Follow us on LinkedIn
In our last blog,we wrote about the questions our clients are asking us about navigating the future as the UK plans to exit the European Union, acknowledging that accepting the uncertainty and asking questions is the right place to start. But we also know that facing uncertainty can be very stressful for organizations and the people within them, because it can be difficult to make decisions and judgments in those conditions. It is a time when we have no playbook to follow; we must rely upon our imaginations and creativity as a source of inspiration to cope with what could happen, which is why working together can produce far better results than going it alone.
It used to be that predicting the future was fairly straightforward for many organizations; by looking at current trends and evaluating the existing landscape, they could make educated guesses about the future, as if the graph would continue in a straight line. However, because of the necessary confidentiality and evolving nature of the Brexit negotiations, there are multiple uncertainties circling, each with its own rich store of conceivable outcomes. Furthermore, it can be difficult to lead in such probabilistic situations: no one wants to hear, “there’s a 68 percent chance we won’t go out of business,” from their boss. No approach will make the challenges of uncertainty go away, but by using collaborative design thinking, scenario planning, and rapidly testing possible hypotheses to explore the challenge in depth, we can help prepare leaders to make more confident strategic decisions when opportunities and or threats from disruption present themselves.
What is Design Thinking with Innovation Arts?
When we work with an executive team on a collaborative design session, we stress the importance of working together as a high-performing team (like those of an emergency room, Everest climbing expeditions or Formula One pit crews) to cope with new information. This relies upon building knowledge of an unfamiliar landscape, exploring the need for collaboration and trust, and seeking out opportunities for innovation, to help anticipate what will be necessary to make the right decisions before the actual need arises. Moreover, we like to work with large groups of 50 or more so we can explore as widely as possible, test and discard many different options before narrowing in on the right solution we can build together to embrace what comes.
Navigating an uncertain future with an approach that is often new to the team can be unsettling. However, the Innovation Arts process is designed to deliver against the objectives we set together with the sponsor team at the start of the process. Your main question might be, “how do we plan for Brexit?” but by working together, we will also uncover a myriad of other relevant questions that will influence your future direction. Using a rapid-iterative, collaborative approach based on the design thinking methodology, we will uncover the forces driving your current organizational approach as well as the likely probable futures to identify how your system will respond. A useful analogy is how the various harmonies of a complex piece of music would sound if one or more different chords are struck.
In a collaborative design session with a client facing Brexit questions, we would encourage them to engage in a scenarios exercise, which would allow them to explore their response to the plausible but unexpected outcomes of the negotiations that might affect their business. In the case of Brexit, this would likely mean understanding which of their structures, frameworks, initiatives and timeframes will be most impacted by Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. After working with the organization’s major stakeholders to understand the basic trends and driving forces in the industry, we would use the information to unearth the key uncertainties in the disrupted landscape. We’d then take the driving forces to the extreme: drastically reduced time frames, radical numbers, dramatic actions—for example, is it possible that a process that today takes twelve months could, in the future, be completed within five days? What would enable that to happen? With whom would you have to work and what would need to be in place? Think about it like training at high altitude for the marathon you plan to run at sea level—similarly, working through a scenarios exercise is about maximizing fitness and readiness for the run ahead. The next step in the process is to work backward to close the gap between that imagined future and the way we work today to start readying ourselves for any eventuality.
Working collaboratively on a thorny problem is an ideal way to get a team prepared for a future they can’t quite envision.
The Innovation Arts process allows an executive team to practice making decisions based on available knowledge, and to build and test flexible systems to manage future events. Even if a team doesn’t know what to expect from the changing environment, working together will prepare them to face any challenge, identifying what to have ready to cope with any new situation (technology, cash reserves, new ways of working, effective communication systems, etc.). By practicing as a high performing team in a scenarios exercise with IA, executive teams who do not normally work together can have the chance to work through the tough questions and make the challenging decisions an uncertain future will inspire, making them more fit and ready to cope when the actual need arises.
For any company working in, or doing business with the UK, this is a deeply turbulent time, full of emotion and predictions about what might happen next. But it is also an exciting time, packed with new opportunities waiting to be explored. It will be impossible to guess the outcome of the ongoing Brexit negotiations, but with careful planning and forethought, major surprises or unexpected disruptions can be avoided, and that is where we can help.
If you have questions about how your organization can use collaborative design thinking exercises to be better prepared for Brexit and would like to work with our team, please contact us at email@example.com.
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.
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.
For a recent design event, we looked long and hard at the idea of “tipping points,” or the instant where the forward motion of a movement increases to the point at which it becomes unstoppable. In his bestselling book, “The Tipping Point,” author Malcolm Gladwell defines tipping points as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point,” when a collection of small events suddenly “tips” over like a wineglass, and the resulting contagion becomes inevitable. Inspired by Gladwell, we studied a number of different movements, from the US Civil Rights movement, the rise of streaming media, the mainstreaming of hip hop music, the adoption of the hybrid/electric car, to the improbable rise of Donald Trump, and discovered that within each, there was a specific point at which the movements tipped, and the subsequent outcome became unavoidable.
And yet many times have you experienced efforts to create a movement – perhaps to launch a product, a way of working or create a whole new culture shift – and seen them fall flat? What about that restaurant you love that despite your best efforts at evangelization has closed anyway? Or that time you tried to get your team to go paperless? What is it that movements with tipping points achieve that these efforts have not?
Gladwell’s research indicates that a tipping point is reached by three very specific means: the “law of the few,” or the involvement of people with a particular set of social gifts which allow a small number of them to influence a wider population of the rest of us. Perhaps the most influential of the three, the “law of the few,” relies upon connectors, the people in a community who know large numbers of people and who are in the habit of making introductions—the kind of people who know everyone, know who needs to know someone else, and whom everyone is happy to see (word of mouth epidemics are the work of connectors). Secondly, mavens, the information specialists we trust and rely upon to connect us with new information. For example, the friend we all have who knows everything there is to know about computers or television sets or restaurants. And finally, salesmen, who are just as they sound, the persuaders with charismatic personalities and powerful negotiation skills who have an indefinable trait—beyond what they say—that makes others want to agree with them.
Our experience with the movements we’ve helped create within client organisations backs this up: it’s the people within any movement who are most likely to make it tip. We know that you are more likely to follow that lone nut if he is a friend of yours, or even, if you have seen his work and likes what he’s doing. The 2016 US presidential election was swayed by content shown on Facebook’s news feed, a mechanism so massive that it filters content by what your most active friends are saying. You don’t read what the larger population is saying, only what your friends post. And if your friend is voting one way, you are more likely to follow her. Simon Sinek, in his book “Start with Why”, says between 13 and 15 percent of a population must be affected in order for an idea to catch fire. In most of our social networks that’s a small enough number to reach personally, and indeed, within the movements we studied, we found that when people were influenced and supported by their friends or people whom they knew personally, the movements were more likely to gain momentum.
The implications for creating a movement – culture change, employee engagement or reinforcement of core values and behaviours – in a large organisation are therefore clear. How do you meaningfully reach those hundreds and thousands of people who will be your firestarters?
The other two criteria for a tipping point are the “stickiness factor,” specific content of a message that renders its impact unforgettable, and the “power of context,” or the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which the epidemic occurs. When Gladwell says that the environment must be right for a message to spread, what he means is that there must be a critical mass within the population already, such that it is ready to tip on a slight change. For example, my efforts to get my family to adopt a vegetarian diet were destined for failure because none of them enjoys eating vegetarian food (in our case, vegetarianism was neither sticky nor in context).
A common problem we’ve seen within a lot of the populations we touch is the misleading idea that “if we build it, they will come.” A fantastic, world-beating idea doesn’t necessarily guarantee people will rush to embrace it. If that were true, everyone would eat healthily and get 30 daily minutes of brisk exercise. When you’re trying to create a movement for lasting change, great content must get into the hands of the influencers who will touch other influencers, who will bring their whole tribe with them, and only human connections can make that happen. It’s because his best friend was sitting next to him that black student Ezell Blair was brave enough to sit at the Woolworth’s whites-only lunch counter in 1960, an episode widely regarded as the tipping point of the American Civil Rights movement. It’s because my friend encouraged me to buy an iPad Pro that I did. Without specific personal connections, any movement will ultimately fizzle, because accountability is weakened: there is no one to answer to when you make a decision, no one to get you up out of bed when you just don’t feel like marching, no one to encourage you to reach for the next level, the next flag, the next victory. So, if you’re trying to get a movement off the ground, make sure you count among your number the connectors, mavens, and salespeople with infectious personalities who will spread the idea like a virus. Then the next step is working out how to mobilise them…and even in this day of virtual connectivity, nothing works better than face-to-face interactions.
This is not to say that social networks don’t have their place, if there are genuine connections between the people within them. You might be able to have a thousand Twitter followers, but it’s a person within your real-life network who will be able to tell you which restaurant to visit, or who will connect you with the right person to get your project off the ground. Twitter and Facebook make it easier for activists to find other activists, but harder for their activism to have any impact, because social networks favor the sharing of information over accountability.
What happens next? The main thing to remember is that ideas will travel faster through personal networks than they will through institutional ones. In January, the original Facebook post about the Women’s March was posted on a specific group page with millions of like-minded followers, but I probably wouldn’t have put on my pink knitted hat and marched if I had seen only that. I marched because my best friend and my sister told me they were going. If the idea of stomping around outside on an icy winter’s day can spread throughout the world by word of mouth, it’s hard to imagine what couldn’t.
Do you want to create a tipping point in your organisation but not sure where to begin? Give us a call, we’d love to help.
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.
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.
In an earlier post, I talked about words and language as a model – an imperfect representation of something else that is in some way useful. Language is the basis of our own individual, internal reasoning or ‘way of thinking’ because it enables us to describe the world around and within us. We create definitions that convey the form, breadth and identity of everything. We compare and contrast, form relationships and make associations to help better understand our world and form our internal frames of reference.
Language also forms the basis of our interactions with our environment and the people within it. We use it to communicate complex social structures and our place within them, to understand and to be understood, to resolve disputes, and to provoke action. Language as a model is so powerful that words alone can move human beings to feel fear, anger or disgust; it can be the catalyst for positive change or can start wars. Through storytelling we share our experiences of the world as we see it, as well as our vision of what might be possible. Language can not only describe but also shape our reality, manipulating other peoples’ idea of the truth. But in order to do that effectively and with intent, we need to be confident that the way we interpret language is consistent with those whom we seek to influence.
Gordon Pask, eminent Cyberneticist, did a tremendous amount of work on conversations and ‘Conversation Theory.’ One important conclusion, paraphrased, is that in order to understand we must agree. For example, if we can agree the meaning and context of the word ‘green,’ I will understand what you mean when you say ‘green’. That both of us use a word ‘green’ is not enough – many cultures would include colours I see as ‘blue’ with their definition of green – we must agree on the precise meanings of words in order to fully understand. Although this sounds like a simple concept, our experience of language in a variety of organisations tells us it is not always one meaning that is assured, leading to conflicts, costs and wasted time and effort.
If we are not to assume linguistic agreement – and we should not – we must establish it through conversation. Through ongoing conversations in our social groupings over time we form our own unique languages to facilitate our lives together, building a sense of community, culture and identity for ourselves.
Christopher Alexander, a master of the architectural world, describes the notion of a ‘Pattern Language’: In a town with a living language, the pattern language is so widely shared that everyone can use it. When the language is shared, the individual patterns in the language are profound. We have, of course, our own pattern language at InnovationArts – you will be getting a sense of some of it through these blog posts – and find different pattern languages in every organisation with whom we work. Chances are you can identify a pattern language in your own organisation and see clearly how it is distinct from other organisations you’ve encountered, as well as how it differs from the pattern language of your own family and social circle.
Patterns in language are always simple – complex patterns cannot survive the slow transmission from person to person. They are also comprehensive, covering the whole of life as we know it. In this way, we are able to reflect and interact around form, scope, identity and our relationship to our environment – let’s call it ‘context’ – and take a stance as to where we fit. As a group of individuals we use language to model our ‘reality’.
Let’s come back to models. When we talk about reality, we are talking about the things we know to be true. Language, dialogue and conversation give us the potential to build and share our knowledge. But how much of our ‘knowledge’ really is the truth and how much, at best, is just a model that is good enough for now?
We exist in a constant cycle of observation, reflection and interpretation, and as we change our perspectives our language adapts. The words we use are fundamental in articulating our view of reality and in turn become a living, evolving component of the complex systems in which we operate. The opposite can also be true: when you want to change ‘reality’ and have a new beginning, what better place to start than with ‘the word’? By intentionally shaping our pattern language we can use it to achieve our ambitions – personal, organisational and societal.
By thinking about language as supporting not ‘reality’ but ‘possibility’, it will help you understand why at Innovation Arts we aim to be scrupulous in the way we use language in all our work, and the powerful role words play in influencing the possible.
Yet looking at the actual designs around us today, we still see determined and rigid solutions in which spatial composition has been the main objective. There are many speculative real estate developments, for example, which do not consider any particular client’s needs and aim primarily at a maximum amount of anonymous rental office space. The same thinking often continues inside the company, where ignorance or a wish to save money results in anonymous rooms divided into identical workplaces.
The most common approach to office space still reckons with one workspace per person whilst imposing negotiation and meeting rooms are considered separately. Many of these individual and group spaces are regularly unoccupied. Meanwhile, the budget for furnishing the office is divided between personal workplaces and a representative zone, altogether forgetting the background zone. Yet, it is common knowledge that the coffee machine is the best communication tool and that the most productive moments at conferences are coffee breaks. Why is this forgotten while filling the office plan with desks and chairs?
And let’s think again about who uses modern office space: It is easy to agree that working practices have changed. Today’s office work no longer consists of only data entry and processing; the linear work arrangement has become parallel and serial, meaning we should be able us to use the worker, time, and space much more intensively. In addition, work is more creative, and most of the creative work is done in changing workgroups that require a flexible use of time and space: there is no more need for physically emphasised hierarchy. And of course everyone can see what mobile phones and laptops have done to our working time and workplace. So how do we see through these changes to the new requirements? What is the new model?
In HIVE, each individual performs a fixed task in the production chain – usually from nine to five. The work does not require interaction or autonomy; the space is divided into an endless number of identical working places. Thanks to automation this past typology is disappearing or changing into DEN-type, more intelligence-requiring activity, where teamwork is of primary importance. The space planning in a den-type office is mostly open, but there is still not much personal independence. The CELL-type is used mostly for work requiring concentrated thinking (lawyers, research centres) where workers have great autonomy in using their time and in the content of their work, but few possibilities for interaction.
It is believed that as information technology develops, the independent concentration type of work and project-based teamwork will be combined in most enterprises. In the new “transactional” office, both interaction and independence will be maximised. The metaphoric CLUB is a place where people gather and communicate, while the actual work is done somewhere else. It is predicted that more and more companies will begin to work like Hollywood film teams that are formed separately for each project.
The premise of the activity setting approach is that one place – an all-purpose workstation per person -no longer suffices. Instead, people need multiple workplaces. These specialized settings span the variety of -often contradictory – office worker requirements. As tasks change, people move to various specialized activity settings. This movement is healthy, it makes jobs more interesting and encourages participation in ad hoc temporary groups and greater use of specialized costly equipment.
Robert Kelley, 1985
Because today’s workspace must be a multi-task environment, serving many clients and many different knowledge tasks at once, and because different tasks have different spatial, emotional and tooling requirements, the contemporary environment should be designed to be both flexible and capable of being divided into specialized zones. Within each zone, there may be different sub-areas, each with its own use and feel. In addition, many of these zones can expand and contract, thus, they can be configured to be larger or smaller, to be part of or totally separate from each other as the work demands.
Looking beyond the allocation of space, remember that as a form of communication our environment can be denoted as being multi-sensory; visual, aural, tactile, spatial and so on: “The will of the epoch translated into space”. An effective working environment should inspire workers, showing them that they are needed, and express the distinctive face and values of the enterprise. An office should be a place with an aura of its own. (Contrast this with the kind of anonymous “non-places”, – planes, ships, airports, supermarkets and indeed offices with which we are increasingly surrounded, where the design aim seems to be to eliminate differentiation altogether).
Several principles and design goals drive the basic layout of an environment that communicates effectively: Its image must include a spatial pattern that relates objects within it, relates the environment to the observer, and to other objects in its surrounding community; it must exhibit an architectural grammar and geometry appropriate to its specific mission and fit within the grammar and style of its location; it must control its boundaries in terms of access, light, sound, sight lines, and it must do this without presenting a defensive posture. The environment must include spatial ambiguity – the high variety that creates interest. It must include sheltered places for quiet reflection as well as open spaces for collaboration and expansive thinking. Paths, boundaries, regions, nodes and landmarks add variety, flexibility, build relationships and communication and facilitate feedback and change. To be psychologically comfortable, an environment must be physically comfortable and allow variation in the colour and texture of the furniture, levels and quality of lighting, and acoustical environment.
The evolution of our working environments is an on-going challenge; neither patchwork fixes nor wholesale redesign will suffice in today’s rapidly changing world. As people expand their horizons, so too must the environment expand its ability to serve. Individual elements must be created which can be replaced when outgrown with new elements that still complement the entire system. Frank Lloyd Wright felt the task of the designer was to design for what people can become–to stretch people to reach their potential. Today’s knowledge workers require an environment that challenges them to reach both their own potential and that of their organization whilst also facilitating that progress. The designer must see and communicate through the environment its conscious ability to evolve.
Complex natural systems are our model for successful, creative, evolving work environments. Our daily workspaces must be engineered to be both organic and cybernetic, adjusting to user requirements minutely and without fanfare. Those of you who have worked with us on an Innovation Arts Design Session will recognize these principles ‘in miniature’ in the temporary, mobile environments that we establish for each session. It is for all the reasons described above that we insist on creating the right environment to support the work we do with you. Our dedicated team designs each environment specifically for each client and each challenge, and over the course of the Session it will shift and evolve to guide, mirror, or lead the participants’ journey as they collaborate on the task in hand.
Architecture results from integrated acts of philosophy, art, engineering, craftsmanship and business and – when perfection is sought – allows no compromise between these disciplines. A good piece of architecture directly supports a specific concept of life and work style and acts as a physical, visual, tactile and symbolic guide for its inhabitants. Conversely, bad architecture can work in direct opposition to those inhabitants’ objectives and culture, as per the title of this post. This idea that a work of architecture can also be a productive or counterproductive tool of human economy is relatively new. What is also novel is the idea that the workplace can be an expression of living art, and that this is not only possible but necessary in today’s world.
If we are to design our workspaces with the intent of using the most effective architectural pattern language, we need to get under the skin of how everything speaks. The language of architecture is largely symbolic; specific shapes, forms and textures invoke particular meanings. Just as the expressionist movement in literature gave birth to analysis by metaphor and symbolism, so too has expressionism had its influence over architecture. The early 1920s bore testimony to this architectural influence where buildings were designed and constructed to express or symbolize their use thus aiming to integrate both form and content into a coherent, more meaningful whole, for example the Volkstheatre Project, 1921 or Einstein Tower Observatory, 1920.
In the book ‘Metaphors We Live by’, Lackoff and Johnson build a theory that we live and express ourselves in terms of metaphor. This notion will be examined in greater detail later when I will talk about what we mean by ‘Possibility’. However architecture provides some firm examples of this theory. The Renaissance movement provided this language, its masters drawing the (organic) parallels of buildings as life forms in themselves. A buiding rises up, or it lies in a particular way. It has a front and a back, a face, a silhouette, a profile. It has a heart, a nerve-centre. It has a top, a crown, related to the sky and a base, a foot, related to the ground. Windows look out. Doors open wide. Perhaps no building is more symbolic that Antoni Gaudi’s ‘Casa Batlló’ with its bone-like structure and death mask balconies symbolic of the human experience in Catalonia’s quest for independence.
The power of the metaphor here is great. As the imposing designs of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque all inspire superlative adjectives, so too are the feelings they stir in the soul. Compare this symbolism with that of most modern corporate architecture and it is little surprise they pale in significance, often inhuman, dead, faceless structures.
Intentionally or otherwise we have in recent times ignored the language of architecture in our workplaces, the timeless way of building as Christopher Alexander calls it, at the expense of functionalism. Our offices are uninspiring. That they are a mish-mash of metaphors at best cannot be denied. That they are malapropisms is probably just as correct.
So, back to the Bored Room, and our quest to bring to a powerful and inspiring voice to workspace architecture. Generally speaking, todays offices are boring places, at least from the point of view of art, design and architecture. Yet, they are precisely the places where many of us spend most of our productive time. How did we get here? Many contemporary ideas about the office date from the times of the industrial revolution, when accountants were gathered into office buildings erected next to the factories. The economic strategies that had modernised the industry were directly transferred into the paperwork. It was a simple, clear and very unambiguous procedure that followed the same assembly line principles governing the action in the factory halls. The office was a master class of simultaneity; the system functioned only when all its parts were in place – from nine a.m. to five p.m.
Alvin Toffler said in 1985 that:
“the corporate environment has changed so swiftly and fundamentally in the past two decades that structures designed for success in an industrial environment are almost by definition inappropriate today.”
Over thirty years on, and whilst those changes have done nothing but accelerate our workspaces have barely evolved at all. The time for us to take back control of our surroundings own us is long overdue.
A rich, varied environment, with ample communication, continuous learning, rapid feedback, knowledge management, and readily available tools are key to eliminating the barriers to human creativity and increasing productivity. Flexible space, open areas, new types of furniture and complex technological systems will increase the amount of informal communication that is necessary to develop communities of practice and build networks. There is inherent value in people from all levels of the organization working in close proximity to each other. In designing this new type of environment, we must go beyond incremental or even major changes to existing workplace designs. We need something unique, innovative, and totally new.