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A similar challenge faces businesses who employ workers with non-traditional relationships to the home office such as distance or home working, part- or flexi-time, or the project-by-project contracts so popular in today’s so-called “gig economy.” No matter where your employees are, they represent your brand. So how do you keep your employees involved and engaged when you only see them occasionally? Non-traditional work models are popular because they suit a mobile and flexible workforce, whether maximizing available skills, creating more opportunities, or just a good way to keep people working, consumers spending, and the whole economy moving. The gig economy has existed for a long time in the corporate world where freelance designers or IT professionals, too expensive to keep on staff, are frequently hired temporarily for their unique skills. However, increased connectivity and improved mobile services also mean that even permanent employees don’t need to come into the office every day in order to maintain links to the organization. For the first time in history, employees are in a unique position of being both their own and the company’s person, a state that can be difficult for any manager to cope with: they wear the uniform, but they’re out on the town. So even though a chunk of your employees enjoys a non-traditional career path, what’s the best way to engender values and behaviors across boundaries to ensure distance workers live and breathe your corporate culture?
At Innovation Arts, we rely on a talented network of freelancers to support and deliver the work we do. We value their individual expertise, their unique talents, and their ability to bring a distinctive point of view into our design events, which benefits the process of collaboration. We depend upon varied and deep experiences in order to bring the best ideas to life, so by employing contractors to help us out occasionally, we can add the specific skills our business needs to thrive. On any given event, you can be sure to encounter at least one, if not several, freelancers adding a particular spice to the Innovation Arts recipe. Our events are supported by pop-up teams of people who may have never worked together before, but who, from the moment an event kicks off, rely upon and trust one another to get the job done as intensely as in any hospital emergency room. What allows this to happen is a specific pattern language unique to our industry, our philosophy of self-reliance and self-determination, and a simple set of systems and culture that everyone accepts.
As someone who used to “gig” for Innovation Arts before I came onto its staff full-time, I can say there are downsides to a free and flexible mode of working. The unstable hours, feast-or-famine workloads, and don’t even get me started on accounting. However, as part of the extended Innovation Arts family, I always knew that if I accepted a freelance project I’d know exactly what I was getting into, specifically what the work would be, and precisely what role I was expected to perform. And that comes down to the values and behaviors Innovation Arts promotes, which are clear and easy to understand, rather than a restrictive management structure. Thanks to our values of “High Performance” and “Honesty,” I always knew my work was valued, I knew I’d be expected to make my own decisions and be honest about the work I was doing and if I needed help, to be collaborative and creative, so I delivered. Because iteration is a key part of our ethos, I knew that if I messed up I would have the chance to try again, to fail better. The unspoken laws of team-working never varied from gig-to-gig, manager-to-manager. And now that I work for IA full time, the same rules apply. By embracing a simple and clear values statement and promoting a desired mode of behavior, Innovation Arts has made working easy for me and other colleagues who have made the switch from freelance, both as full-timers and as contractors.
So how do you know if your company’s values are filtering down into a workforce you might only see occasionally—or in the case of app-managed Deliveroo, never—and yet who undeniably represent your organization? How can you engender loyalty and a sense of belonging if you only come in contact now and again? It comes down to the behaviors accepted and promoted for each person who answers to your company’s name. What behaviors do you expect from your employees, whether full-time or contracted, and how do those behaviors reflect your company’s values? We have worked with a number of organizations who have used our game Dilemma® to test how behaviors on the ground map back to the corporate value statement in the company’s lobby, and found that whether you are the CEO or a temp, the action should essentially be the same. By playing through the workplace scenarios in Dilemma®, employees have a chance to explore the preferred responses as well as the actions they might take if pressed for time or to deliver. We’ve discovered that companies who value “respect” will have employees who are respectful, no matter if they are in the home office or on a client site, and that those who embrace “diversity” will employ people who are diverse in ethnicity as well as in attitude. But, if your employees—no matter how entrenched with the company—can’t make sense of your values, or don’t know how the words on the plaque in the lobby translate to day-to-day actions, then you’re in trouble.
There can be a distance between the narrative surrounding labor and success, and the lived experience of workers. In our work with a variety of organizations we know that the culture envisioned by the leaders at the top of the tree can sometimes be very different from the culture lived by the employees at the bottom. In our experience, only a small percentage of companies are getting it completely right with respect to values, and that has a knock-on effect to distant parts of the company culture few leaders ever see. The gig economy is certainly working for the employers who want to have special skills on tap, but in order for it to truly work for the entire company, especially those temporary or distance employees who are a long way from head office; there must be something to sweeten the deal. Treating your workers—temporary, part-time, flexi or full—as you would treat the CEO is a small step, but at least it’s a step forward.
This is an era where roboadvisors will soon become the norm, where digital insights will change the face of marketing forever, where back-office administration will be transformed by technologies and where new products and services will develop at a speed never seen before.
To make things even tougher for established companies, not only is there hot competition from the usual places, technology has also removed barriers to entry, forcing incumbents to question their operating models and their hold over once loyal customers. But in this rapidly changing digital economy, could it be that the biggest threat to your business isn’t the competition but the organisation itself?
The disruption we are now facing on a massive scale requires organisations to transform in the fastest possible time. While many companies immediately look towards costly investments in hardware and software solutions in an effort to keep up, it is only the more astute companies that reflect on the organisation’s ability to quickly identify and evaluate relevant innovation and to rapidly evolve in response.
One thing that we have heard a lot in the past from large multi-national clients is that “unlike startups, here it takes a long time to turn the ship”. Our question is, is that lack of organisational agility an inescapable characteristic, built into the DNA of large organisations, or is adaptability a matter of choice?
Our Design Leads have addressed complex systemic challenges at both ends of the business spectrum, from startups to market leading incumbents. This work has certainly highlighted the characteristic strengths, aptitudes and behaviours of each: It will come as no surprise to readers that young, innovative companies tend to take more risks, are more reactive and more willing to fail; an advantage for sure, if harnessed effectively. They are also comfortable in emergent situations, which means that Innovation Arts’ approaches to problem solving – including Design Thinking and cross-functional collaboration – tend to already feel natural to the people who work there. This is not always the case in more established companies, whose cultures have evolved away from entrepreneurialism towards the need to protect and grow brands and meet shareholder expectations. But there is a reason companies cultures evolve as they do. When working with engineering clients who design and build aircraft engines, or the aircraft themselves, for example, we have not been shocked to find that a need for precision, caution and paramount safety have also influenced the way business processes are managed. Yet here too, digital transformation is an imperative, and leaders have found ways to exploit cultural strengths while still embracing new, accelerated ways of thinking and working that save thousands of hours of effort and rework.
Some incumbents choose to fast track their development of targeted innovation by combining forces. Our work in the Financial Technology sector has involved partnering with startups and established big names who, recognising each others’ strengths, search for symbiosis to exploit emergent Fintech markets. But even there, innovation cannot be kept distinct from the rest of the organisation and ultimately the ship still has to be turned. The question is how? At Innovation Arts we are convinced that the solution lies not in a book or a consultancy report, but within your existing organisation.
No matter who comprises your organisation, from millennials to experienced old-hands planning their retirement, every person within it will have lived through an extended period of highly intensive and accelerated change – as a child. Children face transformation constantly: physically, mentally, emotionally and in the expectations family and society have of them. Children are extraordinarily resilient and adaptable, and every new change strengthens them for the next. By drawing on this to recreate three key conditions that make thriving in change possible in your organisation, we can rediscover that strength:
Traditional hierarchical control and decision-making will not work. In some cases the more experience we have with things working well, the harder it is to access breakthrough thinking. Leadership teams must have the courage to acknowledge that we are in a new, unexplored era, and that their leadership requires resourcefulness – seeking answers from those who know, those who decide and those who do. This culture of trust and delegation will give employees in turn the courage to pose questions and offer suggestions they otherwise would have kept under wraps. Bring the right people together at the right time to answer important questions, and sometimes -in periods of intense transition – consider a temporary focal ‘hub’ to accelerate and align.
One of our core beliefs at Innovation Arts is that failure always precedes success. Modelling, testing and iteration are as key to Design Thinking as they are to technological advancements. If your company has a culture that punishes failure, innovation will never flourish; a learning culture is key to agility. You will also need to rethink cumbersome ‘traditional’ processes for decision-making, communicating and aligning/realigning – you simply don’t have time. A good design is never finished, but good enough for now can be good enough for now: operating models, action plans and communications strategies that meet immediate needs and can be iterated later are appropriate in this fast changing world.
If you can’t have fun with the problem, you’ll never solve it: If disruption is seen as a chore or something to be feared rather than as an exciting challenge then your organisation’s response will be lacklustre at best. Adopt collaborative approaches that engage employees and make working together on complex challenges tough but pleasurable. That doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge employees concerns – people still need to understand what changes means for them. One thing that can help is keeping a constant focus on your values. Games Science can help you keep focused on who you are as a company even when you face a perpetually moving target.
These practical changes can tap into your organisation’s innate ability to adapt and embrace the opportunities that digital transformation presents for your business. Talk to us about how we can help you release the solutions within.
When a situation breaks, the Communications Director is on the frontline managing an increasingly complex number of stakeholders; media, shareholders, suppliers, partners and customers. The objective is to protect the brand and organization while keeping the media coverage to a minimum and stakeholders informed and placated.
However, while every Communications Director will ensure their company has a Crisis and Issues plan prepared in advance, one key stakeholder group is too often forgotten: your employees. They can be your saviour in such a situation, available to call upon as well-informed brand ambassadors and corporate advocates, OR they can be your bête noire if ignored. Of course when you are in crisis mode you have to prioritise, but if you wait to engage the broader employee base until the fire-fighting has subsided, it might be too late.
We know that most employees need to feel part of a holistic system, to be engaged with the wider purpose of the organisation. So if they are getting their updates from social media, feeling powerless to respond and sensing themselves on the periphery of the organisation, they will not only feel confused and demotivated, but could also present an immediate risk and a longer term weakness. A recent survey showed strongly that if employees no longer believe in their company, or that they can successfully uphold the brand or reputation, they are likely to start looking elsewhere (Gallup Survey 2017) and this effect is amplified in times of crisis.
The implications of this are borne out in difficult experience. Whatever the sector or industry, the Communications Directors and Internal Communications Directors we have worked with, who have faced such situations, all say the same – the one thing they would do differently next time is to ensure that all employees accompany the senior team managing the situation in unison.
At Innovation Arts, when we talk about Employee Engagement, we are not talking about the measure of employee morale previously known as ‘job satisfaction’. Rather, we are talking about actively engaging the organisation collaboratively in the aspirations, ambitions, trials and successes of the wider company. And we believe that your crisis handling should mirror the way you engage your organisation on a day to day basis, and around important initiatives – just in a more focused and intensive way commensurate with the urgency of the situation.
So if you were to come to us looking to put a crisis plan in place that engages your employees effectively, our first question to you would be, what is your internal engagement process OUTSIDE of a crisis situation? Don’t worry if you don’t have one yet, you’re certainly not alone. And it could well be that planning for a crisis situation provides the impetus you need to develop a broader employee engagement mechanism to support your business. We would always recommend putting this plan in place BEFORE you need it! The next question, then, is how to go about designing a plan that will actually be used, and used effectively?
Innovation Arts believes that more voices cut down on noise, which is another way of saying that by involving all critical stakeholders in creating the plan they will be expected to deploy, their ownership of the plan not only makes it more effective and reduces resistance but also devolves the leadership required in rapid-response situations.
The number of critical stakeholders we suggest you involve in creating your plan can vary between 12 and 100 depending the size and complexity of your organisation, and this in turn will guide the time investment required to collaborate and align on your Internal Engagement plan. Depending on your needs we will recommend between one and three days of intensive work in a DesignSession for exponential results.
Typical questions you might want to answer in such a DesignSession include:
By using Design Thinking and Collaborative methodologies in this process, the outcome will be more robust. From Framing of how a crisis situation might occur in your organisation to Architecting around different plausible scenarios and Building an employee engagement plan which is aligned across stakeholder groups.
All our DesignSessions are bespoke, co-designed with you and every one starts with a simple conversation about the opportunity to collaborate. Click here to contact us to discuss how engaging your employees could be the secret ingredient to success.
After months of research into the inner workings of the company, US Attorney general Eric Holder this week published a report with recommendations for what Uber could do to redeem itself https://goo.gl/zwGhJA. Central to the report was a recommendation to “Reformulate Uber’s 14 Cultural Values,” to reflect more inclusive and positive behaviors.
Corporate value statements—those things you often see engraved in Plexiglas in corporate lobbies—exist to remind a company of its purpose in the wider world, of its very human reason to exist. But they must move beyond the lobby to act as the glue to bind employees together like a family, a beacon to steer towards when the going gets rough, and a code of ethics to hold employees to a higher standard. And yet, because company value statements are—necessarily—broad and open (or in Uber’s case vague and meaningless), a company’s values can be difficult for employees to translate into day-to-day behavior. What, exactly is meant by “super-pumpedness,” and does that mean downing several cans of Red Bull before clocking on, or something else entirely? And what happens when colleagues have different interpretations of the values? How easy is it for the language of a company’s values to translate into action for the boots-on-the-ground employee? How can a company ensure that its values are lived, not just talked about?
Innovation Arts knows that company culture crises are often an accumulation of small transgressions by employees who do not understand what the corporate values mean for the day-to-day. Or that trouble begins when the values fail to communicate what top brass believes their company to be. In our experience, a company’s values come to life within the company culture, which tends to bubble up from the bottom, from the lowliest employee to the CEO. If a company’s stated values include respect and diversity, then employees will be respectful of one another, form teams with people not like themselves, and reach outside their own sphere for new ideas. When your company values and culture promote “be yourself” and “toe-stepping,” then, well, just ask Uber what happens.
We have worked with a number of companies and cherished national institutions who are mindful of the impact values have on an organization, and wanted to ensure their values were meaningful for the people who follow them every day. However, admitting that you don’t quite understand them, or maybe that you interpret your corporate values differently than your colleagues can be a difficult conversation. That’s where the concept of game science can literally be a game-changer. By working with game designers, Innovation Arts has developed a new way to engage and inspire employees about their organization through our game Dilemma™ that translates an organisation’s values into day-to-day behaviours for every employee to understand and act upon. Dilemma™ employs a rigorous interview process to ensure a bespoke experience for each organization that uses it, and allows employees to put their corporate values through their paces through a series of scenarios matched with potential responses. Players earn points for responding with the action most closely tied to the intent of their company’s values—carefully avoiding the reactions born of habit or context. As much as we want to aspire to the better angels of our nature, it is a fact of modern life that we go astray, especially when time is short. Dilemma™ addresses these little slips and shortcuts, and encourages the players to talk through what a “wrong” response is, and yet, why an employee might be tempted to take the easy route. By identifying the preferred actions and the likely workarounds, what we have noticed is that the people who play Dilemma™ are more likely to talk about their company’s values in a way that is meaningful for each person, clarifying what the values are, why they exist, and how they should be enacted. Being honest enough to have an open and frank conversation about the accepted wisdom of company culture can motivate a group to own their values, and bring them to life.
Corporate values everywhere are a hot topic. The May 2017 issue of Fast Company magazine featured a cover story about the importance of embracing corporate values, and the impact they can have on the wider world. From automakers such as Ford and Audi to fashion houses like Gucci and Ralph Lauren, from health care firms to consumer packaged goods makers, companies are increasingly seeking to align their commercial activities with larger social and cultural values—not just because it makes them look good, but because employees and customers have started to insist on it. Millennials spend money in areas they believe in, and companies will simply have to respond. If you count the number of lives big companies like Facebook or Airbnb touch, they can have as much influence as a national official, so what they stand for themselves matters.
And that finally is what makes a company’s values so important. With global politics in a state of upheaval and trust in governments and other institutions suffering, corporations and large businesses may have to step forward to fill that gap and lead. What will ultimately differentiate those leaders is their inner motivations, their intentions. If your company intends to do good, and your employees know how to translate that into action, then it is clear on which side you will end up. What are your intentions? Are your employees living it every day, with every action, every decision? Perhaps it’s not clear whether they are engaged or not, or if your company’s values are simply words without meaning. If so, we encourage you to challenge your people to live up to what you say you stand for, to make each other better. What do you do when the chips are down, or you are in a hurry, or you are simply desperate to make that sale? We know that if you can count on your values in times of stress, then you will be able to rely upon them in times of ease. And it is possible that having a higher purpose will help a company’s profits in the long run.
Corporate values, like personal ones, exist to make everyone’s life better. If you enact them in small ways every day, the value compounds, and you can make a big impact.
Is your organisation one of the 10% that is getting it spot on with Engagement and Values, or are you looking for new ideas and support? Whether it’s about articulating the right values for your organisation, embedding them, or engaging your employees around strategic initiatives, we’d love you to get in touch to explore how design thinking, collaboration and games science such as Dilemma™ could help.
Whether our clients are FTSE 100 Directors, Global Directors of multinationals or large public institutions, one thing HR Directors express is the need to support both change initiatives and day-to-day operations whilst under greater pressure and flux than before. To paraphrase the Red Queen, We must now run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.
With voluntary resignations at an all-time high and unemployment rates historically low, the pressure is on HR Directors to find innovative approaches.
Whilst some of the evolution in employee mobility can be put down to external shifts in culture, demographics and economics there are other factors that fall within a businesses sphere of influence. Innovation Arts suggests two areas of focus that HR Directors can lead within their organisations for proven and measureable results:
Measuring absenteeism, turnover, and productivity might give you a metric of how engaged your employees feel, but true employee engagement is more than a KPI, it’s a way of life. HR Directors can lead this, but the whole leadership team needs to get behind it. It’s about getting the whole organisation involved, and actively behind the Company’s purpose and strategic objectives.
It can seem easier and faster, particularly in a large company, to take high-level decisions in the boardroom, and cascade strategies top-down rather than face the mammoth task of truly engaging hundreds and thousands of employees, and in the short term maybe it is. But there’s always a price to pay down the line when it comes to delivering the strategies.
Teams that are consistently high performing all show a number of common factors, including collaboration, trust and transparency. Conflicts are sought out and resolved together, not ignored or over-ruled. The companies we work with that invest in up-front collaboration on big decisions see pay back many times over in true employee engagement and measurable business results.
As well as playing a vital role in delivering an organisation’s strategy and objectives, lived values and behaviours are also instrumental to managing talent throughout the employee lifecycle. Most companies have them on a poster on the wall somewhere, yet it’s a rare company where they are actively managed. In our experience, sectors such as Health and Hospitality – where you might naturally expect strong common values to guide employee actions – show the strongest sense of shared values amongst employees, yet without company-wide interventions these values are still not translated into daily lived behaviours. Indeed, employees express a sense of frustration with that disconnect. In other sectors such as Finance or Manufacturing, the Company Purpose doesn’t always align naturally with any specific values, and if they are not integral to the recruitment process then it is only by chance that employees find anything to relate to in the values found on the corporate charter. Overall Innovation Arts estimates that fewer than one in ten organisations have values and behaviours that are clearly understood and lived on a day-to-day basis.
Can your employees articulate your organisation’s values and explain how they affect the decisions they take and the way they behave in their own jobs? When an employee identifies strongly with an organisation’s values they are much more likely to engage and to stay. The implication for HR Directors is that from recruitment through day-to-day work to performance management, values and behaviours should be an integral part of what we measure and track.
At Innovation Arts we believe playful approaches get serious results, and this is why our Games Science team has developed a suite of easy to use, effective and engaging tools including DilemmaSelect for recruitment, and Dilemma for embedding and tracking desired values and behaviours sustainably.
Where do you fit? Is your organisation one of the 10% that is getting it spot on with Engagement and Values, or are you looking for new ideas and support? Whether it’s about articulating the right values for your organisation, embedding them, or engaging your employees around strategic initiatives, we’d love you to get in touch to explore how design thinking, collaboration and games science could help.
We tend to create the framework for our own reality based on past observations, experiences and reflections. We do this using a language that has helped us understand this state, enriched with further meaning and credibility through dialogue, shared experiences, and discussions with others.
The limitations of this process are clear. If we remain in equilibrium, constrained by our own perception of reality, then where do breakthroughs come from? What must happen to break our own alignment with conventional wisdom and follow another train of thought, and then allow others to understand it and (potentially) embrace it? It is at this point some might begin talking about ‘creativity’ and ‘brainstorming’, but many attempts at creativity in problem solving or in innovation remain framed – and as such constrained – by existing ideas of reality. Before we look at creativity our next post, we first have to deal with the idea of paradigm shifts.
Breakthrough thinking requires challenging our acquired knowledge. Without getting too deep into theory, for now we will say that to experience a breakthrough, we must be open to questioning what we think we know and the way we view the world. We must also accept our personal or organisational ‘fog of war’ – the things we are as yet unaware that we don’t know – and that whatever is in there could potentially be exciting. Engaging with our ignorance as something positive allows us to unlock our curiosity, so that we may actively seek out novelty, experience and new interpretations, which gives us the power to embrace a new paradigm of ‘possibility’.
Possibility are the things that may or may not come to pass. In any one given situation there could be many different outcomes, but we limit our choices as human beings and as communities, often because we work on options grounded in our past and by a communal agreement on what is, and what is not possible.
Challenging a communal agreement opens up the challenger to risk, whether purely reputational or much worse than that… Consider, for example, that at a time when conventional wisdom assumed Earth to be the centre of the universe, Galileo Galilei reported his discovery that the centre of the universe was, in fact, the sun. In doing so he was stepping out of a community of agreement to introduce a new possibility – opening a dialogue that challenged ‘reality’. Unfortunately, Galileo’s new ‘reality’ fundamentally disputed established teaching, and his refusal to recant his theory meant he was imprisoned by the Inquisition for the rest of his life.
Many other eminent scientists have gone on to make discoveries that became accepted as natural truths, but were subsequently disproven. Isaac Newton’s theory that light was composed of particles, for example, was accepted as fact until 100 years later when Thomas Young discovered that light spread as waves and opinion changed. Subsequently, Einstein came along with his famous e=mc2 equation and told us that light travels in waves as particles. We do not ridicule Newton or Young for being ‘wrong’ of course; each scientist made his own contribution to our evolving understanding of physics, a discipline where the most renowned thinkers are constantly open to extraordinary and as yet unimagined possibilities. Other disciplines would do well to learn from this approach.
Practically speaking, how do you shift an organisation’s paradigm from one of reality to one of possibility? We firmly believe this is not the job of a single leader. Rather, leaders must harness the combined strength, intellect and imagination of their people. By bringing many voices together in conversation and collaboration, the realm of possibility is greatly expanded and the ground is laid for exploration, experimentation, inquiry, trial and error and ultimately, triumph.
Once you have assembled the right people – people who know, people who decide and people who do – and you know the questions you want to answer, the next step is to carefully design the conditions for having necessary conversations. There are many different kinds of conversations, each of which serves a different purpose. The conversations that can be had between two people are different to those had within a small group of eight, and different again to those of a larger group, different yet again to those held in person and, indeed, virtually. It is likely that a mix of all of these, carefully structured and using appropriate language, will move you from ‘reality’ to ‘possibility’. Design thinking helps establish which conversations must be had, with whom and how, in order to achieve the possible and to unlock the Group Genius that leads to breakthrough ideas.
Possibility, and knowing that there are in fact multiple options, also suggests the necessity of making choices. It is sometimes harder than we think to accept we have choices to make, as this also imposes the requirement of taking responsibility. The next question becomes, ‘how do we make the best decision?’ and the answer is creativity.
Once you have entered a paradigm of possibility, creativity is no longer the process of generating ideas, but the process of eliminating options.
In an earlier post, I talked about words and language as a model – an imperfect representation of something else that is in some way useful. Language is the basis of our own individual, internal reasoning or ‘way of thinking’ because it enables us to describe the world around and within us. We create definitions that convey the form, breadth and identity of everything. We compare and contrast, form relationships and make associations to help better understand our world and form our internal frames of reference.
Language also forms the basis of our interactions with our environment and the people within it. We use it to communicate complex social structures and our place within them, to understand and to be understood, to resolve disputes, and to provoke action. Language as a model is so powerful that words alone can move human beings to feel fear, anger or disgust; it can be the catalyst for positive change or can start wars. Through storytelling we share our experiences of the world as we see it, as well as our vision of what might be possible. Language can not only describe but also shape our reality, manipulating other peoples’ idea of the truth. But in order to do that effectively and with intent, we need to be confident that the way we interpret language is consistent with those whom we seek to influence.
Gordon Pask, eminent Cyberneticist, did a tremendous amount of work on conversations and ‘Conversation Theory.’ One important conclusion, paraphrased, is that in order to understand we must agree. For example, if we can agree the meaning and context of the word ‘green,’ I will understand what you mean when you say ‘green’. That both of us use a word ‘green’ is not enough – many cultures would include colours I see as ‘blue’ with their definition of green – we must agree on the precise meanings of words in order to fully understand. Although this sounds like a simple concept, our experience of language in a variety of organisations tells us it is not always one meaning that is assured, leading to conflicts, costs and wasted time and effort.
If we are not to assume linguistic agreement – and we should not – we must establish it through conversation. Through ongoing conversations in our social groupings over time we form our own unique languages to facilitate our lives together, building a sense of community, culture and identity for ourselves.
Christopher Alexander, a master of the architectural world, describes the notion of a ‘Pattern Language’: In a town with a living language, the pattern language is so widely shared that everyone can use it. When the language is shared, the individual patterns in the language are profound. We have, of course, our own pattern language at InnovationArts – you will be getting a sense of some of it through these blog posts – and find different pattern languages in every organisation with whom we work. Chances are you can identify a pattern language in your own organisation and see clearly how it is distinct from other organisations you’ve encountered, as well as how it differs from the pattern language of your own family and social circle.
Patterns in language are always simple – complex patterns cannot survive the slow transmission from person to person. They are also comprehensive, covering the whole of life as we know it. In this way, we are able to reflect and interact around form, scope, identity and our relationship to our environment – let’s call it ‘context’ – and take a stance as to where we fit. As a group of individuals we use language to model our ‘reality’.
Let’s come back to models. When we talk about reality, we are talking about the things we know to be true. Language, dialogue and conversation give us the potential to build and share our knowledge. But how much of our ‘knowledge’ really is the truth and how much, at best, is just a model that is good enough for now?
We exist in a constant cycle of observation, reflection and interpretation, and as we change our perspectives our language adapts. The words we use are fundamental in articulating our view of reality and in turn become a living, evolving component of the complex systems in which we operate. The opposite can also be true: when you want to change ‘reality’ and have a new beginning, what better place to start than with ‘the word’? By intentionally shaping our pattern language we can use it to achieve our ambitions – personal, organisational and societal.
By thinking about language as supporting not ‘reality’ but ‘possibility’, it will help you understand why at Innovation Arts we aim to be scrupulous in the way we use language in all our work, and the powerful role words play in influencing the possible.
Yet looking at the actual designs around us today, we still see determined and rigid solutions in which spatial composition has been the main objective. There are many speculative real estate developments, for example, which do not consider any particular client’s needs and aim primarily at a maximum amount of anonymous rental office space. The same thinking often continues inside the company, where ignorance or a wish to save money results in anonymous rooms divided into identical workplaces.
The most common approach to office space still reckons with one workspace per person whilst imposing negotiation and meeting rooms are considered separately. Many of these individual and group spaces are regularly unoccupied. Meanwhile, the budget for furnishing the office is divided between personal workplaces and a representative zone, altogether forgetting the background zone. Yet, it is common knowledge that the coffee machine is the best communication tool and that the most productive moments at conferences are coffee breaks. Why is this forgotten while filling the office plan with desks and chairs?
And let’s think again about who uses modern office space: It is easy to agree that working practices have changed. Today’s office work no longer consists of only data entry and processing; the linear work arrangement has become parallel and serial, meaning we should be able us to use the worker, time, and space much more intensively. In addition, work is more creative, and most of the creative work is done in changing workgroups that require a flexible use of time and space: there is no more need for physically emphasised hierarchy. And of course everyone can see what mobile phones and laptops have done to our working time and workplace. So how do we see through these changes to the new requirements? What is the new model?
In HIVE, each individual performs a fixed task in the production chain – usually from nine to five. The work does not require interaction or autonomy; the space is divided into an endless number of identical working places. Thanks to automation this past typology is disappearing or changing into DEN-type, more intelligence-requiring activity, where teamwork is of primary importance. The space planning in a den-type office is mostly open, but there is still not much personal independence. The CELL-type is used mostly for work requiring concentrated thinking (lawyers, research centres) where workers have great autonomy in using their time and in the content of their work, but few possibilities for interaction.
It is believed that as information technology develops, the independent concentration type of work and project-based teamwork will be combined in most enterprises. In the new “transactional” office, both interaction and independence will be maximised. The metaphoric CLUB is a place where people gather and communicate, while the actual work is done somewhere else. It is predicted that more and more companies will begin to work like Hollywood film teams that are formed separately for each project.
The premise of the activity setting approach is that one place – an all-purpose workstation per person -no longer suffices. Instead, people need multiple workplaces. These specialized settings span the variety of -often contradictory – office worker requirements. As tasks change, people move to various specialized activity settings. This movement is healthy, it makes jobs more interesting and encourages participation in ad hoc temporary groups and greater use of specialized costly equipment.
Robert Kelley, 1985
Because today’s workspace must be a multi-task environment, serving many clients and many different knowledge tasks at once, and because different tasks have different spatial, emotional and tooling requirements, the contemporary environment should be designed to be both flexible and capable of being divided into specialized zones. Within each zone, there may be different sub-areas, each with its own use and feel. In addition, many of these zones can expand and contract, thus, they can be configured to be larger or smaller, to be part of or totally separate from each other as the work demands.
Looking beyond the allocation of space, remember that as a form of communication our environment can be denoted as being multi-sensory; visual, aural, tactile, spatial and so on: “The will of the epoch translated into space”. An effective working environment should inspire workers, showing them that they are needed, and express the distinctive face and values of the enterprise. An office should be a place with an aura of its own. (Contrast this with the kind of anonymous “non-places”, – planes, ships, airports, supermarkets and indeed offices with which we are increasingly surrounded, where the design aim seems to be to eliminate differentiation altogether).
Several principles and design goals drive the basic layout of an environment that communicates effectively: Its image must include a spatial pattern that relates objects within it, relates the environment to the observer, and to other objects in its surrounding community; it must exhibit an architectural grammar and geometry appropriate to its specific mission and fit within the grammar and style of its location; it must control its boundaries in terms of access, light, sound, sight lines, and it must do this without presenting a defensive posture. The environment must include spatial ambiguity – the high variety that creates interest. It must include sheltered places for quiet reflection as well as open spaces for collaboration and expansive thinking. Paths, boundaries, regions, nodes and landmarks add variety, flexibility, build relationships and communication and facilitate feedback and change. To be psychologically comfortable, an environment must be physically comfortable and allow variation in the colour and texture of the furniture, levels and quality of lighting, and acoustical environment.
The evolution of our working environments is an on-going challenge; neither patchwork fixes nor wholesale redesign will suffice in today’s rapidly changing world. As people expand their horizons, so too must the environment expand its ability to serve. Individual elements must be created which can be replaced when outgrown with new elements that still complement the entire system. Frank Lloyd Wright felt the task of the designer was to design for what people can become–to stretch people to reach their potential. Today’s knowledge workers require an environment that challenges them to reach both their own potential and that of their organization whilst also facilitating that progress. The designer must see and communicate through the environment its conscious ability to evolve.
Complex natural systems are our model for successful, creative, evolving work environments. Our daily workspaces must be engineered to be both organic and cybernetic, adjusting to user requirements minutely and without fanfare. Those of you who have worked with us on an Innovation Arts Design Session will recognize these principles ‘in miniature’ in the temporary, mobile environments that we establish for each session. It is for all the reasons described above that we insist on creating the right environment to support the work we do with you. Our dedicated team designs each environment specifically for each client and each challenge, and over the course of the Session it will shift and evolve to guide, mirror, or lead the participants’ journey as they collaborate on the task in hand.
Architecture results from integrated acts of philosophy, art, engineering, craftsmanship and business and – when perfection is sought – allows no compromise between these disciplines. A good piece of architecture directly supports a specific concept of life and work style and acts as a physical, visual, tactile and symbolic guide for its inhabitants. Conversely, bad architecture can work in direct opposition to those inhabitants’ objectives and culture, as per the title of this post. This idea that a work of architecture can also be a productive or counterproductive tool of human economy is relatively new. What is also novel is the idea that the workplace can be an expression of living art, and that this is not only possible but necessary in today’s world.
If we are to design our workspaces with the intent of using the most effective architectural pattern language, we need to get under the skin of how everything speaks. The language of architecture is largely symbolic; specific shapes, forms and textures invoke particular meanings. Just as the expressionist movement in literature gave birth to analysis by metaphor and symbolism, so too has expressionism had its influence over architecture. The early 1920s bore testimony to this architectural influence where buildings were designed and constructed to express or symbolize their use thus aiming to integrate both form and content into a coherent, more meaningful whole, for example the Volkstheatre Project, 1921 or Einstein Tower Observatory, 1920.
In the book ‘Metaphors We Live by’, Lackoff and Johnson build a theory that we live and express ourselves in terms of metaphor. This notion will be examined in greater detail later when I will talk about what we mean by ‘Possibility’. However architecture provides some firm examples of this theory. The Renaissance movement provided this language, its masters drawing the (organic) parallels of buildings as life forms in themselves. A buiding rises up, or it lies in a particular way. It has a front and a back, a face, a silhouette, a profile. It has a heart, a nerve-centre. It has a top, a crown, related to the sky and a base, a foot, related to the ground. Windows look out. Doors open wide. Perhaps no building is more symbolic that Antoni Gaudi’s ‘Casa Batlló’ with its bone-like structure and death mask balconies symbolic of the human experience in Catalonia’s quest for independence.
The power of the metaphor here is great. As the imposing designs of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque all inspire superlative adjectives, so too are the feelings they stir in the soul. Compare this symbolism with that of most modern corporate architecture and it is little surprise they pale in significance, often inhuman, dead, faceless structures.
Intentionally or otherwise we have in recent times ignored the language of architecture in our workplaces, the timeless way of building as Christopher Alexander calls it, at the expense of functionalism. Our offices are uninspiring. That they are a mish-mash of metaphors at best cannot be denied. That they are malapropisms is probably just as correct.
So, back to the Bored Room, and our quest to bring to a powerful and inspiring voice to workspace architecture. Generally speaking, todays offices are boring places, at least from the point of view of art, design and architecture. Yet, they are precisely the places where many of us spend most of our productive time. How did we get here? Many contemporary ideas about the office date from the times of the industrial revolution, when accountants were gathered into office buildings erected next to the factories. The economic strategies that had modernised the industry were directly transferred into the paperwork. It was a simple, clear and very unambiguous procedure that followed the same assembly line principles governing the action in the factory halls. The office was a master class of simultaneity; the system functioned only when all its parts were in place – from nine a.m. to five p.m.
Alvin Toffler said in 1985 that:
“the corporate environment has changed so swiftly and fundamentally in the past two decades that structures designed for success in an industrial environment are almost by definition inappropriate today.”
Over thirty years on, and whilst those changes have done nothing but accelerate our workspaces have barely evolved at all. The time for us to take back control of our surroundings own us is long overdue.
A rich, varied environment, with ample communication, continuous learning, rapid feedback, knowledge management, and readily available tools are key to eliminating the barriers to human creativity and increasing productivity. Flexible space, open areas, new types of furniture and complex technological systems will increase the amount of informal communication that is necessary to develop communities of practice and build networks. There is inherent value in people from all levels of the organization working in close proximity to each other. In designing this new type of environment, we must go beyond incremental or even major changes to existing workplace designs. We need something unique, innovative, and totally new.
Of course, the reverse is also true: our relationship with architecture is a dialogue, the communication is two way. Our events – political, cultural, environmental, also clearly shape the direction architecture takes.
The post war era engendered a new era in architecture. The Modern Movement was borne of our need for rapid, large-scale rebuilding and was founded on a solid base of extensive industrialism and economic growth. Advanced technology enabled machine production of pre-fabricated components allowing mass standardization. Need for function over-ruled the need for form and aesthetic quality; large scale blocks, scientifically designed to functional parameters were hoisted into place, literally, to the delight of governments for these constructions were not only economic in terms of land use but also in terms of construction costs.
The theory was that in order to achieve a planned economic use of land and resources, people would have to abandon their traditional habitats, and government – with the help of architects – would educate them how to live!
Just as the structures Imperial Romans erected in their conquered lands sought to suppress the indigenous population and demonstrate the might of the Empire in direct contravention of local traditions and climate; just as the Gothic Cathedrals of Europe sought to strike fear into the general population as an embodiment of Heaven on Earth; just as Renaissance Palaces sought to mirror the wealth and power of those that lived in them (and so on), so, particularly in the west, the governments, ministries and administrative centres sought to symbolise and express their own power in the new world.
This was not unique to domestic architecture and city and suburban planning, however. Our cities today are festooned with imagery of business empires and consumer capitalism. These are the loud, clear, messages of the ‘modern’ corporate building. A fine example of this is the United Nations building in NYC. The council debating chamber, where representatives of each of the nations could come together and discuss issues with a view to achieving a resolution (despite this being far from collaborative working environments as I know them to be) is completely overshadowed by an administrative tower. The tower itself is a modern day ‘Tower of Babel’, symbolism of the bureaucratic nature of political power.
Let’s step back and look at these monolithic structures – already historical relics in today’s world (even though many are still being built, taller and louder than ever). They have effectively become obsolete. From a technical perspective the Modern Movement has failed us; society is having to support building failures through their repair, renovation or demolition. Similarly, the advanced technology to support these buildings in terms of climate control, lighting and sound for example has failed us. Socio-culturally it has been a disaster. In attempting to define a new language the Modern Movement served to create the antithesis of architecture, alienating human experience and denying the freedom of choice, of individuality and, most importantly, of being alive. Regardless, their legacy messages continue to influence us as they are still a part of our everyday experience.
The wake of Modernism has brought about all sorts of similarly artistic movements; post modern, neo-vernacular, neo (neo) classical, high tech and so on. None of these seem to have evoked the richness of experience that we see, hear and feel in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, with the possible recent exception of biophilic design. Biophilia means the love of life or living systems, and the biophilia hypothesis is that human beings have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. Edward O. Wilson popularised the idea in his 1984 book Biophilia.
In the context of our workplaces, from the corner office drenched in light to the plant-filled lobby, this is not a new idea, but biophilic design, whilst still nascent, is a growing discipline that takes the concept much further. It adopts a holistic approach, looking at whole systems, and evokes the idea of a biophilic space that facilitates our work – making everything easier and, in the way it communicates with us, actively improving our physical, emotional and mental health.
Anyone who has ever worked in a cubicle will understand that there is a lot to be said for this approach, and it’s a principle that we take forward with us as we look at the workspaces we build today, the ‘frozen music’ we play.