it is now being massively disrupted from the outside.
The conventional real estate and workplace metrics of the industry, even its perceived metrics, have slowed leadership and innovation for decades. Now, in a challenging time for American industrial leadership, it may be time for a different approach to the design of work and the workplace.
Here are few of the other things we found interesting this week.
New organizational models
I recently picked up a copy of Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody, the Power of Organizing Without Organizations. It arrived in the midst of several other references to new models of organizations. An article in the Harvard Business Review, “Give Your Team the Freedom to Do the Work They Think Matters Most,” posed the idea of the liberated organization.
The idea can be stated simply enough: A liberated company allows employees complete freedom and responsibility to take actions that they—not their managers—decide are best for their company’s vision.
That was followed quickly by a profile of the CEO of Haier. He leads a company practicing the principles of RenDenHeYi, a model that allows each empoyee to take the action he or she deems best for a customer. He says, “Traditional organizations still work in a linear way. Highly progressive organizations understand that we live in a non-linear world. Shooting at a moving target is impossible with an out-dated, linear approach. We have created units (microenterprises) that are self-organized via our RenDanHeYi model. This allows units to grasp opportunities as they arise.”
Sam Spurlin, in a similar vein, offered “10 Principles of Emergent Organizations.” Among them is this: “4. Empowerment: enable individuals and teams to make local decisions and, thereby, push authority closer to the customer/market, trust, self-manage, self-organize, use an advice process, focus on consent not consensus, and promote autonomy.”
The interesting part of these ideas and trends is how the liberated model meets the normal model of the constraining corporate real estate departments. When organizations seek the benefits of a liberated workforce, the standards, chargebacks, ever-tightening space allocations and other metrics of the conventional workplace will be in conflict.
Pursuit of mediocrity
The implications of our quest to deliver the best came in crosscurrents today, too. There was a delightful essay in the New York Times by Tim Wu, “In Praise of Mediocrity.” He suggests that our failure to engage in hobbies is a sign of a civilization in decline. He offers that, “The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival. Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.” It is the pursuit if perfection in everything we do that is the issue, he believes.
The promise of our civilization, the point of all our labor and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits. But demanding excellence in all that we do can undermine that; it can threaten and even destroy freedom. It steals from us one of life’s greatest rewards — the simple pleasure of doing something you merely, but truly, enjoy.
The intersection with that was an almost similar concern in Laurence Van Elegem’s great advice in the Nexxworks blog. In “This Is What Organizations Get Wrong About Innovation,” he offers several insights on organizations and operations for companies seeking success and leadership in innovation. Right at the top he sees the pursuit of perfection as a big issue.
Another common problem in corporate innovation is their well-documented over-perfectionism, which streams out of three misleading sources: addiction to control (companies are systems of control, so it makes sense they seek it in everything they do), fear of losing face with an unfinished product and - counterintuitively – the luxury of too much time and budget.
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