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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?
We asked our clients about the evolutions and transformations that are on their radar. Here are six hot issues that cross sectors and industries and will have noticeable impacts on both operating systems and culture:
Data and information are allowing brands to target individuals in a bespoke manner; no more will we see the need for mass marketing such as TV and print advertising. Instead, tailored messaging across dynamic channels and based around the needs of an individual or business will become the norm. We are seeing it already online, but this will advance rapidly over the next few years. Organisations that develop frameworks to capture and analyse data will be best-placed to develop leading marketing and selling approaches in the future. This requires digital transformation in tandem with a reworking of traditional organisational structures and job roles that need to be addressed quickly in order to remain competitive.
Artificial intelligence is already here; from roboadvisers (Nutmeg, Wealth Wizards and Wealth Horizon) to voice technology (Alexa, Siri and Cortana) we are already affected by new technologies that are rapidly permeating our daily work and personal lives. Despite some push-back from consumers and organisations progress in these areas is inevitable and those that resist may well lose their competitive edge. No-one knows how much AI will impact our homes and workplaces and even Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, admitted at this year’s Davos meeting that he did not foresee the artificial intelligence revolution that has transformed the tech industry. What’s clear is that organisations must still embrace and harness new technologies to at least replace mundane, time-consuming daily tasks that are not profitable or satisfying for individuals. This frees up its workforce to spend more time thinking innovatively and being more productive as echoed by Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google who said: “I would hope that, as some of the more mundane tasks are alleviated through technology, that people will find more and more creative and meaningful ways to spend their time”.
We’ve heard a lot about what Millennials want and how they are re-shaping the way we do business. Now Generation Z is bringing their influence to the global economy as they come of age . We know, for example, that Millennials are demanding more of their brands than ever before; from ethical sourcing and environmental considerations to real and deep & meaningful community activities. Basically, they want brands to hold relevant values and exhibit behaviours that meet their expectations like no generation has done before them, and this applies to the Brands they work with too. At Innovation Arts, we spend a considerable amount of time talking to our clients about how their brand can evolve culturally and strategically and we advise building in responsiveness and agility to allow for these shifting needs.
We’re not talking about the latest iPhone or Samsung iteration but a flexibile, nimble approach that allows organisations to constantly be on their toes responding to customers, consumers, their stakeholders and wider communities. This requires a new way of thinking and a corporate culture that is designed against a new model – maybe a model that we haven’t yet experienced. The organisations that puts innovation at its core will win; whether your sector is financial services, charitable, education or manufacturing.
Leveraging the creativity and innovation within your teams should be a priority. If that means a blend of at-home and office workers, then so be it. If your teams are scattered across the globe and speak different languages, then your organisation’s design must be able to effectively support and benefit from this. Modular working, part-time and flexible working will reinvent themselves. Your teams may already be thinking (and hoping) that you are planning and designing for an agile and flexible future!
A combination of artificial intelligence, a changing workplace and a redefining of roles should lead to a more productive life-work balance. But where does work and life start and end? Whose responsibility is it to support employees in eating well, getting fit, productive relaxation time, enjoying their family and friends? The lines will blur as employers and employees merge to support one another – look at Google whose sole job is to keep employees happy and maintain productivity. Their efforts may just be the start, but they go beyond a couple of bean bags thrown into a brightly-painted corner and free gym membership. Their offer to employees includes free breakfast, lunch and dinner, free health and dental, free haircuts, free dry cleaning, gyms and swimming pools, hybrid car subsidies, nap pods, on-site physicians and death benefits.
We believe that leadership teams should already be investigating, imagining and modelling for their own organisation in order to prepare for and capitalise on these issues. But the way we do that is changing too:
In the past, responsibility to reshape corporate culture, values and behaviours was the domain of the leadership team, and the leadership team only. From our experience of working with many leading global brands, your employees and teams are often one step ahead in their thinking when it comes to the future of their organisation. That’s why our Design Thinking approach is so effective at helping organisations to re-design their culture as it requires the wider team to design, model and iterate a brighter and more effective future. When strong leadership engages with all levels of the organisation, nothing can stop you. If you would like to know more about how our Design Sessions and Games Science can address issues around the future of work within your own organisation, please contact us for a free consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.