MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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

Filtering by Tag: innovation

A way of creative thinking

The way to come up with good startup ideas is to take a step back. Instead of making a conscious effort to think of startup ideas, turn your mind into the type that startup ideas form in without any conscious effort. In fact, so unconsciously that you don’t even realize at first that they’re startup ideas.
— Paul Graham

How the design of the workplace affects innovation goals

This is a brief article, but with some good data, on the significance of the work environment for leading innovative companies. [Cushman & Wakefield / CoreNet Global Release CRE Innovation Study | Corporate Real Estate.]

According to the survey, firms intent on producing industry-leading innovation need to adopt collaborative physical work environments that encourage appropriate levels of risk-taking and that are supported with adequate levels of technology.  These important factors must be built into the fabric of the workplace in a holistic manner in order to achieve meaningful results.

How the design of the workplace affects the achievement of innovation goals

How to think, generously, about our client's time

We held a workshop today with about 30 executive leaders of our client's organization with the intention of making connections between their operational culture and the workspace design concepts we will be developing for them.

One of the inevitable themes was about time – the accelerating momentum of change, their ongoing need for operational and organizational agility, the internal and external benefits of their efficiency and, at the core, their desire to have a workspace that could help shape the behaviors of their employees and make them more effective in their mission to bring peace to the time-harried lives of their own customers.

At the end of our day, we returned home to reflect on our work and to get in the stream of information about others' lives that informs the way that we think and do what we do.

I found a link to this speech by Paul Ford that, I expect, I'll return to several times again and thought you might appreciate it as well. The thinking here is so delightfully generous, and the concept of that generosity so applicable to other fields of practice.

Here's the link (10 timeframes) and here's the context –

I recently gave the closing keynote at the 2012 MFA Interaction Design Festival, a full-day event held on Saturday, May 12, 2012, to celebrate the work of the 2012 graduating class of the Interaction Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I teach a course in Content Strategy there, and working with the immensely talented students has forced me, as a content-oriented individual, to think hard about a specific task that interaction designers frequently take on—namely that they themselves must make things that allow other people to make things. They define the experiences that permit other people to do their work, or play, or tweet, or post things. They make the forms that the rest of us fill out. And so I walked around New York City and thought: What could I ask of these students, how could I advocate on behalf of the creators who are their users? This is, I hope, a partial answer to that question.

[My thanks for this and, daily, for other spottings of inspirational value to Helen Walters at IDEO and the great stream of information she brings through her Though You Should See This briefing for her colleagues and friends.]

4 approaches to slowing things down in order to get out front

4 approaches to slowing things down in order to get out front

Weeknotes, May 26, 2012

Yet again this week, considerations about being “ahead” of our clients were in our thinking. This is a relatively complex place to be.

Being ahead of our clients is a condition of being ready to propose concepts and solutions before they have come to an awareness or comprehension of the information that they need in order to make good decisions.

Being ahead of our clients is also an issue of envisioning the concepts and solutions that we are confident will be greatly helpful to them in their enterprise, while they may not yet be ready to accept the “risk” of investing in concepts that leap over the intervening decades of development in workspace thinking since their last workplace design project.

They are typically constrained by a variety of factors – low confidence in making a bold move, perceptions of politics in the organization that may imply risk in bringing new ideas forward, lack of exposure or familiarity with the benefits that could be captured from available concepts and potentials, and other factors. Most of these, it seems, arise from having spent too long in one place managing an existing set of resources without having contact with a world of workplace management thinking and workspace design insight that has moved place-making rapidly forward.

We, however, are generally unconstrained as we enter the situation. We have been working for decades on similar issues. We bring to the current context a cumulative set of investigation, speculation, experimentation, innovation and implementation derived from a succession of clients from a spectrum of domains and with diverse challenges and objectives. This body of experience makes us eager to apply what we’ve learned to each new project.

The challenge, then, is how to reconcile these two very different states of readiness. How do we avoid, as we begin to understand our client’s mindset, adjusting our approach to aim only for the middle or getting stuck in the middle because we must produce while our client learns? How do we, realizing we’ll be unable to achieve the excitement and satisfactions from delivering an advanced concept, avoid disappointment and disinterest in the current context? How does our client avoid disappointment and disillusionment with the eventual realization, on moving in, that they could have aimed further out, should have been carried further out by their designers?

Slowing the process to get out front – 4 approaches

There may be other approaches that can help resolve this dilemma, but here are four to think about and test –

What has your experience been? Have you used these approaches and have they been successful? What other approaches would you suggest? Let us know in the comments, or by email.

Slow the conversation to enrich the solution – In most of our experience, the design team comes to a much more satisfying solution if our client has engaged a creative “consulting” team first. The biggest barrier to breakthrough results is a poorly defined problem. And a poorly defined problem is typically a facilities problem – deliver so much square feet of space for this many people at this budget for this fee in this time. None of that problem definition says anything about what you are trying to do as an organization as you strive to bring value to the world. Start by engaging a curious team who want to know more about your company, your culture, your purpose, and how you are different. Engage a team that is especially interested in your perception of the behaviors of your staff that represent your leadership goals, and the experiences you think they should have that will engage them in achieving your purposes. Develop, and rigorously apply, a set of guiding principles and success metrics – The goal of your project is not to be “on time and on budget.” Goals and objectives like that mean that the project team is working only for themselves. Instead, prepare and present a briefing on the mission of your organization, the values it holds dear, the purpose it fulfills for its customers, and the challenges it faces. Then engage your design team in an extended discussion around those subjects and ask them to generate a set of guiding principles that will lead them to measurable solutions targeted to advance your organization’s purpose. Generate and test a good range of alternative concepts – Allocate sufficient resources inside and outside the organization to explore alternatives. Alternative concepts can help to more rigorously define the problem, significantly clarify intentions and develop metrics that matter, engage more in the process and uncover latent or politically hidden problems that restrain organizational performance, and develop solutions that are more creative and more innovative and that return much more for the investment about to be made. Build a network of inputs around outcomes – I believe that, among the most important disciplines of those who seek to serve their organizational purposes better, one is to build a rich network with others who have done, or who themselves are in the midst of, a workspace transformation project. There can be rich rewards in asking tough questions about what the workspace is intended to do, what link there is between those purposes and what was designed, and what now is taking place in the organization as a result. I have been especially surprised that, in more than two decades of practice, I have never heard of a potential client calling one of references, inviting him or her out to lunch, and asking about how their organization is performing as a result of our work.


As a postscript, there is, in all of this, the inherent problem of corporate purchasing. Inherent in projects solicited by an RFP and awarded through competing proposals are faults of trust and speed. The people who will ultimately occupy the spaces we design will have been, usually, poorly served by an internal function that uses a process that squeezes resources for everybody engaged in the process. The spareness of resource allocation demanded by the procurement process means a speed in execution that, in turn, means that users will not be engaged in the discovery and design process, facility managers will be unable to change direction or enrich the planning and design process as their awareness of the mis-aimed intentions of the RFP become revealed, and we as designers will be unable to do much more than speculate about the real organizational purpose and goal and apply a templated solution and cross our fingers in hopes of the best for all.

You don't compete by purchasing airplanes...

I've been absent from the blog for way too long, totally consumed by a great new project opportunity that should provide lots of good content here.

As I warm up to the task of getting back to writing, I offer this delightful and appropriately inspirational piece that I found in today's readings. This is from Bryce Dot VC, whom I hope does not mind my capturing this excerpt from his blog –

Last week while prodding a pitching entrepreneur on his competitive landscape I rattled off potential competitor after potential competitor in order to gauge his reaction. After appeasing me for a few of them he paused, mid-sentence, a little befuddled. Then he stopped altogether.

A little exasperated, he said something along the lines of:

Startups don’t compete with airlines by purchasing a bunch of planes, hiring a bunch of pilots and locking up a bunch of terminals at airports. Startups compete with airlines by inventing videoconferencing.

It’s as though he was channeling Buckminster Fuller who said:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Ghost innovation

Ghost innovation

This is part of a map plotting various planned but unbuilt subway lines in New York City. Reading it unveils an understanding of past strategies, plans, and objectives that became abandoned due to budget constraints, maintenance priorities and other demands that diverted and then buried the vision. Reading it inspires an imagination of the world that could have been, of a society that might have developed differently, of connections that might have had value but were lost through an inability to efficiently and effectively connect.

Stranded innovation

It reminded me of a recent client, a major consumer products manufacturer and marketer who held what they called a "stranded innovation fair." It was their belief that, regardless of the circumstances for the loss of attention to or development of these innovations with our application, they might have real value in other contexts, times, combinations or applications. The more that people in the company were aware of these ghost innovations and technologies, the greater would be the potential of their eventual application and productivity.

Hidden talent

In a similar context, some companies are experimenting with rich profiles of the people in their organizations and utilizing certain social media applications to promote those profiles to others in the enterprise. There are people in most organizations with valuable skills and capabilities that are overlooked in the usual day-to-day of operations, or who may have some special skill buried deeper in a resume and unexploited in their current job description or project assignments. By circulating those profiles or using other means to communicate them, these organizations are better able to match the right people with the right projects, achieve goals more efficiently, and gain competitive advantage through otherwise overlooked internal skills and talents.

How can the design of the workspace contribute?

Imagine the potential that lies inside of an organization that is for many reasons consistently overlooked. More interestingly, imagine the power of an organization that has the insight to look back, or look deeper, or promote ghost innovations differently.

Technology may be the more powerful tool for uncovering and developing ghost innovation, but imagine the potential of a more social workplace, as well. How much of knowledge and potential, of skills and innovations, are lost each day due to the inability of people to connect efficiently, to observe others, to understand weak signals, to join a conversation with others.

In their book on the organization and architecture of innovation, Allen and Henn point to the power of work spaces designed in way to support our awareness of others and to increase the potential for our connections with each other.

We think this is the defining challenge for our time.

How can the design of the workspace contribute?

Think big – Grand visions are connected visions. They illustrate for others a path to future development and value, and tend to garner greater support. Even if the final accomplishment falls short, the grand vision leaves "remnants of foresight" that provide others a way to interpret and extend intentions and uncover latent value at the appropriate times.

Redesign the organization before redesigning the workspace – The traditional lexicon of the corporation – organizational charts and individual job descriptions – do not describe the way that work is really done today. If you believe that teamwork and collaboration are the key to higher organizational performance (and they are) then design the organization around those attributes. That redesign will generate a new lexicon of organizational form that the planners and designers of the workspace can leverage for high performance through great work experiences.

Make visible the artifacts and activities of network connections and collaboration – As with the organization, the workspace has to speak to teamwork if collaborative cultures are to flourish. The traditional lexicon of the workspace, like that of org charts and job descriptions, perpetuates forms that are about individuals and managerial controls. The creative workspace is an open and networked space, where team activity and process flows are visible, and adaptable and agile to the dynamics of projects.

If there is any single rule that guides our work for organizations seeking enhanced performance and higher levels of innovation, it is this – Make it visible.

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

Makers of virtual meeting spaces make them in face-to-face space

Perhaps relevant to our last post is this delightful interview by Adam Richardson that I found in a guest blog at the Harvard Business Review. Citrix, the makers of GoToMeeting, have a new collaboration space where the leading work in their innovation process is done. It is fascinating how the makers of virtual work spaces develop their process in carefully considered face-to-face space.

It is not a "crappy" space, and this is how they describe its benefits:

Opening the design collaboration space was a big milestone on our design thinking journey. It's already played a key role in fostering a more collaborative culture that involves less over-the-wall processes, fewer silos, more and earlier collaboration, and better integration of design into the product development process.

We needed to create a shift in behaviors, and realized this would be best achieved by having people live the change, not just being told about it. The space facilitates this.

Perhaps most significantly, it seems to lie at that upper quadrant of my not-yet-finished diagram in our last post. That upper quadrant is where I speculate that "signature" form but "occupy the workplace" space can generate high performance and engagement.

The interior design is quite minimal. The "beauty" of the space comes from the work that happens inside it: sketches, flow charts, Post-Its full of blue-sky ideas, new product concepts from raw idea to real formation. The space was intentionally left not-too-perfect, so people are encouraged to manipulate it, not be precious about it. It's intended to serve as a canvas for creative thinking. It's also very flexible and can quickly change from working studio to lecture room.

It seems also to fit some speculation we were developing about "auto-updating" space.

Like all good design, iteration is part of the process. We have discovered that we do need a better system for engaging remote participants and better ways for capturing brainstorming and meeting notes in real time, so that others can see them later. This is something we are investigating for our next "release" in 2012.

Richardson's interview is packed with information. I found at least 10 principles for a workplace designed for innovation –

  1. Align the design with your mission – with the "why" and not just the "what" of your business
  2. Relevance to all disciplines supports multidisciplinary work better
  3. Recognize that space shapes the behaviors you want
  4. Your space is an indicator of the authenticity of your purpose
  5. Agile and adaptable space is more valuable than CRE-regulated space
  6. Anytime space supports creativity better than assigned and scheduled space
  7. Casual space supports sharing and trust better
  8. Authentic space recruits
  9. Learn from others and engage users on your design team
  10. Good design strategy reinforces good strategy design

Let me know your thoughts on the article, and your own experience.

Innovation in crappy buildings? Occupy the workplace

Innovation arises most effectively in “crappy” buildings.

This was the argument advanced recently by Alexis Madrigal in his blog on technology in The Atlantic. As articles like this will do, responding commentary bounced around the internet, and I thought I’d pick it up and toss my own thoughts into the argument.

I’d offer that there is a great fault in the position put forward by Madrigal. The fact that innovation takes place in buildings, and since most buildings are crappy, means that most innovation will arise from crappy buildings. This, however, is not an argument that crappy buildings are best for innovation. Instead, it is the simple statement of the sad condition that we all share – that the innovation we have is only the innovation that has overcome the significant barriers presented by crappy buildings. The innovators in these contexts might best be celebrated for the cleverness that it took to overcome inadequate resources and barriers to communication. But how much have we lost along the way? How much more innovation could we have if more people worked in good buildings?

Apple, Building 20, and the rest of us

A bit of buzz had built shortly before Steve Jobs death over the design of the new Apple headquarters in Cupertino (which he presented rather masterfully before the Cupertino Plan Commission). The design, by Norman Foster, is a perfect circular doughnut of a building, something like the mouse wheel of an iPod stretched over 800 feet, or as Madrigal says, “Keep scaling that idea up and you get Apple's ultrahip mega headquarters, which is part spaceship and part Apple Store.” It’s an elegantly simple architectural statement, and certainly will be a highly finished building with some very unique construction methods and materials. Most of the parking will be underground or hidden and the site, formerly an HP campus, will be returned to a park-like state.

Madrigal referenced Stewart Brand’s branding of “Low Road” buildings as the places where most innovation takes place, and put out a call for people in search of innovation to nominate their own Low Road workplaces. Madrigal recalled Building 20 at MIT, which no longer exists, as the great model for these innovation incubators – a big, wooden, nondescript building constructed in the economic spareness of World War II.  Madrigal also evokes Jane Jacobs (“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”).

In their own commentary on Madrigal, the writers at express a concern about the implications of the argument asking, “if Building 20 is where innovation happens, but Apple’s megaheadquarters are where architects get involved, then is architecture’s relationship to innovation merely that architects get involved with an organization after it has lost the capacity to innovate? Is architecture’s relationship with innovative organizations primarily that it instantiates their ossification?”

In our practice, we are in the midst of a (frequently typical) commission for a place that will act as an innovation incubator. We have just gone through a very quick design exercise to get our foot in a funding stream, and are assessing and reassessing what we’ve done as we now are about to start the “real” design process. Our project will be both about old building as well as new, partially in a “crappy” building and partially in a new design by us.

As we began our initial efforts, examples and arguments like Madrigal’s were in the back of our minds. In front of us was a client with two, or maybe three heads.

We are working for a university and one of its schools, greatly interested in making a major architectural statement for at least three very good reasons – to enhance the perception of the institution, to attract top research talent from around the world, and to act as an innovation incubator for improving the health and wellness of our region. We are also working for its facilities department, greatly interested in making only the sparest and most necessary of moves.

These conflicting perspectives, these competing values, have us moving up and down the scale trying to understand just where is the best place for institutional aspiration and architectural authorship to surrender to innovation legend and occupier/user customization.

A concern

I have a great concern about the kind of logic and argument that Madrigal is trying to advance and that may be embedded in Brand’s work, as well. The fact that most of the world’s buildings are not “designed” in a conventional sense, but are built naively, designed speculatively, designed without full understanding of user characteristics, or designed for purposes other than they are now being used, naturally means that most innovation arises from those “Low Road” buildings. This does not, however, mean that it is Low Road buildings that are the key factor in innovation success. The innovations that we celebrate may be only a small fraction of the innovation intended and pursued, and which successfully overcame the barriers of an insufficient supply of buildings that ate truly supportive of innovation.

I’d speculate that a significant amount of the failure of buildings to support innovation is a failure to design to support the awareness, communication and combination that we now recognize as central to innovation pursuits.

As a simple example, clients compel architects to design for function, and architects respond with functional designs. That is, clients ask for “conference rooms” and architects design formal spaces for scheduled meetings with chairs around big tables and with pictures on the walls. In these most typical of the contexts that generate anonymous buildings, neither client nor architect has asked about, explored or discussed the value and purposes of the organization and how to design to facilitate the interactions in these and other spaces that best support the development of a shared culture of communication and sharing of knowledge and experience. In fact, most clients directly reject the making of a social workspace, and most of those who reach further naively believe that image-making will be the generator of innovation.

In other words, consider the sad potential that a significant amount of creative output and important innovation is lost because of the inherent barriers in Low Road buildings, and the failure to think critically about how to support the cultures and communications of innovation in High Road buildings.

Architecture is vertical. Workspace is horizontal.

Paraphrasing a frequently reformulated axiom of comparative architectural styles, I’ve offered that “architecture is vertical, workplace is horizontal.” That is, it seems that architecture, carrying the responsibility of big budgets, regulated by codes and ordinances, and contracted (mostly) to large, management-driven organizations, is inherently hierarchical and ordered. The stuff that goes inside of the architecture is lighter, of shorter life span, beneficially adaptable to changing circumstances and occupancies, and is (potentially) less ordered, and (potentially) more democratic.

I’ve used that observation to generate this diagram, and to explore this matter of places and spaces for innovation again.

I’ve represented architecture along the vertical axis, naturally. I’ve given it a range from a Low Road of anonymous and apparently non-designed buildings to a High Road of  “signature” buildings. Along this range can be the core and shell of otherwise speculative developments to more highly programmed buildings for known organizations and occupants.

Along the horizontal axis is a range of approaches to planning the interiors of these buildings. I’ve used a context of control for the scale here, setting the highly regulated world of corporate real estate at one end, and more ad hoc occupancies at the other. Along this scale can be relatively intelligent but still centrally provided “settings” for specific kinds of work and activities, and less proscriptive and more helpful planning “guidelines.”

It seems that the domains of successful innovation might most typically take place in the upper left quadrant. In this space we would find buildings that are programmed and designed with an understanding of the interactions and communications that are essential for innovation, that build the “awareness” that Allen and Henn have identified as a key underlying value for innovative organizations. The spaces in these buildings might be very unstructured, but might have the resources – infrastructure, technologies, agile assets, operating manuals – that would enable the occupants to take charge of their own working environments and adapt them to the dynamic and changing demands of creative pursuits.

It seems to me that this approach could provide both for highly iconic (organizational signature) buildings as well as rich interior working environments. These conditions would not cause a reduction in creative zeal nor a suppression of innovative activity. They might, in fact, be the contexts that enable the potential for a significantly higher level of creative commitment and productive invention and application.

Happiness, and work progress and performance – Is there a role for the workspace?

Several factors for increased happiness and performance seem to have connections to the ways that workspaces are designed. That is, it seems that the design of the workplace, by removing barriers and supporting certain behaviors, can have a significant impact on how people feel and how they perform.

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things we saw this week that you might like, also

Among some of the things that caught our attention last week and that may influence our thinking this week are these –

This is a delightfully simple essay that illuminates the power of spatial experience in moving decisions and closing deals.
"The idea that cars run free...that idea's about to change." Sculptor Chris Burden has been working on this rather remarkable interpretation of "Metropolis" to evoke the energy of a city
This was a brief but interesting conversation about an apparent bias toward modernism in most design competitions in the UK. This question seems to have its own answer: "Should modernity be preferred precisely because it is innovative and forward thinking?"
This seemed an unlikely place to find a discussion about the "green workplace" but, once past the intro, is an interesting insight into the subject and, more significantly for me, how a bit of research required by an event led to a deep dive into a subject and then a globally recognized expertise.
Detroit is struggling to remake itself after decades of irrational and obsessive self-destruction by almost every leader, "civic" or private. We find it hard to accept this preferential apportioning of the limited resources the City has left, feeling it to be a better-dressed replay of prior practices.
Designer-driven innovation – This is a rather pretty concept to illustrate a debate about whether markets or vision are the optimum origins for innovation

Return to "scenius" – 6 key factors supporting information spillover and communal genius

information spillover and "scenius" I am very amused by the life and propagation of the term "scenius." It's a word that was coined by the musician, Brian Eno, to describe what he called a "communal form of the concept of genius." It is, in effect, a serendipitous amplification of the benefits of collaboration generated by some very special characteristics of talent and environment.

We had first commented on our interest in scenius in an earlier post, "scenius and workplace genius," considering the application of its principles in the domain of workspace design and, especially, "creation spaces." We also discussed there the resonance of the idea in other contexts and precedents. Now, Steven Johnson, exploring the origins of good ideas, has a recent column in the Financial Times also presenting and discussing the concept.

Johnson reflects on his experience in New York both watching the birth of ideas as well as starting up his own commercial ventures. In his examination, there are at least these six factors that characterize an environment that might possibly lead to scenius –

  1. A healthy and supportive community of risk-takers
  2. Visionary programs and people in local educational institutions
  3. Physical density
  4. Shared spaces...and shared people
  5. Places that support casual conversation and information spillover
  6. Multi-dimensional diversity in networks

Johnson is the author of a recently published book on innovation, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

[Image: Breakers by Phil Kirkwood via]

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New ways of working | Apple store, Tokyo | image by -nathan on

Everything about work has changed, but nothing of the workplace has.

Work looks different, now.

Major forces in technology, the economy, society and culture have combined in such a way that  even the near future will be dramatically different from what we’ve experienced over the past several decades.

A casual recitation of the trends we’ve seen in new ways of working – mobility, agility, globalization, collaboration, crowd-sourcing, innovation imperatives, networked organizations, creative class, work anywhere, etc. – reveals the early components of massive and accelerating change.

And the lexicon of the current and emerging future – work swarms, hyperconnectivity, augmented reality, gaming, simulations, spontaneous work, the collective, etc. – is language that does not yet have counterparts in the world where the design of the workspace takes place.

We are very surprised by the slow pace of change in the planning and design of places for working. We believe that beyond our ability to see and comprehend what the future of work looks like, there are significant forces that constrain our ability to get to where we need to be.

The failure of the discipline of design to match the pace of the emergence of new ways of working will certainly mean frustration and, more importantly, restraint on the ability of organizations to capitalize on the promise of the future.

We think that new institutions and new approaches are necessary to resolve this issue.

The existing paradigms of the workplace are very strong and limit the ability to achieve rapid change.

At the core of this dilemma is the heavily embedded practice of looking to the future from the past. We have spoken before of our resistance to the terms and the articulations of workplace “trends” because we believe that the change taking place in society is so substantial that the future can no longer be extrapolated from the experience of the past or the components of the lagging present.

There has been and, until the Great Recession, continued to be significant investment in the physical infrastructure supporting the way that work used to be done. The office building in best practice, for example, is a form based on past organizational designs and management practices that uses components, modules and metrics to reinforce a conformity to hierarchy, entitlement, and a cellular array of assigned workspaces. Over time, these have generated a well-developed and applied template of core design and placement, floorplate size and dimension, and floor-to-floor heights that shape the organization of work, and even influences the size and displacement of organizations. Form does not follow function anymore; rather function fits form.

Those components, what we call the lexicon of workplace form, also represent a mature economy that has been well developed by furniture and equipment manufacturers, ceiling and wall component manufacturers, and the technologies of energy and communications distribution. This has also bred a generation of workplace design specialists, increasingly constrained by time and fees, who have developed an aura of market and practice area expertise that reinforces the incremental extrapolation and application of "best practice" templates rather than real workspace innovation.

And the embedded resistance to change in the corporation suppresses the mandate for change

Even while accepting the logic for new ways of working, management education and practice has been unable to adapt to and keep up with the extraordinary speed of change in the way that work is actually being performed.

In recent years, even the growing awareness of generational differences has generated merely stylistic differentiation in the accommodation of different ways of working without understanding the substantial emergence of entirely new forms of organization and execution.

The "trend" to make the workplace more "social" by introducing a Starbucks style into the lunch room is but one example of the misunderstanding of the emerging social nature of work, communication, networks and innovation.

The existing institutions are powerless

While the corporation correctly senses that the current form of the workplace is worthless, it has not yet formed an understanding of what form of workplace has value. Workplace design consultants have illustrated that whether through layoffs or through mobility programs or through otherwise unrecognized shifts in how and where work is done, you can walk through the corporate offices these days and not see anybody there.

As the economy continues to press on corporate performance, most companies cannot shed real estate fast enough. The relentless purge is based, at least in part, on the traditional alignment of the corporate real estate function with the finance organization. Human resources, marketing, R&D and the value-generating portions of the organization have not yet assembled the point-of-view, position and power to influence the real estate momentum.

And, of course, the supply side of real estate, for a long time afraid of change, has led the design and delivery of the corporate workplace based on "exit strategies" – the generalization, commonization and commoditization of corporate offices to assure rapid turnover of occupancies even as the demand for a high level of customization and agility begins to emerge.

New institutions are necessary

The sense that the conventional designers and providers of the spaces and places where work is done can not adapt to provide a new model has led some from outside of the domain of "best" practice to attempt to innovate and create.

The Kauffman Foundation, for example, deeply concerned about the pace, volume and success of the entrepreneurial endeavors that power job creation and economic growth, have developed the Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation. They have commissioned a prototype space to act as a "test-bed" for the development and application of new modes of organizational design and development under the belief that space matters to people's performance.

Similarly, Jeff DeGraf at the University of Michigan, has generate the Innovatrium concept. In his work with major corporations, he has found that great strides can be made with executives in an off-site, non-corporate context, but the pace and success of change is lost when they return to the conventional corporate space. The Innovatrium is a prototype to find a physical mode to implant in the corporate office to assure greater success in innovation initiatives.

These are early, small scale models, and there is a lot still missing.

So...I am looking for a developer

Our specifications are still in development and, in any case, we want this to be a mutual and multidisciplinary endeavor. Our model will evolve from design and development, from research and insight, from analysis and innovation, from prototypes and testing, and from new “metrics” around the experience of working.

We’ll return to this subject periodically. In the meantime, here is a very brief review of only some of the things we are thinking about.

The new model will use a new language of workspace design, a new lexicon of form. Since the leading edge of new ways of working is evolving so fast, and since older ways of working are moving so slowly, event the current language of work and design is losing value fast. “Collaboration,” for example, already has the weight of workforce skepticism, and everybody knows that the little table out in the open is not the supporting device. The new language must not carry any burden from inadequate responses from the past.

The new model is one of service, not control. Corporate real estate and facility management have provided things. The metrics of their performance and the limits on their resources have meant that the efficiency of the management of things and the minimization of the cost and amount of things have been their focus. “Standards” and “mobility” are a couple of the ways this is done, and “performance” became a financial, not an achievement, metric. The new model will instead understand and appreciate the importance of the way that people will get things done, and will provide the most effective resources for accomplishing the purposes of the organization.

The new model will be a sustainable model. Stocks and flows may be the underlying concept for the provision of space, not assignment and entitlement. This is at the core of our thinking. Corporate ownership and the long-term implications of real estate investment have combined to generate an inflexible and over-supplied model of space for work. We think a third party approach with a different model of supply is worthy of development and promotion.

The new model will seek talent centers, not cost centers. People will find and deliver success through their expertise and mastery in combination with a context-specific network of other experts and masters. These people will have the choice of being where they want to be, and that choice is increasingly an urban choice, in globally-connected, resource-rich centers. Workspace will come to be comprehended as a community, not a finite workplace.

The new model will focus on the experience of working. We believe that the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experience of working. The measures and pleasures of performance will be determined by the people who fulfill the purpose of the organization, and not by the organization. Top talent will move to where they can be most effective, where the constraints on achievement have been removed, and where the available resources activate, augment and amplify their contributions and achievements.

Contact us if you’d like to explore with us how to develop the workspaces of the future.

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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

Dangerous and seductive curves

I may have referred to this before, but recent readings bring the idea back to mind.

In one of those influential lectures very early in college, Hans Hollein, an Austrian architect, offered an insightful illustration of the relationship between technology and society. I can not remember why he was speculating on this in his talk, in that long ago time when computers were kept in special locked rooms and run by punch cards, and chalk was used on chalkboards, and his own reputation at that time was shaped by a couple of small shop designs.

He drew a graph that looked like this –

His point, reinforced over and over since then by developments none of us could have foreseen at that time, was that technological development moves inexorably on, but social development lags. When the gap between the states of society and technology becomes too great, a social revolution takes place. Society adapts to technology.

That broad contextual reference reappeared when reviewing these two graphs in a recent post by David Sherwin in his very nice Change Order blog –

He called his S-curve the "Design Investment Curve," and offered it to designers as a way to set client expectations about an appropriate pace of development of a concept and project. I think the offering is appropriate, yet I think his perspective, and the scale of the curve, may be shifting.

I many cases, the commissions that come to us as architects and designers are already on the acceleration portion of the curve in our clients' minds. A corporate or organizational strategy has been formed internally, budgets have been developed and schedules set, the project has been formulated and moved into the workstream of an implementation team, RFP's have been developed and a selection process executed, and then we get the commission. Client interest, anticipation and anxiety must be high at that point, and so, as Sherwin points out, are expectations. We are by this time, as in Hollein's graph, "society" to our client's "technology."

It may be very appropriate for us to adjust our client's expectations about the probable or possible pace of a project or program. But another graph appeared in my reading recently, and I wonder if it does not set a different tone.

I was watching a video of John Seely Brown presenting to a class at Stanford recently. His new book, The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion was about to come out making the argument for the need of new approaches and the rise of new institutions to meet emerging needs and be successful in emerging contexts.

His point, like Hollein's, was that the advance of technology was inexorable. Brown's graph illustrated technology with a very steep and very tall acceleration line and also served as a representation of the "flow" of ideas in our time. His argument was that survival/success/prosperity would mean that we get into that state of flow and adjust our strategies and programs to fit, like this –

So what does this mean for architects and designers, and their clients? Maybe this –

  • We are in the state of social revolution that Hollein represented by the vertical breaks in his graph
  • We need to adjust our own expectations, and get into the flow that our clients are in or trying to get themselves into
  • We may want to explore the power of small, smart moves, developed in collaboration with others, to uncover what matters and to sustain position in the flow
  • We need to understand how to quickly develop effective and powerful "creation spaces" for ourselves as well as for our clients

What are your thoughts?