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Fewer than 1 in 10 businesses have cultures that are understood. Why does this matter and how to address it?
So far, we have only seen immediately visible, short-term effects, such as the fall in the value of the pound, and the diversion of the majority of UK Government time and energy into the legislation required to leave the EU. We all have our own opinions on the likely longer term political and macro-economic repercussions of Brexit, but in fact for our clients the most pressing concerns are closer to home, with the decision likely to influence all elements of their business, from strategy and talent through to finance and regulation.
Of course with the process of exiting the EU being ongoing, largely confidential and subject to a great degree of uncertainty, our clients have more questions than answers right now. But asking the right questions is always an excellent place to start when tackling complex challenges. We would love to write a blog post that provided all the answers, but the truth is that none of us has them today, and at Innovation Arts we certainly don’t have off the peg solutions for you and your organisation. However, we do have some broad responses that may be useful as you consider the risks, opportunities and uncertainty that Brexit presents:
Brexit is a supply side shock and, depending on how policies are managed at a national level, its effects could be felt positively or negatively on individual businesses, nationally and throughout the even more complex global system. One of the reasons our clients feel overwhelmed by this is that it seems impossible to separate the disruptive effects on their organisation with the wider (as yet unknown) effects. But putting focus on the smaller system of your organisation or industry where you are the experts can have major benefits at this stage. The best way to tackle complexity, in our experience, is to break it down into its constituent parts and their interdependencies before attempting to define solutions, so we advise starting there.
When disruption strikes, looking for ways to exploit opportunities should go hand in hand with risk mitigation. Because the implications of Brexit will touch many parts of your organisation, as well as your supply chain, we would suggest the best way to be in a position to strike while the iron is hot when the opportunity arises is to put action plans in place now, and review them regularly as the situation evolves. To ensure your plans are as good as you can get them, and watertight, use collaborative processes both within your organisation and with your trusted extended enterprise.
At a corporate level, you still have access to the specific knowledge and insights of your own organisation that with the right kind of design thinking will enable you to consider possible future scenarios, assess them and plan knowledgeably for them.
Right now there is a lot of speculation on what might happen. There are those that hold out hope that Article 50 could be reversed, others that demand that the Brexit process is seen through no matter if it happens without a deal, and others still who think the negotiation period could be extended through to 2021 or beyond. Is the most likely outcome somewhere in the middle? Perhaps. What we know is that although there is uncertainty, there are only a limited number of broad possible outcomes. But whatever that outcome eventually is, your response to it will still require you to leverage the expertise within your own organisation. By establishing and addressing your fitness to respond now, and by using scenario planning to develop detailed responses to the scenarios you can envisage, your business will be in the best shape to respond when more is known.
Traditional ways of doing this would consume a lot of FTE hours yes, but there are ways to effectively condense this work into short focused bursts, allowing you to accelerate your understanding and strategic planning whilst still staying focused on your day to day business and other initiatives. By bringing together the key stakeholders, leaders and decision-makers from across your business, having them rapidly explore and refine the scenarios of both the future and the transition to it, collaboratively, we can quickly help you define the key imperatives together and settle upon a course of action.
The primary function of scribing is to visually capture a conversation into a clearer and more digestible form. The visual map of a discussion aids those present by providing visual interest and capturing the flow of ideas, so the participants can see what they are saying. It works afterward to help those who weren’t there access the overall themes and shape of the session. Visual capture brings the messaging to life and makes it more approachable and memorable, particularly to those who employ a more “right-brained” way of learning. A mixture of iconography, graphic forms and metaphors instantly bring meaning to the words, and visualizing complex messaging and strategic thinking also helps to align people in a way that simply talking can’t. This is most useful when graphic facilitation is employed to capture a group discussion as it breaks down the barriers of language and terminology, different levels of understanding and engagement. Ultimately, we know through research that people are most susceptible to learning when they are in a “childlike” state, and the playful medium of drawing stimulates this, enabling the audience to access their collective inner child.
A typical day in the life of a scribe goes something like this…
It’s the first day of a three-day conference so it’s an early start. I wear comfortable shoes and do a few stretches to ensure I’ll be ready to spend the whole day on my feet. I have a healthy breakfast and check my emails on the way into work. Among the messages in my inbox is a client request to graphically capture their wedding (this is not the first wedding I have scribed)!
The three-day conference I’m headed to today is located in central London and involves the construction sector, a sector I am familiar with because our team has had a lot of experience across a wide range of disciplines. We have scribed everything from child soldier experiences and talks about music in schools, to economic conferences outlining the latest trends in the industry, business strategy collaborative decision-making events where the content is being created as it is being scribed. Besides large media events such as TED Global or Wired’s annual Innovation Lectures, we have also scribed private and public events ranging from business leadership away days to global banking summits. Ultimately, the nature of the content makes no difference, because no matter what it is being discussed, we are experts in listening, understanding, and presenting the messaging in a way that everyone can understand and be excited by. That is why scribing is such a powerful tool.
There are many different reasons for using graphic facilitation, and many different contexts in which it can be employed. Primarily, scribing is a tool to break down the complexity of strategic conversations. The visual content acts as a record of that moment in time, which could afterward be used as a piece of communications for a larger audience who were not present at the event. Sometimes, the scribing will be developed into an infographic, an annotated illustration (what we call a “rich picture”), animations, storyboards, etc. Our scribing lives on in large murals at the London Transport Museum, and the offices of News UK, and Microsoft.
In preparation for the construction event today, we have spent the past few days speaking with the client about their agenda, speakers and content, and getting a feel for the images and metaphors that will both reflect the intent of the discussions and resonate with the audience. We also research the speakers, their style and presentations so that we are comfortable with the content once the session is underway. Sometimes, a shorter event conference will only allow a brief research period, but however much time we are given is enough, as the real art of scribing comes from listening and making connections between the different discussion points to track the conversation. For clients who want to achieve a specific outcome or output, we will spend a much greater period of time in preparation to ensure we can help them achieve their objectives.
I arrive at the venue around two hours before the session begins to prepare the area where the scribing will take place. This time it’s a large ballroom including a stage and seating for 1,000 people. I will be scribing on my favorite medium, a white board system called MovingWalls, portable, erasable white work walls on wheels, which are easy to transport and link together to make a wall several meters in length. My tool of choice is a whiteboard marker, and I tend to carry an array of different types to ensure I’ve got a good supply for the entire job. The Innovation Arts style is usually monochrome, but it depends on what is right for the session.
We are often asked, “How do we scribe? Is it difficult to listen, capture the information, and then turn it into an illustrated InfoMural with the key messages? How are you always so sharp with the content?” The only way I can explain is that it is a craft you learn and perfect over time. Although I have done a lot of preparation for every scribe I’ve done, just before the presenter starts my mind stills and I listen carefully to her speech. As an avid rock climber, I used to jump off cliffs for fun—to do this successfully, you can’t walk up to the edge of a cliff and over-think it, you need to empty your mind and take the leap. That’s similar to how I approach the start of every scribing job.
Sessions vary, and if it’s a complex one there will be new information delivered every few seconds. It’s an intense experience, and scribes try to simplify the content by drawing from the mental image bank each of us cultivates, working from muscle memory. The strongest image that links to the information will shoot to the front of my mind, and I commit that to the board. It’s difficult to explain how any creative process happens, but experience, creativity and imagination have helped me and our team of scribes build up a vast bank of visuals in our heads, so we know we can draw the right picture, quickly.
The theme of the conference provides me with a nice frame for the InfoMural on which I hang the content, in this case the journey of the event. Metaphors help to clarify the content and add visual interest, and can come from anywhere, from a carefully considered likeness, or a sponsor’s recent safari holiday, to a nearby magazine illustration which, once contemplated, seems wonderfully right for the situation. At the end of the day, with the InfoMural a third of the way completed, I meet up with the client sponsors for a debrief to chat about the outcomes of the day and prepare for the next day’s session. It’s important that the space on the InfoMural is planned in my mind so I leave enough room for all the speakers throughout the event, and for more ideas and connections to emerge as the content develops.
The final task of the day is to take a call from an American client who wants Innovation Arts to come to Atlanta to scribe their large international conference. We talk about the event and their expectations and arrange a Skype call for early next week.
I get home and decompress with a family dinner, and a quick run with the dog. The next day I will do this all over again—what a great job!
Like many companies, yours probably has a set of values to inspire employees and serve as a code of honor. Corporate values statements are a great thing, because they can clarify a company’s identity and serve as a rallying point for its people. But values themselves do not drive your business, rather, they drive the people within the business. No matter how they were written or by whom, they are not based on the people who run the company, they are in the fabric of everyone who works there—from executive team to new hire. Here’s the question: if your company does have a compelling values statement, how truly meaningful it is to your people? Are your company values powerful tools embodied in everything you do, or are they just words?
Here is a real-world example: when I first started work in the early days of the dotcom boom, retail giant Walmart came to 80-person strategy event at my then-employer’s workshop space in Chicago. In those days, our clients typically spared no expense to bring a team to our offices, including business class flights, luxurious hotels and expensive dinners at fine restaurants. The works. Walmart, on the other hand, flew its party up from Arkansas on a budget airline and stayed two-to-a-room at a bargain hotel a few blocks from our office so they could walk to the workshop each morning. They catered the event through Walmart’s store deli (think tubs of potato salad and vats of barbecue), and in the evening the participants headed out together for a modest supper within a strict budget.
Why? At the time, Walmart was the single largest retail company in the world by several degrees. It’s not that they didn’t have the money for a more comfortable trip, it’s not that they didn’t have the power. It’s because their company values—a simple message of putting the customer first, personal responsibility, and teamwork—obliged them to adhere to a certain code of conduct. Expressing those values didn’t stop at store-brand cola and walking to work, it also meant that when it came time to develop a solution for an important strategic initiative, the workshop team in Chicago included representatives from all levels of the organization, including a woman who worked the checkout at one of their stores. Walmart had adopted that approach since Sam Walton opened his first store in 1962 in order to keep their promise to provide the lowest prices to its customers. The employees we spoke to about it at the time seemed to accept that attitude at face value, because they were doing things “The Walmart Way,” and it chimed with their own personal value code.
Values, in a true sense, are basic, fundamental and enduring and mean something to the people who articulate them. They must be internalized, and importantly, this does not mean they can be pushed in from the outside. Morality and ethics are central to the issue: think of your personal values and the decisions they compel you to make. Start by drawing up a list of what you personally treasure—don’t be constrained by words like, “integrity,” or “respect,” but think of action words and phrases that mean something to you. Making family a priority? Maintaining lasting friendships? Doing work you are proud of? We each have different fundamental values; that’s why writing values statements for an entire organization is so tricky; how can five or six core values have meaning for thousands of individuals?
Innovation Arts has taken many different approaches with our clients in order to help shine a light on their organization’s true values, from company-wide Barratt Surveys as well as from delivering facilitated consultation and discussions during Employee Values Weeks to allowing a significant proportion of an organization to articulate for themselves what they really hold true. It may be that you have already defined your values, yet somehow, they don’t seem to be mobilizing your organization in the direction you would expect. Often, the trouble with values statements is not the values themselves but the corporate language chosen to express them, which can be so openly worded as to be vague. To play a meaningful role in creating an enduring organization, corporate values must be simply expressed and derived from fundamental philosophy about what constitutes the good for people both inside and outside the company.
When we performed our own values exercise at Innovation Arts, our team came up with some unique individual values. And, like most companies, we also defined the values that we share, and that link us to the clients with whom we work. These values are also easily translatable into specific behaviors that bring them to life in our organization, which is an excellent test of their worth. Over the years, we have discovered that if our clients can’t relate to our values then—given how closely we work together—we may not be a good fit for them:
Intellect: You learn rapidly and eagerly
Imagination: You create new ideas that prove useful
Impact: You accomplish amazing amounts of important work
High Performance: You care intensely about the success of (y)our business
Honesty: You are true to yourself and others
Humor: You take (y)our work seriously and yourself less so
If your organization has the right values—core values that cannot be compromised; aspirational values the company will need in the future but currently lacks; behavioral and social standards required of any employee; and accidental values that have arisen from the common interests or personalities of employees (i.e. “fun”)—they have to be integrated into everything. From the first interview to last day of work, employees should be constantly reminded that values form the basis for each decision and action the company makes.
From our work on corporate values, we know that values discussions are best had by small teams; better if they can include a cross-section of the organization. Better still if they involve the CEO, any founders still with the company, and a handful of employees who have to make a lot of on-the-ground decisions. When you are working out how to really embed your values in culture and process, leadership and employee collaborative work can be vital to agree on nuances and behaviors, and how they work in practice to reinforce your strategy and objectives. We engage entire organizations on bringing values and behaviors to life in practice with our custom-designed game Dilemma,® which is the perfect venue for having meaningful conversations about values. Do you stick to your values no matter what, or do you cut corners because there is no one there to see? It’s the discussion about those decisions that ultimately proves to be the most valuable part of the experience. What do your company’s values really mean to you? What do they mean to your colleagues?
Thinking back to that event with Walmart many years ago, seeing their corporate values in action was an exciting part of working with them. When they talk about customer service and respect, they mean it. Remember the checkout lady? At the end of three days of high-stakes design and collaboration, she drafted the final plan the entire group—including the senior management team—signed up to develop. From company cheers to employee training and benefits, the retail giant’s management constantly stresses its values not only for their employees, but for themselves. What does that mean for you?
The answer lies in the way the teams are working together. There is a tendency to look at the output of a team that is generating a lot of ideas in a non-judgmental, uncritical way — no idea is a bad idea — as being very productive. And it’s true that a team that is cooperating in this way will deliver an abundance of possibilities and possibly finish the project quicker than a single person working alone. However, a team that is debating, challenging, building upon one another’s work and questioning the ideas presented will produce more creative ideas of higher quality because critique allows people to dig beneath the surface and come up with ideas that aren’t predictable. Creativity is ignited when diverse ideas are united, or when ideas from one domain influence those of another, which is the true meaning of collaboration. We said in a previous post that creativity is the process of eliminating options; through collaboration this is not achieved with voting but with hard-won convergence. A team cooperating will make light work of solving a problem. But a team that argues, influences on another, inspires and connects—collaborates—will achieve a more satisfying result.
So, what is the perfect template for a collaborating group? Many years ago, I worked in the theatre, as an actor, designer, and artistic director of a theatre company, and believe one of the best models of group collaboration comes from the Broadway stage (stay with me here). I can tell you that no matter how ambitious you are, no single person can create a Broadway show—there are simply too many different kinds of talent required: a composer has to work with a librettist and a lyricist, a choreographer has to work with a director who is probably getting notes from the producer; there must be actors, an orchestra to play the tunes, and a small army of designers and craftsmen who bring the world of the play to life. And the most important collaborator of all, the audience, whose reception of the work can change the entire course of a production.
Setting all the razzamatazz of Broadway to one side, play-making at its core is an important collaboration between the actor and the text and music. The playscript sets out the words and the score sets the music, but neither is meant to live on the page—it is the actor’s voice which brings them to life. And when both are put before an audience, who receives it in a certain way—boom! Something new is created. Not completely of the playwright, not completely of the actor, not completely of the audience, but something wholly of each. To add further complication, a successful production must be financially viable as well as artistically creative, and each party involved in the making of it has his artistic reputation riding on the outcome of every performance, so the stakes are high. A forgotten line, a missing prop, a door that doesn’t open, or a wardrobe malfunction can stop a show, and that is a risk no one is willing to take.
Successful collaboration in the theatre also relies on the interconnected webs of people in the relatively small universe in which that world revolves—there aren’t many degrees of separation between Kevin Bacon and anybody, or between the librettist of “Guys and Dolls” and the choreographer of “Cabaret.” In my experience, certain directors often chose to partner with an artistic team they had worked with before, a pattern often repeated in theatrical collaborations, as producers view “incumbent teams” as a safe financial bet (Elton John and Tim Rice, I’m looking at you). However, intimacy with an artistic collaborator doesn’t always guarantee success, because knowing each other too well could mean that ways of working become stale. The opportunity for real magic happens when a new variable is injected into an already established collaborative relationship—a new set designer or an unknown actor, or possibly even when an old team works on a debuting play—when fresh thinking challenged already established ways of working. A famous example of this collaborative alchemy is the creative team behind “West Side Story,” one of the most commercially and artistically successful Broadway musicals of all time. The concept of a musical based on “Romeo and Juliet” was the brainchild of composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins—all Broadway legends—but the project, in 1957 a departure from theatrical conventions both for its focus on social problems and its extended dance scenes, made history thanks to the fresh talents of 24-year-old Stephen Sondheim, a then unknown lyricist who had never worked on a Broadway musical before.
Can collaboration work with other types of team work the same way it works in the theatre? Of course, because on any given project the high stakes are the same—it must be completed, the reputations of the people working on it depend on its success, and each person involved will have a view on the best way to deliver it. Assemble a team with strong opinions and a defined amount of time, stimulate conversation, criticism and conflict and fruitful interactions will happen. And do this in a communal space—large and open so that any one person can talk to another, but not too precious that it can’t be altered as necessary. From the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, the National Theatre, Building 20 at M.I.T. to the public spaces at Pixar, the most creative environments provide opportunities for one idea to bump up against another.
Bit by bit, putting it together, diverse teams trust each other to work in parallel, the only way to make a collaborative work of art. Whilst in the theatre the entities are all answerable to a director with a vision for how best to serve the play (and who in turn is answerable to the opening night audience), at work we look toward project owners and visionary leaders to provide clarity on objectives and help guide us toward success. Having just a vision is no solution, everything depends on execution, and in both worlds, failure is not an option.
The lesson we can take from the theatre is that when there are enough people with different perspectives and skills influencing one another in unpredictable ways, the group dynamic will inspire excellence from each person working to put the show on the road. In this creative process, every moment makes a contribution, every little detail plays a part. All those hundreds of micro-interactions add up…but don’t expect them to be without friction. In fact, the challenging conversations you’ve been avoiding so long could well be the most important part of the process. They might be confrontational and not always pleasant, but it doesn’t mean they can be avoided: collaboration is not about getting along, it is about getting it right.
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.
Participants congregated to share research, explain current initiatives and ideate new solutions for the needs of children on the move as well as means of prevention against the many risks these children face. Among participants were humanitarian organisations like UNICEF, government representatives, the United Nations, intergovernmental agencies, universities, private sector companies, Save the Children’s many international offices, and many more.
It was inspiring to see the spirit of collaboration and collective action that permeated the event. There was incredible energy as attendees shared their work, ideas and passion for change.
We were asked to graphic record throughout the day, capturing output from talks and workshops. The graphic recording was galleried in the main hall so attendees reflect upon the content from the day, and discuss plans for future action.
We created an infomural that wove together the output of the event into a visual story. There was a powerful narrative running through the event – the journey of young refugees, migrants and displaced persons from risk and turmoil to hope and opportunity, supported by the collective initiatives of all those represented by the event – and we wanted to bring it to life.
As part of the event, Save the Children nominated 20 inspiring young people, all currently or in the past considered “children on the move”. These incredible young people were strong advocates for the rights of their peers, contributing music, legal aid, philanthropic support, and more to the cause. We shared their stories in visual form and were thrilled to see them respond effusively, laughing and taking photos of each other.
It was a pleasure to collaborate with Save the Children and we were inspired by the stories we captured during the event. The strength and positivity that was generated during the two days of talks and workshops is much needed. There is a lot of work to be done but huge hope for the future.
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.