MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

Filtering by Tag: Management

Much more important is just making a connection and being accessible

In this rather remarkable article about Google's 8-Point Plan to help managers improve are insights that make me wonder why corporate leadership perpetuates traditional and conventional workplace planning and design. With the analysis of data from an extraordinary 10,000 observations about managers, Google derived "rules" and guidelines for management training and development. Rising to the top over many conventional assumptions abut management were core principles about relationships between bosses and staff. For example, in examining why people leave an organization, Google discovered that managers have a much greater influence on employee performance and engagement than any other factor.

"Google's Rules" do not directly provide criteria for planning and design. Their implications however can serve as a guide to planning wherever similar principles of management apply.

What kind of office environment do you believe best serves to support, nurture, encourage and facilitate –

  • Providing specific, constructive feedback, which seems dependent on observation and timeliness of response
  • Having regular one-on-ones, which seems to want informal, spontaneous, contextual opportunity
  • Giving freedom but being available for advice, which seems to challenge the core concept of management planning – the door
  • Getting to know your employees as people seem to argue for the social rather than the formal workplace
  • Focusing on removing the roadblocks to achievement, which seems to argue for openness and accessibility
  • Supporting communicating in both directions, which seems to support concepts of openness, accessibility, visibility, reduced trappings of hierarchy, and informality
  • Helping with career development, which also seems to ask for visibility and spontaneity
  • Rolling up your sleeves and conducting work side by side with the team, an extraordinary insight, seems to suggest a leveling of workplace accommodation

I liked best the observation of Laszlo Bock, Google's chief people person, who said that one of the most important factors in the success of managers and teams is "just making that connection and being accessible."

Look around your office. If you share a belief in these principles, how do you see them experienced in your workplace? What specific components of your workplace inhibit these principles and actions? What specific components of your workplace support these principles and actions?

Most importantly, what aspects of your workplace support the principle and practice of just making a connection and being accessible?

Corporate leadership – form follows function

In a curious experiment when I was in architecture school, we gave up titles in the leadership of the student government. Instead of the usual president, vice president, etc., we elected four at-large representatives that we arbitrarily called the "Henries." Each Henry assumed some responsibility for certain aspects of getting things done, and made decisions in committee.I don't think it had much continuity beyond the tenure of the initial gang of four. More recently I've been part of an organization that, in transition from the founding father's leadership and a past failure at a successful CEO transition, designated a 3-person executive management team. While there are some natural differentiators in the voice and leadership role that each plays, they consistently attempt to present themselves to the company as "the three amigos."

Jena McGregor considers the issue of co-leadership in Business Week's Management IQ blog this week, and considers the approach "littered with landmines." In my own experience, it seems that good times yield tolerance for these experiments and diffusion of leadership, but that the crucible of declining fortunes yields either finger pointing and distintegration or the opportunity for an individual to step forward, take the reigns and responsibility, and establish hierarchy.

But in more traditional forms of executive leadership, things haven't been rosy. Business in America has been experiencing some spectacular CEO failures over the past few months, and those stories offer cautions to boards about the free reign given to powerful and charismatic individuals. And today, with the GM bankruptcy filing, we see the impact of the failure of individual leadership, and its replacement by a committee, in the interim, and the eventual replacement of a passive board with a probably much more active and attentive one.

Is there a consistent "form follows function" in business governance and management?

Five considerations for the places and spaces of the square-shaped organization

02_28_10 I’ve become increasingly interested in the spatial implications of what I’ve been calling the “square shaped organization.” But before getting to space, let me explain this term.

We have for so long tended to think of the classical modern organization as triangular or pyramidal in form. That is, we see them shaped by a relatively small leadership group at the top of the organization, a proportionally larger middle management rank, and employees in various staff roles forming a large base. This organizational design is now more typical of command-and-control enterprises.

Professional and creative services organizations have traditionally and typically had more of a diamond shape. That is, there is still a relatively small leadership composed of partners in the organization, a broad middle band of associated professionals, but then a relatively small number of support staff.

The spatial and formal footprints of each of these organizations have also been different. The pyramidal organization, usually large and spread across many properties in a portfolio, typically centers in a headquarters building and, most classically, this is a high rise. The corporate officers are on the top floors, the middle management fills in the tower, and the staff is mostly out at regional or manufacturing sites. In the more enlightened of these organizations, management ranks have been typified by the higher levels of middle managers getting offices in the interior of the plan, and the others in this processing and production group organized in hierarchically assigned space in an open plan “cube farm.”

Most of the professional firms have also liked the high rise form for their offices. Although smaller in scale and filling only a few floors of the tower, these firms have nonetheless organized hierarchically. Power is reflected in the assignment of corner and perimeter offices as in the form of the top ranks of the pyramid organization. Associates also get offices, but in many cases, these are located to the interior and with the distinction of not having views and natural light. Support staff and support functions fill in the great middle ground of the floor plan.

But this organizational form is changing. Over the past few months there have been stories about layoffs in law firms, architectural firms, advertising agencies and other similar organizations appearing almost every day of the week. Reading into these reports, it is surprising to see how single layered most of these reductions are. That is, the “associate” ranks seem to be the place of the largest portion of change.

With neither a clear command structure nor a significantly measurable support staff, the organization appears flat and non-hierarchical—they’ve become “square shaped.”

Combined with the adoption of more flexible workstyles enabled by technology, places and spaces that have characterized these organizations no longer make much sense. So what are the implications for space planning for square-shaped organizations? I’d offer these:

It’s now about how things get done, not about who does them Well, before getting to that, who does what is certainly much more important in this new organizational form. The thinness of the organization in most cases means that specialists now compose the firm. But the resources available to them to do stuff are now much more limited. The isolation of practice areas, the dedication of administrative support to individuals or small groups, the accessibility of support, and other characteristics of the recent past are no longer sustainable. To get things done, I believe these organizations need to become much more transparent, that is, much more visually connected.

Design for collaboration, not for direction The new composition of the organization means that older modes of production no longer apply. Just as office technology has put more productivity and in the hands of the professional, the thinning of the ranks of the middle ground in these firms also pushes more production responsibility “upward.” Counterintuitively, this also seems to be making work more diverse. Specialization of knowledge and reduction in production support means that work looks different now. In addition to focused work and production, the professional is increasingly engaging, motivating, and innovating with peers. Effective and productive work now includes socialization, collaboration, mentoring and learning, and these activities need appropriate places and spaces to be effective.

It’s now about place, not about power That is, it’s a good idea to reconsider place-making. In a firm, a community, of peers, and with the need to support more diverse workmodes, not only does work look different now, but place can (must?), too. The expressive vocabulary of the workplace is no longer binary, open or closed. The need to communicate, coordinate and collaborate breaks down walls. The office begins to look more like a city, a community of practice, where the articulation of what you do and how you do it shapes the look and feel of where you do what you do.

Express activities and rituals This is a long overlooked opportunity that I think now has greater relevance in the new organizational form. There will be a set of rituals, a cadence of events, that comes to define what differentiates the organization and supports how things get done. The places where these take place now are found by labels on doors—“conference room”—in otherwise undifferentiated space. The activities of the evolving place are about actions—collaborating, integrating, innovating—and not about hierarchy or formal processes. The right spaces for these activities may call for, or certainly accommodate, new forms and expressions. They can be as distinctive as churches, schools and factories in the urban landscape.

It’s a great opportunity to become a brand The design of these firms in the past has been about style, not about substance. That is, the organizational form was so consistent across these professions, that the formal vocabulary used in planning them became common. What differentiated one from the other was essentially the name on the reception walls and the materials used in the office halls. This new form, however—of specialization, collaboration, ritual, and differential place-making—offers the opportunity to professional services firms, and other organizations evolving to look like them, to be read as distinct brands. Whoever walks into these places will see what is different, and walk away with a visual impression that reinforces the unmistakable differences between them.

If there is this opportunity for a shift in the planning and design vocabulary for the evolving square-shaped organization, and if the firms of this new generation take advantage of this opportunity to see the world as fundamentally different, then other things also begin to evolve and change as well. The office building of today becomes obsolete. Where we choose to do work is less centered. Standards are not. Real estate shifts significantly. But more on this later.

square-shaped_1791_001

A postscript--

Just found this discussion today in Harvard Publishing's HBR Editor's Blog. It seems to be an interesting affirmation of the underlying shift in values and perceptions that might inform this shift in planning I address above.

What will help corporations survive? Here is Handy's prescription:

"....what enables a corporation to succeed in the longer term is a wish for immortality, or at least a long life; a consistent set of values based on an awareness of the organization's own identity; a willingness to change; and a passionate concern for developing the capability and self-confidence of its core inhabitants, whom the company values more than its physical assets. I suggest that those conditions are best met when organizations live up to the literal meaning of the word company--"the sharing of bread"--and regard themselves as communities, not property.....in time, the laws governing corporations will change to reflect (this) new reality." ("Looking Ahead," HBR September 1997)

So what does the future of the organization look like? In one of his very first books, Gods of Management: the Changing World of Organizations, Handy advanced the idea that the best organization operates most like a village--a place where people equally contribute their skills for the good of the whole, where culture matters most, where the initiative is bottom-up, where the shareholders are the people who do the work. "Villages are small and personal, and their inhabitants have names, characters and personalities," he wrote. "What more appropriate concept on which to base our institutions of the future than on the ancient organizational social unit whose flexibility and strength sustained human society through millennia?"

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5 key factors guiding workplace investment for a faster, more robust recovery

One of the most prevalent concepts in industrial and corporate management is the concept of “lean” production. After carefully analyzing processes, leading manufacturers and producers find ways to eliminate barriers, increase efficiency, reduce waste and the cost of waste, improve the quality of jobs and the performance of people, and generate products that provide greater satisfaction and value. In this time of great anxiety about the direction of the economy and the search for places to cut costs and make meaningful investment, I am surprised by what seems to be a persistent failure to understand lean principles in knowledge work. Working with some of the largest manufactures, product marketers, and industrial designers, I am amazed by the persistent application of workplace planning standards that have lost relevance, and the refusal to consider investment in approaches that have been proven to deliver higher productivity—that is, engagement, purpose, commitment, satisfaction, innovation and effectiveness.

I understand the resistance to spend. The notion that a more desirable workplace could yield profitable activity is immediately rejected by facilities personnel and project managers whose sole measure these days is (apparent) cost reduction. I believe, however, that this approach, in many cases, actually embeds persistent cost in the organization’s operations and causes repetitive “right-sizing”—the elimination from the portfolio of the knowledge resources that, more appropriately engaged, would yield leadership in the market and in profitability.

I am generally confident that—

  • Most people don’t require more than about 30 square feet to perform 80% of their tasks efficiently—but corporate facilities standards persistently give them 2 to 10 times that amount of space
  • A high partition surrounding an individual means that individual is not effectively engaged in the purpose and work of the company—if I can’t visually connect with you, waste persists; if your behaviors in the openness interrupt me, you are in the wrong place for what you are doing
  • Most valuable work of leading organizations takes place out of the office or cubicle—in my own case, I’ve come to believe that every hour I spend in my office is more than two hours of lost value to my company
  • As a corollary, our research shows that individual workspaces are unoccupied 40% to 60% of the day—let’s see…$X per square foot times the workstation standard allocation times 50% effectiveness times how many employees time an effectiveness quotient equals how many dollars in lost space productivity?
  • If the only spaces in your organization are labeled “office” and “workstation” and “conference room” you are losing ground in your market—these are about separation and formality in a world that is moved by informality, connectivity, and speed
  • If your people are more connected outside of work than in work, you ought to question your management, planning and technology policies—I learn from my colleagues, and then use what I learn to the value of my client and the position of my company

I think that these things matter, measurably—

  1. Work looks different, now—and so must the workplace
  2. Openness generates profits—opacity is a sign of fraud
  3. Socialization yields the majority of corporate innovation
  4. Focus is a selective activity—collaboration is the dominant activity
  5. Training is a waste—the casual mentoring conversation is where value is created

In all of this, a lighter (leaner) workplace may be the most effective tool to an accelerated recovery and a sustainable leadership. Strip your workplace of weight and rise up the charts.

More later.

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