MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

Filtering by Tag: design

Roger Martin on Design Thinking

There is a lot of skepticism around "design thinking" brought, I think, by process rigorists constraining movement forward and missing the significant benefits of even casual application of its principles and practices.

In any case, Roger Martin's voice is always excellent in connecting the shared purposes of business and design.

Things we've noticed

How. And why. Not what.

This is a very nice piece on enjoying the "how" and "why" in the process of answering a challenging question rather than rushing to the "what," the answer.

The process of answering a question should be a voyage of discovery, a journey during which you learn something, and one where you enjoy yourself in the process.

The essay made me think about the invisible processes in business, and also how the places of businesses are not designed around the how and why. If the design and planning of workspaces made clearer the purposes of the enterprise, and if the processes people and teams used to get to the what were more transparent and observable, would an organization learn more, create more valuable knowledge, and achieve more?

What innovators share

Somewhat related to the above is this review in the Ottawa Business Journal of a recent book on the "innovator's DNA." The review reflects on the power of "the five whys" while also noting the five distinguishing characteristics of successful innovators.

associating, observing, questioning, experimenting and networking

We'd found our way this week, in the midst of our own annual strategic planning, to a discussion about the uniqueness of the places and spaces where innovation seems most successful. As I carry the images of those spaces, I'm making a resolution to shape our design mission – our client's "program" or "design brief" for their corporate workspace – into a form that links workspace concepts to these 5 attributes.

That is, since most of our clients are engaged in a search for how to generate and support a more entrepreneurial culture, I intend to test a change of the lexicon of workplace design from conventional descriptors of corporate organization and function ("accounting") and conventional workplace form ("conference room") to new terms reflecting these innovation behavior attributes.

I expect that radical transformations in design processes and concepts will emerge.

Augmented reality

There are many things to enjoy and reflect on in this proposal of trends for 2012 from the Smithsonian here and here.

I expect I'll come back to the list for further exploration and comment, since I stopped almost immediately at the first subject, augmented reality.

In a recent project, we found transformative approaches to design through our slogan of "augment, amplify, activate." A client had a new workspace designed by others, but then found it experientially flat. It satisfied the organizations, functions and facility metrics of the enterprise, but did nothing to change their culture and performance, which was the purpose of the project in the first place. Our slogan was a motivator to the occupiers and the designers to explore conceptual modifications to support behavioral change and development.

This sense of "augmentation" seems like a rich territory for exploration in design. A while back I had speculated on "the autoupdating workspace." And more recently, a colleague raised a question about augmented reality which made me think in entirely different terms about the "productivity" of both the principal artifact of our service, digital "drawings," and the activities that take place in the spaces and places we design. I've become increasingly interested in how to build layers on top of our digital design information and capture digital information from the physical spaces we design.

The Race Against the Machine

Related to the above, I've just finished reading Race Against the Machine, and am now both tremendously excited as well as terribly frightened.

The motivation for me is to begin to imagine the role of the workspace in assuring the race with the machine. Finding a strengthening signal in the requests we are getting from clients, there is an accelerating realization that space supports enterprise sustainability, but this is increasingly tied to the changes in the way we work together because of the extraordinary acceleration of technology.

We are now attracted to, and attractive to, clients whose enterprise is shaped around technologies that, yes, automate creativity. These enterprises are now, or soon will be, seeking spatial solutions well beyond the most advanced corporate real estate solutions.

The Singularity

And, of course, this.

Focus groups

I am not sure about this, but can't stop thinking about it. That is, is Facebook a relevant a valuable data source for workspace design? It seems so logical to "crowdsource" criteria and concepts for a satisfying and uniquely productive work do we best do it?

...and, in case you were wondering

Why humans have chins

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.

The future of design for new ways of working

This is an introductory module to my emerging point of view on the future of the design of the new workplace. This draft module sets a theme for exploration with corporate real estate clients. I'll fill in the blanks in future posts on my recommendations for effective strategies to plan and design for the new ways of working.

[slideshare id=5208107&doc=experiencemodule100915-100915112929-phpapp02]

How place makes space for employee-generated innovation

Successful internally-generated innovation – both the amount of ideas as well as the implementation of those ideas – can be greatly amplified through the planning and design of place. I know this both from my own practice and from the cues and clues that arise in the work of others who study how innovation arises in the corporate context. One good validation came from a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. In their report,  "Who Has Innovative Ideas? Employees," JC Spender and Bruce Strong say the trick to uncovering and building innovation potential is in knowing how to tap into employees. They propose the importance of the formation of what they call "innovation communities" and  outline seven key characteristics that they have identified as being part of the success of this concept.

Right at the top of their list is the recommendation to create the space to innovate. This spatial imperative is resonating through the work of many others these days, including the "bowling alley" analogy of Geoffrey Moore, the "creation spaces" concept of Hagel, Seely Brown and Davidson, and the "scenius" concept proposed by Eno. In each of these concepts, an essential beginning move is the development of a place of attraction that will draw people together, develop a sense of community, and ultimately become the magnet for others and a replicable model for idea generation and execution.

Let's take the mystery out of innovation and its inspirations. Most great ideas for enhancing corporate growth and profits aren't discovered in the lab late at night, or in the isolation of the executive suite. They come from the people who daily fight the company's battles, who serve the customers, explore new markets and fend off the competition. In other words, the employees.

Almost every other one of the Spender/Strong recommendations resonates with the same underlying principle that makes the space imperative so important – all innovation is social. As they and others point out, the concept of the lone inventor has been overturned by the recognition of the strength of collaborative idea generation and development.

Success in this approach is, however, not a given. It arises out of an environment of trust – the places where people have had the opportunity to "dwell" with each other, get to know each other, develop a sense of shared values and, through the resultant trust that is developed, generate a culture of openness and collaboration. These communities of innovators and the benefits of their work arise best from a sustaining culture that is built first and fastest in physical space.

The essential horizontal crossovers and vertical connectivity are developed and nurtured through the casual, incidental, social contact that takes place through visibility and proximity. The all-important tacit knowledge – what Spender/Strong call, unfortunately, "unused talent and energy" – that enriches mutual pursuits can then begin to flow. As success is achieved, and their stories are told, the enterprise can then achieve the power of the "pull" they reference and the culture that they call "collateral benefit."

A new headquarters for the Auto Club of Michigan was one of the first major projects where I explored this idea. The association realized that in order to sustain and grow its services, it also had to grow. The executive team had begun to explore the idea of cross-functional project-based teams to accomplish this. As we renovated and expanded their 2500-person headquarters, we encountered significant resistance to leading ideas about a more open workplace. We did, however, design a very special environment for the teams charged with business innovation who were usually engaged together for periods of between 4 and 13 weeks to do their work. This three-story cube suspended in a perforated rotunda was not only a perfect working environment for the innovation work mode, but also a symbol for the transformation of the company. This and other spaces supported a transition from a closed, hierarchical organization to a more social and communicative organization, and led to the successful acquisition of several other midwestern auto clubs and the achievement of a leadership position among similar financial services, insurance and travel organizations.

More recently, in work for the WPP Group, I proposed a counter-intuitive "two seats for every employee" strategy to overcome resistance to collocation and integration of of previously competitive and independent advertising and media companies. Breaking down all the walls between the 1300 people and the dozen companies that came to occupy the same space, the two seats concept provided a variety and diversity of "social" spaces where people could dine, meet, plan, exchange ideas, develop concepts, trade stories, and transform the organization. The concept became the model for subsequent collocation and workplace transformation initiatives for the creative services conglomerate.

The latest workplace design trends

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.

Redefining trends

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.

A recommendation

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.


© MEREDITH Strategy & Design | M-Shaped Strategies ®

Clayton Christensen, The Innovator's Prescription

Roger Martin, The Design of Business

Similar, on best practices

Why can't the world's best architects build better web sites?

(sorry, do not have original credit) I've been spending time lately in the development space of entrepreneurs for the purposes of designing spaces for entrepreneurs, and I am learning. A central ritual of entrepreneurial life is the pitch to venture capitalists. A central discipline of the pitch is its conciseness of form, its brevity in delivery, its formula for content, its cadence, its medium, its goal.

This essential crispness of discipline is reinforced over and over. The VC's motivation to commit millions of dollars of investment is tied to a handful of PowerPoint slides and no more than 15 to 18 minutes of clear accessible language in presentation and conversation.

I reflect on this because of the contrast it has with the performance in my core practice – architecture and design. The connection arises because recently Fast Company gave voice to Alissa Walker who offered an appropriately stinging commentary on the design of the web sites of leading architects. Web sites and pitches are not directly aligned, but they relate here because architects' web sites are part of a culture of presentation that evokes sharp reactions from those outside of the profession who see something that does not make sense to them.

And does it make sense for architects, themselves, anymore?

I went to a lecture last night (these are always, actually, portfolio presentations)  by a very well-known architect. Organized around a small number of key themes, she presented mostly what we call "work on the boards." These were projects well advanced in design, but not yet constructed.

Among the projects she presented was work done for the federal government. "As you know," she said, "the GSA's Design Excellence projects require you to develop 3 schemes. We gave names to these schemes – Z, T and I."

Encapsulated in that sentence are several aspects of the culture and practice of the profession that characterize architectural presentations and may be contributing factors to the enormous frustration people feel with architects' web sites.

First, by way of background, architects are chosen on the basis of "qualifications" and, in the parlance of most clients, this means "experience" and experience means the display of projects that are like the project contemplated by the client. Rarely is there an interest in the chance luck of a great piece of architecture coming out of a start-up or otherwise inexperienced firm.

In a project, despite months of extended conversations between architects and their clients, architects are compelled, typically, to present not one big idea but three. This practice comes both from the insecurity of the client and the insecurity of the architect, and may also be a tactic to attempt to move the client from a preconceived concept to one that the architect prefers or recommends as better for whatever reasons.

Architects are also notorious users of jargon, mostly from the domains of academic criticism and usually obscure and inaccessible. Even in the case I cited above, the selection of very simple letter designations is a layered abstraction. The letters relate to the plan form of the building concepts (Z-shaped, etc.). This, of course, separates form from function, and separates the architect's language of shape from the client's language of purpose, production and performance.

I expect that architects' web sites are an extension of all of this. For a diverse practice, the necessity to present a large number of projects is a way of potentially participating in a client selection lottery, of sorts, assuring that client X may find at least one project that satisfies the qualifications checklist. Verbal jargon may very well be a way to suspend the conversation, in a way, so that the precision of words does not imply or incur exclusion. Flash animation is participation in a domain of presentation and technology as a way of claiming currency and legitimacy and, perhaps, also the continuation of the practice of presenting form before content.

After the collapse of the economy, and of the opportunity to build, I realized that almost every project opportunity I might have could only become real by treating a project like a business plan, like an entrepreneur's pitch. Every move to access and utilize capital by the project had to be linked to a performance result, an impact on the organization or the business that resonated well beyond the building itself. My client became, in essence, my client's customers.

Opportunities arise now not from the presentation of qualifications validated by a portfolio of past work, but through a concise conversation about how place and space will measurably enhance the business or transform the organization. The design solution is less these days the form that emerges after the extended development of a program of requirements, but the fresh idea presented at the first meeting with the client that demonstrates a well-developed understanding of the challenges and opportunities in their domain of operation and the factors that will move them to differential success.

I expect that this new form of practice will begin to reshape the way that architects present themselves – in lectures, presentations, and web sites. (And gives me my own homework, here!)

As part of the mashup of news and ideas that occurs in my daily dawn review of RSS feeds, there was coincidentally, in addition to the Fast Company article, a link to this TED Talks video of David Rose's advice on the entrepreneurial pitch.

Architects, could you imagine a client interview guided by this advice? Clients, if VC's will make a commitment of millions on the basis of these guidelines, why not you in your projects? [ted id=353]

Working and commuting in the living room

atnmbl_gallery_drivewayatnmbl_gallery_country In another of those days of interesting intersections of random readings from other places (the fast scan of the RSS reader) came this cluster, reminders of how the seismic shift in the economy set an emerging, but latent, shift in values into a more prominent position in thinking, doing and practicing, illuminating both their possibilities and the clutter in the way of gaining momentum. My interest is not so much in the specifics of these references, but with the sense that all of these moves in other places are indicators of need and potential illuminations of lags in other places.

So, in a few minutes of scanning on Monday morning,  these –

Alice Rawsthorn reflected on opportunities for new thinking in automotive design, and expressed concerns about missed opportunities. She observes that the car companies have been traditionally focused first on the propulsion system, and then on exterior rather than interior styling. Combined with the closed culture that creates and sustains automotive designers, and the risk-averse culture reflected in corporate product development decisions, the resulting designs for a new breed of car – the electric vehicle – lack inspiration and motivation. Despite a dramatic shift in the nature of the problem, the response is largely conventional.

It’s one of the most exciting design challenges of our time. It’s a (very) rare opportunity to reinvent a ubiquitous object that is the most expensive — and, often, most emotive — thing that many people will ever buy except for their homes.


Almost as if in response, Dwell presented this video interview with a San Francisco design team, Mike and Maaike, and some of their thinking on personal transportation. A fantasy scenario – and a wish - for the family car of 2040, their concept is a reflection on autonomous commuting and a mobile lifestyle. In a shft of thinking from the driver experience to the passenger experience, and from propulsion to lifestyle continuity, they sketch an entirely different sense of shape, enclosure, visibility, and even directionality. (Images from

Their vision seemed to be also an anticipation of Joe Duffy's lament and exhortation – Stop going to work! – in his FastCompany blog. "I don't believe that inspiration is sufficiently served up in even the most compelling office environments," he writes, pointing to the importance of escape, exposure to new things, changing perspectives and other environmental influences on innovative and creative thinking.

It's this last one that is closest to our practice and an indicator of a substantial shift in thinking about the design of the workplace. For a decade, or more, there have been a number of influences that have been slowly shaping how we and our clients think about the world of work. In many cases, while relevant to emerging workplace culture changes, they have been influences from outside – considerations about differing behaviors and values in cultures, genders and generations, potentials for mobility generated by technology, global networking, and, of course, cost reduction. It has been rare, however, that a client has invited us to advise them on how to shape their workspace in consideration of the experiences of their employees and the potential benefits to be gained from the quality of those experiences.

Each of these cited references are particles in a stream of reflections here and by others that the dissatisfactions with what went before are the emerging opportunities for design thinking and design strategie now. Rawsthorn's thesis is about shifting the focus from what propels us to us. Mike and Maaike remove propulsion form the equation altogether; their wish, I expect, is not about styling but about a transportation mode that is not selfishly demanding attention to itself. And Duffy's lament is very similar – if you want something from me that gives value to what we are all doing, don't preoccupy me with products and practices (propulsion systems) that reinforce a different set of metrics and values.

I look forward to going to the office now that I don't consider it "going to work." For me it's actually the more social aspect of creating design. Because I'm not going there out of habit or for the sake of appearances, it's just another interesting facet of everyday life and it helps keep things in balance.

Balance = happy = creative = productive. Repeat.

So some basic questions –

Why is it so difficult to change when change means survival? Why so difficult to uncover and articulate a vision for change? Is centralized management over?

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Workspace "activation" – emerging concepts to move beyond workplace "branding"

activation0001_blogactivation0002_blogactivation0003_blog I’ve spoken frequently of my appreciation of the “white space” of the workplace. I appreciate most the power of these spaces that lie between function and interaction to energize and activate the workspace.

These places are rare in the normal allocation of space in organizational real estate, especially in times of constrained spending. Yet, perhaps because they may more authentically represent the culture of the organization, we’ve found that these are the places and spaces that evoke the commitment and engagement of staff and enhance their performance. These are places, in other words – normally cut from organizational space allocations – that allow people to more rapidly and effectively comprehend, support and achieve the organizational mission.

We are preparing proposals for an organization who sought a dramatic transformation of its culture as an essential factor in its sustainability and its ability to contribute effectively to the sustainability of its partner organizations and the communities where they do their work.

Their new “offices” – in a formerly mistreated and largely abandoned high-rise – has a model proportion of “white spaces.” These spaces – unnamed in the functional program but provided through “net-to-gross” conversion factors – support several cultural and behavioral shifts:

  • From closed to open
  • From assigned to free
  • From entitlement to activity
  • From formal to casual
  • From secure to invitational

Most importantly, these spaces provide places for the staff to meet with members of partner organizations in extended occupancy – a few days or a few weeks – to work on problems and develop programs to benefit a constituency or community. What had previously been scheduled, agenda-driven and formal now can accommodate a project timeline and become appropriately and effectively extended, adaptable, resource-rich, collaborative, and focused on impact rather than time.

Now, in the last phase of their implementation and move, we are transforming our commission – develop and implement an identity and wayfinding signage program – toward a program for what we’re calling “workspace activation.”

We have generally moved away from more conventional, and commercial, concepts of “workplace branding.” We believe that the best expression of the brand of a company or organization is its work, and that the visible display of its work is much more effective than the display of corporate identity or communication of motto. We also believe that this “workspace activation” resonates into the effectiveness, influence and impact of the organization and its people.

Some emerging guiding principles include –

  • You are your brand – make your work visible; display what you do and how you do it
  • Make the workplace a canvas for discovery – "collaboration" so many times references production, yet a key culture of leading organizations is creating knowledge, as well; encourage communication and experience sharing
  • Design for experience – allow adaptation of the workspace to enable immersion in the work by shaping the space to meet the needs of the project

We are therefore developing a palette of graphic and other resources to animate the space with color, movement, image, information, invitation and hospitality. Neither “wayfinding,” nor “branding,” nor “signage,”  our program proposes a set of cues, clues, samples and examples to encourage a culture of information openness, collaborative participation, and continuous communication.

We hope to provide a canvas for uncovering potential, giving coherence to capabilities, and initiating sustaining transformation.

© Jim Meredith/MEREDITH Strategy & Design LLC

Work looks different, now

Image from "Playtime" by Jacques Tati One of the mantras we’ve used in developing new workplace designs for organizations dependent on creativity for their differentiation and performance is that “work looks different, now.”

This is a formulation meant primarily for senior executives and for the facilities teams who serve them. We use it to open their eyes and minds to the fact that innovation – whether in the office, the lab, or the shop – is inherently social. Yet, the traditional and conventional lexicon of workplace planning and design does not support a social workplace.

To say it another way, it is our belief that conventional workplace planning and design approaches retard organizational development, inhibit the performance of teams, and so burden the organization that they are effectively surrendering leadership ground in their industry to others.

To say that yet another way, new approaches to workplace planning and design can deliver the commitment, engagement, collaboration and performance that supports competitive differentiation and leadership positioning.

The workplace transformation imperative

This was a consideration of critical importance before this latest Great Compression (our recent economic collapse and its workplace and real estate effects) and much more critical if companies want to rise in it and achieve or sustain leadership out of it.

If companies had not already invested in their workplace to reflect the new world of work before the recession they may, without new action, be left behind in the new and next economy. Investment in a new kind of workplace has already been shown to deliver differential margins in both substantial cost reduction and top line growth.

Professional expertise, surveys and stories about the impacts of new workplace models have already indicated a significant trend toward a new kind of workplace enabled by technology, facilitated by enlightened HR policies, and supported by better concepts for workstyle agility. Where more open and non-territorial environments were once resisted, all generational segments of the workforce, including the critical and essential brainpower and energy at the Boomer and Gen Y "bookends," are now asking for workplace design transformation.

So, “work looks different, now.”

Designing with the social brain in mind

In addition to the developments noted in practice, there is a body of research supporting what we are seeing in these trends.

I appreciated a recent article in Bain & Company’s Strategy + Business publication – “Managing with the Brain in Mind: Neuroscience research is revealing the social nature of the high-performance workplace.” Reflecting on research done at UCLA into the social processes of the brain, David Rock says that “the brain experiences the workplace first and foremost as a social system.”

Okay, before going on, look around your workplace. If we experience the workplace first and foremost as a social system, what are the places and spaces in your workplace that support this social system?

Rock makes a key formulation he gives the acronym SCARF. Based on neuroscience research and findings related to key performance factors, he identifies the social factors of the workplace that are significantly influential in differential business performance – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness –

  • Status, a comparative value, contributes to a sense of survival and is a factor in longevity and health
  • Certainty has the potential of building confidence and dedication
  • Autonomy and the ability to set one's own directions is significant in the reduction of stress
  • Relatedness, or feeling part of a social group, is a key component to collaboration
  • Fairness, and the trust that it nurtures, is essential to engagement and motivation

It would be very interesting to develop a linked design vocabulary – a lexicon of form – to each of these components to study and test the influence of the design of place on workplace performance. We can speculate on what might be successful, and have used certain design concepts in our work in an intuitive approach that has yielded anecdotal confirmation of the research and findings that Rock cites. Some considerations for discussion –

  • Status, or entitlement, has been the principal guiding influence on conventional workplace planning and design standards. The hierarchy of status has been reflected in who gets offices and whose spatial footprint is larger. Status, however, can be corrosive on corporate purpose and value and destructive of the social environment essential to high performance. In our work, we have sought to reduce these footprint entitlements. We have generated corporate standards or, better, guidelines, based on functional requirements rather than title, and have tended to reduce measurable factors of individual title or corporate role. Instead, by designing the overall environment to reflect the values, goals and purposes of the organization, we have generated very unique places that gain their status by comparison to the outside, to competitors. We contribute to the health and longevity of the organization and its people by building a pride and status that is not internally competitive but that supports the socialization that is about teams and teaming and the differential outcomes of their work in their industry.
  • We've seen the development of the functional program of workplace – the allocation, mix and relevance of its spaces – as a potential contributor to the certainty that the research credits with a response in a differential dedication to the organization by its people and teams. We believe that when organizations tell us that what they value includes teamwork, or innovation, or continuous learning, or speed, or transparency, or community engagement, then we need to respond with recommendations of the types of spaces that reflect those cultural attributes and values in authentic and effective ways. In our space programs for creative organizations, it is rare that you'll find a conventional "conference" room, for example, but you'll find lots of places, both closed and open, where teams can dwell and work on projects together. You'll rarely see "training" rooms, but you'll see lots of people working together in informal one-on-one sessions where effective contextual knowledge transfer is taking place.
  • In much of our work, the workplace has become significantly lighter. In order to support autonomy, and agility, we've felt that the arrangement of the workplace should be flexible and adaptable to meet the changing needs of individuals and teams over time as the nature and styles of their work changes. Wireless networks, wheeled furniture, alternative work settings, and a skew to the collective over the individual all contribute to active, agile and responsive teams. We also find that, as a corollary,  internal mobility is perhaps more important than external mobility in the new workplace.
  • We've always believed that development of a shared culture is an essential component to the trust that enables effective collaboration, and the research appears to confirm that. That shared culture seems to develop in unstructured ways. We observe it with staff clustered in dining spaces and we see it with executives chatting in corridors. Incidental, unprogrammed, spontaneous social exchanges about the game, the spouse, or the TV program may be the most effective factors in organizational cohesion. We'll call a space a "cafe" because it needs to be more than a kitchen. And we'll pepper the workplace with open spaces with different furniture settings because this kind of exchange takes place when it needs or wants to and not necessarily over a cup of coffee.
  • We make workplaces that are open and more than metaphorically "transparent." This openness contributes certainly to the socialization of the place. It also contributes to the perception of fairness. When almost all can be seen, and much overheard, a culture of participation and engagement begins to take place. With nothing apparently hidden, and with a high degree of workplace egalite in space allocations, the openness reduces suspicions and anxieties.

Our work has been informed, yet is  intuitive. As more research is done and the implications on the designs of the workplace are more understood, we expect there to be an accelerating evolution in the look and form of offices and labs. With the kind of research cited in the Strategy+Business article and the confidence it can give to companies contemplating an essential workplace transformation, it may provide a timely catalyst to action.

Indeed, the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead. David Rock

© Jim Meredith/MEREDITH Strategy & Design LLC

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Fuller ideas

I realize now, however, that the evening was a "shaping" event, where extraordinary consideration and thought about the way in which access to resources affects peace or causes war, and the way in which architects and planners affect that competition with every decision to build.

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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?

2 initial solutions to 2 core problems in getting the right "attitude" in workspace design

*Illustration by Harry Campbell, from Wired

This article at Wired on the evolution of office space and many of the comments it received affirmed for me again that the workplace is shackled by policies and practices that continue to interfere with the growth and achievement of American organizations.

There are many reasons for this, but I think these two are dominant:

  • The workspace is planned and managed by a group of people who are measured by the cost of their operation to the organization.
  • Organizational hierarchies, exhibited in workspace footprints, perpetuate the desire for and the demand for personal space that has nothing to do with the work we do.

I remember the first time I acted as an agent, of sorts, for a facilities group. Designing a major corporate headquarters facility a couple of decades ago, we engaged in a discussion of concepts and approaches to the design of the staff workspaces. The "breakthrough" idea promoted by the client's facilities leadership was "one size fits all." With legacy information about the hassles and costs of moving staff in an increasingly dynamic business context, thy argued that all workstations should be the same size, enabling "box moves" whenever relocating staff, and therefore saving considerable dollars in the management of the physical workplace.

What is interesting in looking back on this is the realization that we were being uniquely thoughtful about the spaces and places where the technical work of the organization was being done, but designing the places where people did most of their work without consideration of the nature of that work. The organization, like almost any modern corporation, had a significant diversity of staff disciplines and roles. The space we planned for them were, however, homogenous and generalized, failing to account for differences between accounting and engineering, between design and project management, between concept development and purchasing.

In another aspect of current practice, it is difficult to recall organizations whose workplace planning standards do not have at least a dozen different space allocations and other considerations associated with title. While these standards have some consideration for the differences in work modes between different classifications of people, they make no differentiation for different disciplines in those classifications. So again, if I am of a rank in an organization my workstation is assigned without consideration of my role as a designer, accountant, manager, engineer, code writer, etc.

And, since space is associated with hierarchy, and space and place are the most visible manifestations of recognition in the workplace, then I tend to make advancement my objective and use the tools and techniques of advancement as my guide to the work that i do. In other words, the key mission and goals of the organization may be sacrificed to mediocre achievement as the employees of the organization work to individual goals before the good of customers and clients of the organization.

So the illustration and categorization that appeared in the Wired article is a reminder of the issues and considerations in modern office planning and design. The title, referencing how the form of the workplace "reflects changing attitudes toward work," might more accurately be titled, "how work attitudes are shaped by the form of the office." I think that where form is a given before the work of the organization is deeply understood, then the design of the workspace may have the implication of expressing the organization's purpose and values incorrectly and diverting the attention of those who work there from the achievement of better things.

I offer a couple of suggestions on the way to better approaches to planning and design---

  1. There is now a very good body of research, information and evidence to empower in-house facilities managers to engage the C-suite in a discussion and exploration of the positive and direct impact that good workplace design can have on the performance of the organization and the people in the organization. This can then lead to the use of better planning tools, identification of better measurables in planning and implementation, the development of better programs and the achievement of design that motivates and support performance.
  2. Try aligning the formal lexicon of the workspace with the values lexicon of the organization. Inversely, if your objective is "innovation," how does a space assignment to "vice president" make sense? Observe what effective people in the organization do, and generate space typologies around those activities. What for example, are the typologies that support "collaborating" or "socializing" or "focusing"? Develop some initial concepts based on observations and analysis, try them out in a pilot project, adjust them from what you learn. Then start measuring the growth of the organization.

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Some of my delicious bookmarks this week

A few things I found interesting on the way to other things:

Facebook Statistics | FlowingData

Facebook recently surpassed MySpace as the most popular social network in the world. Let's take a brief look at the current state of the growing social network.

Gary Hamel on Managing Generation Y - the Facebook Generation

The experience of growing up online will profoundly shape the workplace expectations of “Generation F” – the Facebook Generation. At a minimum, they’ll expect the social environment of work to reflect the social context of the Web, rather than as is currently the case, a mid-20th-century Weberian bureaucracy.

the selby - photos in your space.

featuring photographs, paintings and videos by todd selby of interesting people and their creative spaces

Design Revolutionaries: Should You Be the U.S. Secretary of Design?

Back in November, representatives from most of the major U.S. design organizations, from architecture to graphics to interiors met in D.C. to find a way for design to have a greater role in the incoming Obama administration. The resulting document named Redesigning America's Future included an outline for an official U.S. National Design Policy.

Re:Vision Competition for Sustainable City Block

The latest from design competition leaders Urban Re:Vision, Re:Vision Dallas is a newly-launched design competition that’s not just an ideas contest, but a real urban project. The City of Dallas is asking for designers, architects, students, engineers and planners to look particularly at one city block in Dallas right across the street from the City Hall, envision the most sustainable city block ever, and draw up the plans. Winners will receive a cash prize and a chance to sell the idea to the developer, Central Dallas CDC, to eventually be built.

Employer Branding

Ask most people about "branding," and they'll usually start talking about products and services. But in recent years, companies have begun branding themselves as employers, too, betting that if they can convey to the world why their workplace is appealing and unique, they will have an easier time attracting good workers

World’s Cheapest Car: Boon or Bane?

Environmentalists, however, have decried the Nano and its low-cost imitators as an impending disaster.

Greener and Cheaper

The conventional wisdom is that a company's costs rise as its environmental impact falls. Think again.

High time for a monumental rethink

In North America, the biggest challenge will come in reinventing a suburban landscape marred by boarded-up houses, old-style shopping malls and big-box retailers. The stars obsessed over one-off, showy works of architectural sculpture. A new generation is required to consider new questions: How to negotiate the future of the bloated suburban house in light of changing demographics and a desire for intimate communities?

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10 more ways to jump-start the auto business

600-muscle I have only done a very quick scan of the article, "25 Ways to Jump-Start the Auto Business," in a recent Fast Company issue. But I am impressed by the fact that out of the 60 people in or close to the industry who were asked to contribute ideas only one, it seems, looked to the intersection between design/production and consumer/consumption.

Even though the experience of buying and selling cars has already changed radically in the Internet age, the lingering stench of going to the dealer remains and many experts see room for improvement. "We need to allow manufacturers to sell cars over the Internet," says Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book. "Linking the purchase process to 'just-in-time production' will start to remove the tremendous inefficiencies in the distribution channel and increase their ability to estimate demand." And it might also make buying a car, dare we say it, fun.

I have been critical, as many, about the American component of the industry, but I also believe that a key issue is that most people cannot break through paradigms about design and quality that are, in reality, a decade out of date. The financial crisis also obscures the fact that there are great products being generated that are getting the right kind of attention from a younger generation of potential buyers. What's missing is not so much a remake of the designs, not so much the quality, not so much the industry itself, but a lot about the interface between these companies and their customers. Almost everywhere else in our world, people are paying close attention to the interface between production and purchase. There is a heightened focus on customer service, the retail experience, and brand protection.

If we look at what others are doing, we might get a few clues about what to do here, as well. Some of these might be-

1. Stop screaming-We are not motivated by the screaming ads placed by local dealership groups. This is such a predominant style of communication that it affects our perception of the quality of your products and of the entire industry.

2. I'm an American, but not that kind of American…why do you make us resist buying that truck we want for the work it will do for us?-It's about utility, isn't it; not about patriotism and living in the country and dominating everybody around us. And stop screaming.

3. Why do you think we do all of our research on the Internet instead of in your dealership?-You know the statistics. We avoid you like the plague and make all of our selection decisions before walking into the dealership, where, again, the only thing that matters is the deal. Isn't there some value to you in making our relationship more robust, more complete, longer lasting, mutually interesting?

4. It looks like your web sites are intended to be a starting place for our relationship; you should design them to do that-We want simplicity, clarity, efficiency and speed. And a follow-up when you say that you will. And why not give is the same or better information we can get through 3rd party sources-We get specs, prices, availability from other sites, and you know we do, so why not offer it to us yourself? We might like you, and trust you, more.

5. We're really interested in the product, can we suspend the deal for a few minutes?-Money matters a lot to all of us these days, but transforming your company and your industry means we should first be interested in wanting to know more about you and your products and services. But we can't see through the deal clutter.

6. We am going to spend a much longer time with this vehicle-It looks as though everything from the economy to manufactured quality will mean that this vehicle is in our garage for a few years. How will you make us interested in what you have to offer over that time? How will you design the experience to make our extended relationship mutually valuable?

7. Redesign the sales process to become a respectful buying experience and an expression of an interest in a long-term relationship-Clean up your desk; this transaction is about us, not about you. Redesign the finance and insurance process; get rid of 75% of those forms most of which look like 25th generation Xeroxes. Get the sales manager to give you some authority to conclude the deal yourself. We'd like to walk out feeling pride in our purchase, whole after the transaction, and interested in coming back for the updates.

8. Think through the design of your store to promote the quality and value of your product-If your product is so great, of such quality, then become a member of the community. Plan your site to not be a blight. Give us a great experience driving by, and driving in. We might then leave your license plate frame on.

9. Really great brands connect the retail experience and the product experience-It seems you are trying to say, "Look! Look! Look at me!!!" Try designs that invite us to explore what you sell.

10. Partner with or influence others in the community who have something to do with the auto, too-We wonder what might happen if the makers and sellers of cars, realizing that the older sense of the car being part of the culture was valuable, would work together with the entire services chain to make ownership and use a delight. Start with gas stations, for example-why do these things have to be blindingly lighted, for example, so the only thing we see as we drive by is an under-canopy array of ugly bare light fixtures. It's called light pollution and we believe it decreases the property values and security in my community. Think about your product in a broader cultural context.

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