MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

Filtering by Tag: culture

Honest signals

I made a passing reference in an earlier post to work being done by MIT in the domain of non-verbal communication in the business context, now presented in a book by Alexander Pentland, Honest Signals. It seems worthwhile to return to that for a minute.

Pentland defines "honest signals" as certain non-verbal cues that can be seen in the interactions between people, typically in face-to-face communications. Falling generally into four classes – activity, interest, mimicry and consistency – they are subtle behavior patterns that we pay little attention to but that can be observed and measured.

Through what he calls "reality mining" Pentland has discovered and studied this "second channel of communication" – important components of communication that revolve around social relationships and that significantly influence our decisions, even though we may be unaware of their influence at the time.

He cites the counter-intuitive evidence of the destructive nature of certain policies related to socialization in the workplace. AT&T, assuming that the efficiency of one of its call centers would be higher if its staff took lunch breaks at different times found, instead, through Pentland's research, $15 million in performance improvements when they let everybody go to lunch at the same time. Those breaks allowed employees to informally talk out problems and find solutions that reduced stress and improved their performance.

He also likes to cite one component of their study involving entrepreneurs and investors. Investors who were present at the personal pitch of the ideas supported an entirely different set of business plans than those they had selected only through reading.

That understanding of the role of tacit knowledge and the influence of interpersonal dynamics is significant. We are unaware of these behavioral cues in our interactions with others, yet the decisions we make as a result of those conversations are profoundly affected by them. Again: visible behavioral patterns that we don't notice influence, without our knowing it, the decisions we make.

Now, go into your workplace and look around. Do you see high-walled cubicles where individuals scrunch down out of view of others? Do you see long walls of offices with doors creating a kind of "threshold resistance" to connection and communication? Are you a manager resisting socialization in your workplace?

If this is the form of your workplace, now imagine all that is being lost by missing the opportunities for those "honest signals." Is your company struggling to stay in place in your industry? Does this research suggest a different approach?

According to Pentland, "It turns out that those sorts of unconscious signaling behaviors are enormously important in determining the functioning of an organization. In organizations, most of the communication that’s complicated, that’s really important, still happens’s person-to-person; it’s not by email, it’s not by memo. And yet all of that face-to-face stuff never makes it into the digital record. There may be a memo summarizing a meeting later, or an agenda, but what actually happened never shows up. And all the interactions in the hall or around the water cooler are not even in the org chart. And yet that’s where everything happens."

Narrow the Information Gap to capture higher value in design for workplace transformation

A continuing subject in the work we do is the concept of knowledge creation. It seems to be a subject that is rarely in an architect's or designer's commission. It may reside implicitly in the background of a design project, or may not ever be part of the conversation. It seems, however, that for the role that the workplace itself, and workplace transformation projects play, it should come more to the forefront. We've talked before about how a change in the place or space of work is frequently a key component of an organization's transformation agenda. These workplace strategy programs have a wide spectrum of objectives, with cost-cutting/space saving at the bottom of the achievement graph, and authentic interest in contribution and accomplishment higher on the scale.

Any project's place on the scale is generally determined by its origin. Workplace and workspace matters lie in different silos of organizations. Projects arising out of finance may have cost savings as a primary success metric. We've had some projects arising out of a grassroots interest in advancing the creative output of an an organization, so the primary success measure there has been transition to a different shade of operations culture.

"Change management" is a discipline that is frequently evoked in these programs and here, again, there is a significant range of content, influence and impact. We have seen some programs in which the sum of content is a directory for day-one occupation of the new place – how to find a printer in the new layout, for example. More robust programs establish web sites and other communications programs to provide information over a sustained period of time from the initiation of the project to or through its occupancy many months later.

We reflect on this because the proximity, content and communication of information is a key component in evoking the engagement with intention that is at the core of achieving the real benefits of change, especially where knowledge creation, innovation capability and creative capacity are among the intended goals of the program.

Below is a nice introduction (from Jeff Monday) to the "Information Gap" theory of George Loewenstein. I cite it both for its general relevance and also as a guide to initial thinking about change management programs and their role in achieving the intended purposes of transformation programs, and beyond.

Understanding the information gap in the design, communication and implementation of workplace transformation programs can significantly contribute to the engagement of those affected by them, and through that to significant enhancement of the performance – the knowledge creation – of the organization overall.


Positive ideas for the world from Detroit – TEDxDetroit revisited briefly

In recent months, I've felt that one of the best things we could do as designers, architects, and consultants is to work with our clients in a mode of group therapy. I've had the feeling that each of us and our clients are in a continuing state of concern about the economy and what recovery means and, for each of us, a move forward feels still a bit lonely, even a bit daring, maybe even threatening. And certainly, focused on the continuing issues of survival, recovery, competition, changing value, shifting markets and many other dynamics, it appears that it's also been difficult for many to raise their heads out of the daily demand and become aware of and even engaged in the seeds of development germinating in other places.

The idea, then, of acting as an agent to get a group together to just see, hear and understand better the context that all are in had the optimistic sense that if we all act together we may be able to act sooner and more robustly.

TEDxDetroit was a good, and large, example of this and, judging from the spirit there and a sense of action in communications afterwords, it seems to have initiated some of the effect I would look for in this group idea. Modeled on the TED concept, but independently sponsored, TEDxDetroit offered a jam-packed day of presentations and entertainment illuminating a great portfolio of locally-developing companies, talent and innovations.

Others have commented on some of the more spirited pieces of the day – great and surprising personal stories, commitments and influences in the community, and otherwise hidden musical talent. I thought I might reflect a bit on some things that interested me from the domains of business that were presented there.

Richard Sheridan

I hadn't expected Sheridan's presentation, and appreciated the insights. His story was about user experience, more specifically user-centered design, and most relevantly the practice of observing and engaging the user of what will be proposed.

These practices and processes are still rare in architectural and workspace design where the nature of the selection process, the quality of the design brief, the client's management of process and the spareness of resources all usually mean a significant separation of designer from user. (Joe Duffy's frustration and resolution referenced in my earlier post is a good example of the implications of this process.)

User-centered practice seems to be a well-developed discipline in product and interface design, where there are many stories of great products, corporate growth and satisfied customers achievable only through processes informed by ethnographic disciplines.What benefits might be uncovered through wider use of these methods in the planning and design of facilities?

Fabienne Munch

Fabienne focused on the characteristics of corporate culture, with some interesting insights into the role of ambiguity and inconsistency in shaping cultures with high levels of innovation.

She spoke of the culture "genome" at Herman Miller as having consistently been one of design expressed generally in terms such as, "it's about what you make," "you decide what to make," and "design is at the core" of the business. Herman Miller's evolving culture allows the apparent inconsistencies of, "it's about how you make it," "the market decides what you make," and "business is an integral part of design."

I liked especially her simple formulation to guide decisions about organizational culture – "what or who would you take from here into the future?"

Dawn White

Dawn's was the first of a number of presentations during the day exhibiting a different kind of thinking about business, with social purpose solidly at the core of the plan.

Dawn White presented a simple business and product concept questioning the paradigm of generating power by things that go around. Rather than powered generators, or even windmills, her company has developed a technology that generates electricity by wind movement passing by tubes that are stationary, silent and modular.

As interesting as the technology concept was her manufacturing concept. Her technology generates 1 kilowatt of electricity over each 640 inches of tubing that cost about 1 cent per foot to fabricate on a machine generating 300 feet per minute of tubing. The arithmetic represents a significant potential capture of underutilized plant space in the Detroit region and a great base for employing the people here who know how to engineer and fabricate metal well.

Her story was a good example of transitional thinking for the area, considering talent more than labor, for example, and seeking ways to uncover and utilize capacity in new ways.


Paul Schutt

Paul's company is significantly changing the perception of the economy, innovation and development in Detroit (and other places) as well as offering a new model for media, in general.

Paul referenced the context of the Michigan Cool Cities initiative and its formulation of the TIDE model – that a balanced performance across talent, innovation, diversity and environment was essential to make the kind of high demand place that is attractive to people and generates growth because of that attractiveness.

Paul expressed his company's interest in people "who are more than one thing" – uncovering,  employing and writing about people who were achieving great things in their jobs, and also influential and engaged in other endeavors as well.

His media company is operating with the observation that frequently "narrative does not match the place." That is, that in cities like Detroit, there is more going on than is recognized and that the surprise generated by these stories is a generator of interest and economic growth.

He spoke of the role of data to shape their own perceptions and therefore their approach to stories about place. One example – 76% of households in Michigan are without children – helps overcome paradigms about the lifestyles that have traditionally shaped the design of cities and strategies for marketing, economic development and promotion.

So, group therapy, of sorts – an opportunity to hear about how others are moving forward with enthusiasm, creativity and energy, overcoming past perceptions and even current conditions, to think  innovatively, take action and influence a different future in the region.


, , , ,


Powered by ScribeFire.


Buying the farm

Cabling network system of the Kona Blue aquaculture Sea Station (via bracket) I have this tremendous desire to buy a farm, a specific farm. After decades of vacationing in the area, after a decade (while vacationing) of making a daily pre-breakfast bike tour around the lake and admiring the setting, views, changing light, and topography of the farm, and the great collection of colorful tractors the farmer had, the place came up for sale.

The use of the property has been changing with the age of the farmer. Formerly a vibrant orchard, more of the land has been converted to corn as the task of maintaining the trees became more difficult for the owner. The remnants of the orchard are now maintained by one neighboring farmer, and the corn is grown as feed by another neighbor who raises cattle.

We'd been close to purchasing other properties in the area but, in the overheated market of just the recent years, it's been difficult to reconcile price with place. Our interest in this one is not only because it's a wonderful site, and because it's possible to imagine a life of serenity there, but also because the area is quickly transforming, subdividing, and becoming suburbanized, and not in a very thoughtful or even attractive way. This is one of those areas where everybody wants to live because of its beauty, but then transforms properties into a replica of the worst of the downstate burbs.

This could be one of the last good-sized properties in the area to stay agricultural, and there is pressure in the community to change the zoning ordinance to allow smaller lot sizes.

We made an offer, now about a year ago, that seemed to be right for the market. It was rejected. The farmer is at a turning point in his life. He is too old to take care of the place and his kids are not interested in it. The real estate agent they chose, engaged before the dramatic turn in the market, gave the farmer hopes of being able to achieve a fortune in its sale to a developer, and has been marketing the property as a development site.

We've tried to persuade the agent and his client of the importance of the property as an agricultural site, important not only because of its beauty, but also as an asset giving value to the surrounding communities and the region. But we've been told that once a farmer gives up farming he could care less about the land. So, ever since our initial offer, we've been dreaming more anxiously about the place and trying to imagine other ways of financing and affording it.

Even while rejecting the notion of its development, my own thoughts have been in imagining a different kind of development, a different kind of settlement in and on this land. Is it possible to design and develop in a way that is not only appropriately sustainable, but aesthetically "compatible"? I have only little particles of ideas emerging, yet, so maybe I'll come back to this in the future.

In the meantime, this competition brief is an inspiration, from [bracket].

Once merely understood in terms of agriculture, today information, energy, labour, and landscape, among others, can be farmed. Farming harnesses the efficiency of collectivity and community. Whether cultivating land, harvesting resources, extracting energy or delegating labor, farming reveals the interdependencies of our globalized world. Simultaneously, farming represents the local gesture, the productive landscape, and the alternative economy. The processes of farming are mutable, parametric, and efficient. From terraforming to foodsheds to crowdsourcing, farming often involves the management of the natural mediated by the technologic. Farming, beyond its most common agricultural understanding is the modification of infrastructure, urbanisms, architectures, and landscapes toward a privileging of production.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Trying to find momentum

evh98-wire In the meantime...

I remember an early lecture in architecture school about America's "kleenex" culture---the use-once-and-throw-away characteristic of our society. Here's the UN and its membership entry.

Continuing the discussion on what in design is more authentic as the economy changes---democratic ecology, intelligent design, longevity...and the burbs.

So, maybe about 30 years ago, I scribbled some graphic notes in my sketchbook representing sound levels in the city. I was interested in what might give a different topography to the city, and what considerations might generate a different kind of architecture. I was also interested to discover if activity levels correlated with financial speculation. That is, did the architectural topography of place (assumed to be financial) have any relationship with the social (my noise level/graphic equalizer map) topography. Fund to find other explorations.

And I can't remember where this came from, but thanks for the delightful A History of Visual Communications.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

Detroit Wildlife

Florent Tillon has made a video on its way to becoming a movie, about Detroit. He says, "...the vision of Detroit that other people have around the world is more a Mad Max picture than anything else... When I was there this summer, I found something else, really, very far from this reputation : I founded great people, wonderful landscape, and a life rather pleasant, after all..." [vimeo]

more about Detroit Wildlife

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to Ma.gnoliaAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl

Cartable culture

As New York real estate dynamics create new social dynamics in neighborhoods, Glenn Collins, writing in the NYT today, asks, "Is charisma cartable?" Bar 6, Buenos Aires

from Argentina's Travel Guide

"But if drinking and dining have always been a movable feast in New York, is charisma cartable? Can the character of everything from venerable pubs to palatial eateries migrate with their names and owners? This portability issue has gained new urgency in a season of economic disarray, when property owners are less willing to extend the leases of even the most beloved old-timers."

Favorite neighborhood bars, losing leases, relocate and hope that the vestiges of place, transported and reinstalled, will draw familiar customers and the character and culture of their original locations. He writes that, "Loyalists can be fickle, and geography perilous."

He references a consultant who says, “you want to transfer a core set of values, so people will make an emotional connection and keep coming. But there’s a need for reinvention as well — new people must sense that this is the place to be.”

In the more barren urban landscape of Detroit, I often wonder if culture is cartable. Or maybe my question and challenge is, can form create culture?

In a recent trip to Argentina, we found a host of great places in Buenos Aires. Bar 6 was one of them.

The interior was a delight. Under an arching wooden canopy with an angular slice of sunlight  were a variety of settings supporting a variety of social opportunities. Much more than a bar, Bar 6 seemed to embody the dynamics of the entire neighborhood.

At mid-day, it was lunch that brought the people. In the early afternoon, the place seemed to catch a diverse clientele, both local and global, enjoying a break from the shopping in the Palermo neighborhood, or just stopping by because it was the local place to be. In the late afternoon, the moms took over the place, strollering in the infants, meeting the schoolkids, chatting with the current generation of young mothers.  By early evening, the commuting dads seemed to arrive to join their wives and kids for a cocktail to end the day and set a stage for dinner. Late in the evening, the hipsters arrived, and the place took on an extraordinarily different dynamic. Throughout it all there was a great sound track, and each of the formal settings--bar stool, couch, club chair, cafe table--supported each constituency.

Was this urban culture at work? Or was this form at work?

I yearn for the replication of this form in Detroit. I yearn for the places and spaces that support a diversity of generations, lifestyles, purposes and activities. I live, instead, in a place of social zoning---coffee places, family places, dinner places, places to explicitly articulate membership in a specific economic class/strata, cruising places, etc.

No place (I know of)  in Detroit is lit except from the narrow, frontal dimension. No place in Detroit offers anything than dark. No place in Detroit offers a diversity of settings. No place in Detroit offers appropriateness for every time of day and every generation. No place in Detroit accommodates more than one race, one generation, one lifestyle, one class, one. Nothing about Detroit is about community, only about conflict.

Does the embedded culture support the design of the place? Can design of place transform a culture? Can design, regardless of place, support community? Who designs Detoit, anyway? Who pays them, and for what? (Sorry!)

A Vision in the Desert--Sustaining a developing culture

Photos from the New York Times and, from left, Gehry Partners, Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando

Nic Ouroussoff writes in the New York Times today about a new "city of culture" in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. It is a grand vision, still evolving, with major proposed works by Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and others. Nic focuses on the potential of the development to foster a "new cultural model" for the Middle East. Key in the potential success of this venture is the participation of major Western cultural institutions in more than architecture. It will be essential for these established institutions to make major loans to the new Abu Dhabi centers to establish a foundation for a "complex cultural conversation."

More than a decade ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Abu Dhabi to initiate a project for a new national standards laboratory. Embedded in the program was the logic of a natural sustainable place, even in those early days of our awarenesses. If Abu Dhabi were to grow, for example, a supply of fresh water to this place on the Gulf and at the edge of a desert, would have to be established. The labs could develop technologies for large scale desalination plants, for example, to support a local agricultural transformation.

More fascinating, however, was a social initiative that lay behind the laboratory's program. As in other places in the Arab world, oil wealth was making it possible for the sons of the nation to travel to other places and receive great educations from some of the world's best universities in some of the world's most cosmopolitan and sophisticated places. On graduation, however, they resisted return to a nation that was only now emerging from a tribal Bedouin culture, a nation where most of those who actually worked guest workers from other countries in service jobs, and a nation where there was very little to sustain the challenge, interest and intellect these sons had gained in other places. The national standards lab was part of a vision of the nation's leaders to provide a place with the appropriate scientific infrastructure to attract their sons back to Abu Dhabi where they could apply the knowledge they had gained for the good of the country, and hopefully grow opportunity here for future generations.

Nic's article reflects concerns for the cultural center plans and using buildings as a branding exercise and as marketing commodities. From my past experience, I hope instead that the power of architecture is a valid part of a persistent vision for a more inclusive, connected, and creative society, and part of a wisdom that will embed a more global awareness and participation in places that are now in threat of broadening conflict and cultural, social and economic retreat.