MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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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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Thoroughly modern

From the Detroit Free Press In an excellent post on his blog, Landscape + Urbanism, Jason King recalls his work with an AIA SDAT recently addressing this recurring theme in these posts on the "Detroit dilemma."

The initial report of the team, continuing themes from the 1994 Mayor's Land Use Task Force, is worth a review. It's available on the AIA web site.

"We hope for better will arise from the ashes"

Change at the top at GM?

600-muscleThere seem to be signs emerging that Rick Wagoner may soon be out at GM. After an embarrassing first appearance and an inconsistent second appearance in Congress, influential Congressman and other Detroit executives in the auto business are beginning to pass the word that there needs to be change at the top. Apparently, Congress will not get around to approving a bailout without that change as a condition. The subject of effective leadership at auto companies, and at other product design and marketing companies, comes again to the fore. There is much evidence of the benefit of having a "product guy" at the top of an organization when innovation is the agenda. GM is blamed for having, a generation ago, passed the reigns of leadership to "finance guys," and beginning a practice of killing design initiatives and longer-term product investments for short-term profits, and using financial tools like cash incentives to move metal where customer desire wouldn't.

I am not sure who in the pipeline for leadership could provide the shift in thinking that would generate the innovation that has been missing at GM and that now seems to be at the center of the demand from Congress. They want a payback for the taxpayers, and rightly seem to be judging that customers will not be effectively moved unless the product portfolio has something they want.

Ironically, the strongest car guy in the company, Bob Lutz, while long saying that GM has to design and build products that people want, has been the guy who has also said that global warming is bull---a comment frequently resurrected as Congress, and the market, seek greener products and companies. He is, in any case, now too old for next generation leadership, both in age as well as in thinking.

Fritz Henderson has a lot of support. His background is also finance, and most of the success stories in his resume are not about product but about cost-cutting, labor negotiations, and brand strategy. Will he turn to design as a key strategy for success in the next generation? Who will he turn to to rely on for the design and product innovation leadership, passion, power, and influence, necessary for survival and sustainability as a new kind of business?