Among the most common expressions of advice as anxiety turns to optimism in the economy relates to the preparedness and actions of leaders. "You must rapidly move from the status quo," so many advisers say, "and establish and consistently articulate a vision for moving forward." It may be this vision quest that so many organizations are going through that makes the request for a review of trends such a frequent agenda item in our conversations with current and potential clients. As I noted in our last post, a review of what others are doing now provides information, a measure of pace, a confidence in direction, and other assurances that you are on the right path. I cautioned, however, that trends, in this sense of "solutions," are more the evidence of what others may have found to be the right move to make, yet may neither connect authentically to your own purposes nor deliver similar or related results.
I thought I'd return to this subject, with a slightly different skew. Reviewing trends as "solutions" to help shape your path forward begins at the wrong point and may lead to bad results. Understanding and analyzing trends that shape what you do and how you do it is an essential discipline in shaping and communicating vision and purpose, and in shaping and delivering services and products that have value to those you serve.
More specifically, shaping a workplace transformation program based on the trends you see in the actions of others may be more harmful than doing nothing. Shaping a new workspace around the trends and directions driving the value in what you do can be a powerful agent in sustainable leadership.
Transform, and activate
A major social services organization was facing challenges brought by the reduction of resources as a result of the economic collapse, and a corresponding rise in demand for their services. The leader of the organization recognized that they would have to begin to do more with less. He quickly realized that he could never accomplish that mission-rich but resource-spare agenda in the type of workplace where they had been working. Although a generous gift from a financial services company, it was generations out of date, compartmentalized, and walnut-paneled. And it dragged on their energy and purpose.
This leader researched trends in workplace design and spoke with architects, designers and furniture manufacturers. He began to form a vision of the workspace concepts that he believed would characterize the type of organization they would need to become – open, collaborative, agile, responsive. He then embarked on a major program to find and design the right type of space. He included in it all of the elements that he had been advised were the components of a more open and collaborative culture. He then moved his organization in and waited for the culture to take shape.
After several months, this same leader began to shape another program – this time to "activate" the workplace. Even though his organization's workspace was at the leading edge of a typology for action-oriented organizations, the results he expected were not materializing. Returning to the recent reformulation of the organization's mission, he put together a proposal to augment the earlier project with artifacts of the unique work his organization did, and more representative of how work is actually done in the organization. They are now implementing a tuning and amplification of the concept in place.
Touch down, and touch base
A leading consulting organization had an innovation culture and a staff who worked closely with their clients in modes that were highly mobile. They were able to design and implement mobile workstyles that progressively reduced demand for their own corporate real estate. Each iteration of the program brought the ratio of people to seats higher and higher, and the ratio of real estate to people lower and lower.
The people who worked for them had no problem with the evolution of these programs. They did their best work in close contact with their clients, and traveled around the world to deliver their advice. The company became a model and their workplace transformations became benchmarks for others, the influential origin of a trend toward aggressive mobile workforce solutions.
This company however, began to have problems with the results of these programs. They had so successfully supported mobile workstyles that their people rarely had contact anymore with the company or their peers. The knowledge they had when they entered the company was not expanding, and the experience they gained in their work was not being transferred. Their brand power, formed from collective intelligence, experience and expertise, was eroding.
One component of their solution was, oddly, a workplace transformation program. They developed a workplace that was so authentically responsive to the experiences and behaviors of their "road warriors" that it became their preferred place to touch down. These "offices" became the places where they found colleagues and traded stories, where they updated and sustained their sense of the brand, and nourished their intellectual energies before heading off on the next engagement. The company is now making headlines again, and the next wave in its business innovations currently under way.
Envision, and transform
A large creative services organization composed of several advertising and media companies recently began a lease consolidation program to bring all of the companies together in one place. These companies were fiercely independent, proud of their brand legacy and, in some cases, competitive with each other for clients and accounts. And they were very resistive to the program.
They participated, however, in a series of exercises that looked at the changing nature of the business they were in, the drivers of change for themselves and for their clients and customers, and the products and services they would need to develop to survive the change and to achieve and sustain leadership. This analysis led to insights that allowed them to envision the behaviors and experiences that would be essential to how they would frame and deliver those services. They then shaped a workplace and workspace transformation program around those experiences and behaviors.
Within a few months of moving into their new workspace, their principal customer, a global manufacturer, complemented them on the impact he felt to his business from the change that had taken place in theirs. Both the companies and their customers had survived a very challenging business context and today are leaders in their markets.
M-Shaped Strategies – A process inversion
These are the successful stories. In each case, these organizations shifted direction from initial intentions and achieved results from solutions that were original to their purposes. So many other organizations in these times, however, are starting with goals of "cost savings" and embracing workplace transformation trends and implementing programs that shed and minimize real estate but threaten the effectiveness of their mission.
The identification and analysis of trends is very important in the formation of a vision or development of a strategy for a robust and sustainable future. The trends to study in this context are not solutions, however, but problems. These trends are the weaker and stronger signals of emerging change, or of dissatisfaction with the now, or of a shift in value or values that provide the insight shaping the moves you want to make to be effective, or to lead, or to fulfill a purpose and meet a need in the future. They are what Roger Martin calls the "mystery."
These trends define the context for what you will do as an organization. Clayton Christensen calls this the "job" you are asked to do, the root problem your customer wants you to solve, or the result they want to achieve through your products or services. In the examples I cited above, the social services organization's customers wanted advocacy, the consulting organization's customers wanted to trust in and receive the value of the brand, and the media company's customers wanted integrated creative communications.
The role of the workplace in each of these "jobs-to-be-done" was influenced by considerations of functional, emotional and social experiences of both staff and customers in these organizations. People who worked for the social services organization or who had an interest to contribute to its programs could be moved beyond volunteering and donating to active advocacy by becoming immersed in the story of the community they would affect. People who worked for the consulting organization and their clients would progress throughout the exchange of experiences and knowledge gained in a global practice by its members. Customers of the organization composed of the media and advertising organizations would benefit from the creative and coordinated programs developed by in the collaborative and open culture of its agencies.
The jobs-to-be-done and the understanding of the experiences of staff and customers of these organizations were the underlying and salient considerations that then shaped their workplace strategies, programs, and designs. Each of these organizations, achieving and sustaining leadership through what they do are now effectively, trend setters, and have the potential to influence the moves that others make. But the strategies and concepts used by the agencies, for example, which could be seen as representative of a trend in design for "agile" and "collaborative" and "team-based" workplaces, would be inappropriate or insufficient for the jobs that the other organizations were trying to do even though they, too, wanted to support agile, collaborative teams.
I would recommend an inversion in the process and origins of the conversations we've seen as a trend in the quest for trends.
If you are an organization who also believes that the nature of your workspace influences the impact of your work, try inverting the conventional process. Try starting the conversation with your architect or designer by telling him or her about the trends deeply affecting your clients or customers – the "mysteries" in your scan and the "jobs" your clients want done – and how they might affect the direction you feel you need to take as an organization. I assume he or she will then engage with you in a conversation about the experiences that are at the core of your offering, and shelve the conventional presentation of the portfolio and the latest styles of workplace design.
I think you'll be happier.
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