The Uninspiring Office and the Bored Room


officeThe idea of architecture as a language – a form of communication that affects us – is in itself not new, but brings to our discussions another context for our cycle of understanding; how we observe, reflect and interpret. Architecture is the integration of form and space and those principles that control their organization and these elements are the basis of the experiential pattern language that envelops us in the workplace.

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.

People – Four theories to consider


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Almost all the work I do these days is conducted at leadership level, and at the very beginning of our discussions, whilst we are still refining the problem to be addressed, we are also working out together which people in their organisation – which of the purposeful components – are necessarily implicated in the design and ownership of the solution. Even at this stage it can be an uncomfortable discussion, because we are invoking collaboration, which shifts decision making out of the hands of the leaders.

For many years leaders have wrestled with the discomfort of giving up management-style control in order to reap the benefits of achieving mastery in personal and organisational leadership. Leaders have looked to various theories which offer possible ways to ‘safely’ approach this ideal. For example:

Situational Leadership

Considering the X, Y and Z theories in the last post, and applying them in the practical sense, we could conclude that at a deeper level of understanding, there is no ‘one best way’ to influence people; it is largely a consequence of a number of different elements. Situational Leadership defines these as being the amount of guidance and direction (task behaviour) a leader gives, the amount of socio-emotional support (relationship behaviour) a leader provides and the readiness level that followers exhibit in performing a specific task, function, or objective.

The concept defines four leadership styles: Telling, Selling, Coaching and Delegating. The ultimate aim is to be able to reach the level of organizational maturity where delegation is pervasive. Hersey and Blanchard, the proponents of Situational Leadership, argue that when we take on a new task we all begin on the ‘dependent’ end of a continuum from fully dependent to fully independent. Then, each of us will move up the maturity scale at different speeds, depending on our experience, our abilities, our sense of self-worth, and the responses we get from our leader. At each stage, the leadership style to be employed can be determined by two points of view: the worker’s ability to do the task and the worker’s willingness to do the task.

Equity Theory

J. Stacy Adams identified that workers are in a constant process of observation of the fairness of the outcomes of their own work compared with the outcomes of the work of their perceived peers. In this sense the worker defines his or her value based on a notion of equity with the organizational environment, implying a strict relationship between the two. Where there is little or no discrepancy, the worker perceives equity and is therefore satisfied. Where there is discrepancy, there is a perceived negative equity and the worker then actively seeks to restore the imbalance. This may take the form of negative action such as a drop in performance or a psychological or physical withdrawal from the status quo.

Positive equity, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. The role of the manager in this situation is to identify, understand and take appropriate action to stem negativity and build positivity; this means re-establishing and building ‘willingness’ through dialogue and, if appropriate, matching perceived value.

Expectancy Theory

Victor Vroom’s 1960s theory states that an employee’s ‘Motivational Force’ is dependent upon three concepts: Expectancy, Instrumentality and Valence. Expectancy is the belief that the worker’s effort will result in the achievement of the desired performance goals (the desired end state of Cybernetics?). Instrumentality is the belief that should these goals be achieved a reward will be given. Valence is the value the worker places upon the value of that reward.

This provides a closer match to our understanding of situational leadership: if a worker is to be motivated, he or she not only has to believe the performance measure (or ‘task’) is achievable but that, once achieved, the reward will be of an appropriate value.

OB Mod – “Behavioural Modification” in organisations

In OB Mod, the motivation of workers is said to be a direct result of the external consequences of that workers behaviour. As such, behaviour can be seen to be reinforced according to a continuum of consequence, the poles of which are positive and negative.

Positive Reinforcement implies strengthening a behaviour through the application of a pleasant consequence. Negative Reinforcement implies strengthening a behaviour through the removal of an unpleasant consequence. Within this continuum also lies a neutral consequence which is said to lead to an extinction of behaviour through no reinforcement at all and a punishing consequence which, again, is said to lead to an extinction of behaviour.

The above theories are all interesting models which in the past have provided leaders and managers with a set of tools to understand and maybe develop their own mental models. However, they all share something in common: a very pragmatic way of managing and one that is not necessarily appropriate in the world of today.

 

People: Control, Freedom and the performance paradox


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Traditional economic theory held that approximately one-third of an organisation’s cost base was in its ‘labour force’, a term which refers us back to an industrial age where labour was just that; labour. In the information age, the capital of many businesses is weighted much more heavily towards human capital, or ‘talent’ – where the main work of employees converting ‘inputs’ to ‘outputs’ in order to generate value is intellectual. These employees (often referred to as knowledge workers) may be scientists, researchers, analysts, traders, engineers, accountants, software developers, designers and architects: anyone who ‘thinks’ for a living.

Maybe that’s you?

This shift away from physical to mental labour is interesting when we think back to the idea from cybernetics that people are a dynamic, purposeful component of the complex system. Perhaps when the majority of workers were concerned with the transformation of physical inputs into a final product, their scope for influence on the system was relatively limited, and the management hierarchy was relatively flat. Now though, we know this is rarely the case. Knowledge workers certainly fit the picture of purposeful components within a purposeful system, operating within a context of responsibility, which may be either management-driven or leadership-driven depending upon the developmental maturity of the organisation.

When we start to investigate the purpose of these ‘components’ in order to understand how they engage with the broader system, it’s useful to explore the different theories of employee motivation.

Douglas McGregor in the 1960s expounded the notion that workers conform to one of two types of categorisation: They are either Theory X or Theory Y. Theory X infers a dislike of work and a need for coercion, direction and control to meet the needs of the organisation: A need to be managed. Theory Y implies the opposite: Work can meet their higher psychological needs but to do so, self-direction and self-control must pervade. This is an interesting proposition. Considering we are all model-making, meaning-seeking beings this model immediately forces us to recognise that we may or may not be operating from one of these points of view. It is a potentially useful model as it allows us to consider where we stand vis-à-vis our colleagues and collaborators.

In the 1980s William Ouchi developed another category: Theory Z. This is an extension of the Y point of view, stating that people in this category actively seek responsibility and in light of this, organisations should empower these employees to participate in decision-making activities. (Interestingly, there had been proponents of this since the 1950s born out of disagreement with Taylor’s doctrine of ‘Scientific Management’). The notion of a ‘Self Managing Work Team’ was given a theory-based grounding and has since come to embody all that leaders desire and yet, simultaneously, fear.

What is a model?


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‘Model’ can mean different things to different people, but in the context of our work, we mean a representation of reality intended to foster understanding.

Human beings use models all the time. Our observations, reflections and interpretations are all about creating mental models. Words themselves are models – a representation of reality. Just as the word apple is not the apple itself, a word, any word, is a concept we understand through agreement. Models provide a basis for conversation.

Friends at the Sente Corporation have put it this way:

“Depending on how you look at it, anything can be a model. Even reality – from one vantage point – is merely our own electro-chemical processing of narrow bandwidths taken from a sea of information”.

Why do we create models? Good models simplify our complex world, enabling us to communicate and appropriate complex ideas, notions, theories, and so on effectively and efficiently. We make our models to a scale where what they represent becomes understandable on an intuitive level. They enable us to develop the comprehension and insight from which we can begin to experiment. And through this, we learn.

In the context of enterprise, models enable us to examine a situation, analyse it and then draw out plans. Many of the concepts we grapple with in today’s organisations are so complex they are beyond the limits of our intuitive comprehension. Through modelling we attempt to strip away these layers of complexity in order for us to understand the context of the enterprise, the components within it and their relationships to each other and the external eco-system.

They do have their limitations. Models are fundamentally ‘reductionist’ in nature and there’s a balance to be struck between making the model sufficiently abstract that it can be understood intuitively whilst avoiding over-simplification. For example, in breaking processes down to constituent parts, the nature of the whole – the systemic dimension of the organisation – is all too often left neglected. The decomposition omits many of the complex interactions around a process, which is just a logical, linear sequence of activities. To document all such interactions would involve a mammoth effort of analysis, so the trick is to find the right mixture of reductionism and ‘holism’ or ‘systems thinking’. Cybernetics helps our understanding too, and I’ll come back to these points in later posts.

There is one fundamental pitfall to avoid when working with models: we must never forget that all our models – be they process maps, mind maps, spread-sheets, stories, physical or conceptual models – are abstractions. Therefore it is vitally important we remain vigilant in revisiting and revising them regularly, cognisant of the fact that, as George Box put it: “All models are wrong. Some models are useful”.

We must learn to be constantly critical and questioning, otherwise the very models we have constructed can be our own downfall as we cling on to them, attached to the comfort of a reality we perceive that may not, in fact, be appropriate. The only way of achieving a shift in our own perspective is through conversation. An intervention in our self-perpetuating thought processes can – if we are open to it – change our view of the world. Or our business.

At Innovation Arts, when we work with clients facing complex issues, we apply a rigorous approach to modelling. Dialogue and iteration are key to our approach, both during the Architecting and Building phases of solution design, but also when the new model is put to Use.

Modelling the Enterprise


Modelling_The-_EnterpriseWhenever we examine an enterprise with a view to addressing issues, seeking efficiencies or assessing the impact of change, we need a model of the business that is simple enough for us to understand, but accurate enough to be useful.

I’ve mentioned previously that I have a background in strategy consulting – transformation in particular. On many occasions, preparing a client business case would depend on mapping out the current reality and the proposed new way of doing things. Understanding the current state – or “As-Is” model would be vital as a baseline for the projected cost savings and added-value delivered to the customer in the future-state model known as the “To-Be”.

But where to start? For a functional viewpoint, Org Charts tell us who does what, where the reporting lines are and – in theory – who has what power in the organisation. In theory… We’ll come back to this in another post. And what about the process side of things?

You’ll have heard of time and motion studies. F.W. Taylor is linked to the ‘time’ component of these studies, but it is another ‘guru’, Frank Gilbreth, the father of ‘motion studies’ whose work interests us here. Almost a century ago now, he presented his ideas on how to describe processes. Gilbreth’s process chart – a device for visualizing a process as a means of improving itwas concerned with finding ‘the one best way to do work’:

 Notably, Gilbreth specified:

“Process-chart notes and information should be collected and set down in sketch form by a highly intelligent man… who need not necessarily have been previously familiar with the actual details of the process…To overcome the obstacles due to habit, worship of tradition and prejudice, the more intelligence shown by the process-chart recorder, the sooner the hearty cooperation of all concerned would be secured.”

So not only had the concept of process modelling been born, but so, too, it would seem, had the external expert with no prior knowledge of what he (almost certainly in those days) was looking at.

This poses an interesting question. Is it true that people outside your business should be the ones to model your future?

I believe there are some elements of truth in that supposition, but there is also something fundamentally flawed. Yes, external, impartial partners can see things about your business that have become so ingrained as to be invisible, and yes, they can cut through the politics of decision making. But at Innovation Arts we do not believe that the intelligence of those partners is the critical factor. Rather, it is harnessing the intelligence, knowledge, expertise and energy that already exist in your organisation, to create meaningful, insightful models of the current and future states, which go well beyond Organograms and process maps.

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