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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.
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.
We tend to create the framework for our own reality based on past observations, experiences and reflections. We do this using a language that has helped us understand this state, enriched with further meaning and credibility through dialogue, shared experiences, and discussions with others.
The limitations of this process are clear. If we remain in equilibrium, constrained by our own perception of reality, then where do breakthroughs come from? What must happen to break our own alignment with conventional wisdom and follow another train of thought, and then allow others to understand it and (potentially) embrace it? It is at this point some might begin talking about ‘creativity’ and ‘brainstorming’, but many attempts at creativity in problem solving or in innovation remain framed – and as such constrained – by existing ideas of reality. Before we look at creativity our next post, we first have to deal with the idea of paradigm shifts.
Breakthrough thinking requires challenging our acquired knowledge. Without getting too deep into theory, for now we will say that to experience a breakthrough, we must be open to questioning what we think we know and the way we view the world. We must also accept our personal or organisational ‘fog of war’ – the things we are as yet unaware that we don’t know – and that whatever is in there could potentially be exciting. Engaging with our ignorance as something positive allows us to unlock our curiosity, so that we may actively seek out novelty, experience and new interpretations, which gives us the power to embrace a new paradigm of ‘possibility’.
Possibility are the things that may or may not come to pass. In any one given situation there could be many different outcomes, but we limit our choices as human beings and as communities, often because we work on options grounded in our past and by a communal agreement on what is, and what is not possible.
Challenging a communal agreement opens up the challenger to risk, whether purely reputational or much worse than that… Consider, for example, that at a time when conventional wisdom assumed Earth to be the centre of the universe, Galileo Galilei reported his discovery that the centre of the universe was, in fact, the sun. In doing so he was stepping out of a community of agreement to introduce a new possibility – opening a dialogue that challenged ‘reality’. Unfortunately, Galileo’s new ‘reality’ fundamentally disputed established teaching, and his refusal to recant his theory meant he was imprisoned by the Inquisition for the rest of his life.
Many other eminent scientists have gone on to make discoveries that became accepted as natural truths, but were subsequently disproven. Isaac Newton’s theory that light was composed of particles, for example, was accepted as fact until 100 years later when Thomas Young discovered that light spread as waves and opinion changed. Subsequently, Einstein came along with his famous e=mc2 equation and told us that light travels in waves as particles. We do not ridicule Newton or Young for being ‘wrong’ of course; each scientist made his own contribution to our evolving understanding of physics, a discipline where the most renowned thinkers are constantly open to extraordinary and as yet unimagined possibilities. Other disciplines would do well to learn from this approach.
Practically speaking, how do you shift an organisation’s paradigm from one of reality to one of possibility? We firmly believe this is not the job of a single leader. Rather, leaders must harness the combined strength, intellect and imagination of their people. By bringing many voices together in conversation and collaboration, the realm of possibility is greatly expanded and the ground is laid for exploration, experimentation, inquiry, trial and error and ultimately, triumph.
Once you have assembled the right people – people who know, people who decide and people who do – and you know the questions you want to answer, the next step is to carefully design the conditions for having necessary conversations. There are many different kinds of conversations, each of which serves a different purpose. The conversations that can be had between two people are different to those had within a small group of eight, and different again to those of a larger group, different yet again to those held in person and, indeed, virtually. It is likely that a mix of all of these, carefully structured and using appropriate language, will move you from ‘reality’ to ‘possibility’. Design thinking helps establish which conversations must be had, with whom and how, in order to achieve the possible and to unlock the Group Genius that leads to breakthrough ideas.
Possibility, and knowing that there are in fact multiple options, also suggests the necessity of making choices. It is sometimes harder than we think to accept we have choices to make, as this also imposes the requirement of taking responsibility. The next question becomes, ‘how do we make the best decision?’ and the answer is creativity.
Once you have entered a paradigm of possibility, creativity is no longer the process of generating ideas, but the process of eliminating options.
In an earlier post, I talked about words and language as a model – an imperfect representation of something else that is in some way useful. Language is the basis of our own individual, internal reasoning or ‘way of thinking’ because it enables us to describe the world around and within us. We create definitions that convey the form, breadth and identity of everything. We compare and contrast, form relationships and make associations to help better understand our world and form our internal frames of reference.
Language also forms the basis of our interactions with our environment and the people within it. We use it to communicate complex social structures and our place within them, to understand and to be understood, to resolve disputes, and to provoke action. Language as a model is so powerful that words alone can move human beings to feel fear, anger or disgust; it can be the catalyst for positive change or can start wars. Through storytelling we share our experiences of the world as we see it, as well as our vision of what might be possible. Language can not only describe but also shape our reality, manipulating other peoples’ idea of the truth. But in order to do that effectively and with intent, we need to be confident that the way we interpret language is consistent with those whom we seek to influence.
Gordon Pask, eminent Cyberneticist, did a tremendous amount of work on conversations and ‘Conversation Theory.’ One important conclusion, paraphrased, is that in order to understand we must agree. For example, if we can agree the meaning and context of the word ‘green,’ I will understand what you mean when you say ‘green’. That both of us use a word ‘green’ is not enough – many cultures would include colours I see as ‘blue’ with their definition of green – we must agree on the precise meanings of words in order to fully understand. Although this sounds like a simple concept, our experience of language in a variety of organisations tells us it is not always one meaning that is assured, leading to conflicts, costs and wasted time and effort.
If we are not to assume linguistic agreement – and we should not – we must establish it through conversation. Through ongoing conversations in our social groupings over time we form our own unique languages to facilitate our lives together, building a sense of community, culture and identity for ourselves.
Christopher Alexander, a master of the architectural world, describes the notion of a ‘Pattern Language’: In a town with a living language, the pattern language is so widely shared that everyone can use it. When the language is shared, the individual patterns in the language are profound. We have, of course, our own pattern language at InnovationArts – you will be getting a sense of some of it through these blog posts – and find different pattern languages in every organisation with whom we work. Chances are you can identify a pattern language in your own organisation and see clearly how it is distinct from other organisations you’ve encountered, as well as how it differs from the pattern language of your own family and social circle.
Patterns in language are always simple – complex patterns cannot survive the slow transmission from person to person. They are also comprehensive, covering the whole of life as we know it. In this way, we are able to reflect and interact around form, scope, identity and our relationship to our environment – let’s call it ‘context’ – and take a stance as to where we fit. As a group of individuals we use language to model our ‘reality’.
Let’s come back to models. When we talk about reality, we are talking about the things we know to be true. Language, dialogue and conversation give us the potential to build and share our knowledge. But how much of our ‘knowledge’ really is the truth and how much, at best, is just a model that is good enough for now?
We exist in a constant cycle of observation, reflection and interpretation, and as we change our perspectives our language adapts. The words we use are fundamental in articulating our view of reality and in turn become a living, evolving component of the complex systems in which we operate. The opposite can also be true: when you want to change ‘reality’ and have a new beginning, what better place to start than with ‘the word’? By intentionally shaping our pattern language we can use it to achieve our ambitions – personal, organisational and societal.
By thinking about language as supporting not ‘reality’ but ‘possibility’, it will help you understand why at Innovation Arts we aim to be scrupulous in the way we use language in all our work, and the powerful role words play in influencing the possible.
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.
From this last definition we might infer that architecture is a discipline that uses the medium of building to communicate. The nature of this communication is experiential; we experience the structures around us continually. As a form of art it is pervasive in civilisation, inescapable, reflecting the social, political and cultural influences of the day and communicating the values thereof.
Architecture is living history; ‘stone documents’ that are ‘an expression of the utility and power of a nation’. As a creative movement, architects are heavily responsible for the form of the populated world in which we live. Some of humankind’s most amazing achievements and most beautiful creations have been crafted by architects, and indeed some of the most gruesome blemishes.
Similarly to any movement, both scientific and artistic, architecture is a synthesis of thought and feeling and of the dichotomy of the creative process; a model of reality. This dichotomy reflects the mechanistic or organic nature of the world we live in and the parallels between architecture and business are clear. It is the very same dichotomy that pervades our discussions here: holism versus reductionism as modus operandi.
In architectural terms this dichotomy is seen at play in the traditions of Classicism and Romanticism. In classical architecture, the notion is very much about man imposing order upon nature, in romanticism man integrates with nature. Classicism is about the rational and the mathematical, romanticism is about the intuitive and the organic. Romantic asymmetry contrasts with classical symmetry. Neither of these are mutually exclusive – the one always contains an aspect of the other. Therein lies the harmonious positivity opposing models can generate; just as reductionism can provide what, in business terms, can be called a ‘bottom up’ perspective so the ‘top down’ perspective the holistic view presents is equally valid.
No finer example of these two schools of architectural thought is embodied in the work of two great 20th Century architects; Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Edouard Jeanneret, alias Le Corbusier.
Wright’s romanticism was organic in nature. His concept of Organic Architecture sought to build at one with and inspired by nature and natural forms. Each element of nature, the organic plant and animal forms, was understood in terms of its context and the relationship each had with that context with a distinct connection between form and function.
The principles of Organic Architecture were horizontality (oneness with nature as in a horizon, not verticality which implies man’s dominance over it), sympathy with the site (the merging and blending of building and landscape, blurring the division of inside and out), symbolism (in the sense of a home, this domesticity would evoke welcome, warmth and protection as well as a metaphoric heart), truth to materials (natural materials were used in their natural form) and character (as opposed to a single dominant style).
Le Corbusier’s approach was scientific and logical, each problem thought out afresh in the light of cold reason. He saw functionality to be the fundamental principle of design; “a house”, he said “is a machine for living in”. He sought reductionism as a way of abstracting the functions of the constituent parts and reason to design elements for each function. Furthermore, Le Corbusier taught architects to create more problems than could be solved to facilitate creativity; innovation through over-complication.
Styles and movements abound in the field of architecture, as they do in art and science. As scientific discoveries bore new industrialised societies, so did architecture both fuel and absorb the changes in both material, structural and cultural forms. New technologies provided new materials with which to construct allowing a greater array of innovation in design of form and function. Similarly, as Einstein added a fourth dimension through his theory of relativity, so the consciousness of space and time found expression in the forms of new architecture and new materials. The ‘futurist’, ‘constructivist’, ‘expressionist’ and ‘functionalist’ movements all came to fruition through this time.
We said that architecture was a form of communication – a ‘frozen music’ that surrounds us. Going back to our original question, then, how is architecture influential in designing our workspaces, and what are its messages as we go about our work?
As of yet, we are still to define a context – an environment – in which this all can take place. This is not a new debate in itself, but taking it out of the hands of the Real Estate and Operations teams in order to understand it as a potential source of major competitive advantage is a relatively new concept: The idea that it may also provide your organisation with a greater degree of ‘Possibility Space’, resulting not simply in success in the market place but also within the organisational community. Transformation, indeed.
Outside our individual perspective and team perspectives the next cognitive filter is that of the workspace.
Let us cast an eye back through history briefly. The organisations of the past reflected very much the formal societal structure of the time. All too often they were ‘hierarchical monoliths’ where the agenda was set by top management and implemented through the ranks by a series of management levels responsible for ‘controlling’ the organization. Both physically and metaphorically, the top management placed themselves away from the sharp end of their business, straying from the office’s ‘executive suite’ often only when the necessity arose.
Decision-making was seen as the domain of management with little input from others. The workforce was deemed to be motivated largely by money and little else. With the advent of organizational psychologists and sociologists and behavioural scientists in particular, it became more evident that such a rigorous hierarchical approach was an ineffective way of running a business.
The division between management and employee pervaded beyond the physical. It set the whole nature of corporate culture. The self-imposed isolation that management sought proved a huge barrier to collaboration, organizational learning and flexible, adaptive practices. What happened at the top was pervasive throughout the whole of the organisation itself. Often we see that humans are imitating beings: We tend to take on role models and behavioural models that suit our world and conform, so reinforcing non-collaborative, ‘silo-mentality’ behaviour. This is a self-reinforcing loop; a downward spiral of non-information sharing, mis-trust and non-alignment of purposefulness.
It would be good to think this was all in the past, but in reality we do still live in an era when the division between management and employee is the norm. Although corporate cultures increasingly tend to encourage openness and honesty, there is much room for improvement. In fact, the majority of organizations around the globe still conform to this type of monolithical structure. And this type of sectarian workspace design is still prevalent.
Perhaps one of the greatest inciting events workplace design was the advent of the ‘information age’: New forms of enterprise emerged, and with them new kinds of workers and new styles of workplace. We were presented with a notion of alternative office spaces containing what seemed like elements of bar culture, primary school, artistic workshops, sound studios and so on, where the cool kids got to play as they worked. For many this was considered a frivolous exercise in an attempt to ‘out-cool’ the competition but others took a more open mind, asking what they could learn from this revolution and how it could benefit their own business, an inquiry that led – for a small minority – to the conclusion that alternative environments may in fact be necessary in order to build and maintain a creative competitive advantage in today’s world.
Other pressures, too, have contributed to the shift towards reconsideration of how our corporate buildings support the work done therein. Technology, in particular, has fuelled this area of debate. Workers are increasingly mobile; the advent of laptops and telecommunications means that teleworking is now a reality; in fact the number of teleworkers worldwide is expected to hit 200 million by 2020 and many knowledge workers rate the ability to telework – at least partially – as a high factor in their employment choices. There are obvious implications of this trend, from a practical reassessment of the building capacity required and how it is used, through to revision of leadership models.
Of all the tools an organisation has at hand day in, day out, the work environment is the most prevalent. An organisation may spend millions every year designing, building, implementing or custom-ordering Information Technology systems but fail to see that outside itself – that is the agents of the system – its potentially biggest liability and source of both productivity and efficiency (as architects have been crying out for years) lies with the design of the physical environment in which these agents (co)operate.
Attitudes are changing, slowly, but the connection between the workspace and organisational learning, play, creativity and sustainable innovation is still not always made. One reason for this is because we need to draw on more refined principles and ideas of architecture, a discipline not generally understood by business professionals and one which we will explore in subsequent posts.
This has spurred the knowledge and experience economies in which we now find ourselves where the models of old, such as Maslow’s, do not necessarily reflect the reality in which we live. As we are increasingly and systematically bombarded with information, the need for systemic thinking has never been more apparent.
The information economy is serving to commoditise goods and services at an ever-increasing rate and, conversely, knowledge (‘know-how’) and experiences are the primary sources of value and, it follows therefore, competitive advantage. The ‘Blurred Economy’ where speed, connectivity and intangibles pervade, where the notion of the ‘offer’ supersedes product and service-orientated mindsets and where the notion of the exchange between producer and consumer has taken on far more profound implications than previously understood economics ever explained.
These changes are already upon us. We can already bear testimony to changes in our expectations as consumers as we become increasingly demanding as to the value we get for our money. As consumer expectations change so must the cost of doing business as transparency in the global economy comes to the fore. This is the real tangible effect of the internet revolution: The ramifications in terms of stock market valuations alone have been tremendous.
The notion of an ‘Atomic Corporation’, where the effects of the information economy will cause today’s big corporations to break-up under pressure and ensure the evolution of a new landscape populated by much smaller business entities is not unrealistic. None of the factors above is in itself capable of turning our business world upside down but in combination they are enough to tear apart even the biggest of our giant corporations.
At the heart of it all lies a single phenomenon – an emerging information infrastructure that alters dramatically the costs of co-ordination and dispersion of knowledge.
As Camrass and Farncombe suggest; “a new focus on agility is needed, and as you can’t be big and agile at the same time (the internal cost of movement is too high), fragmentation is looking more and more attractive. And breaking up has never been easier. The availability and breadth of communications channels between organisations is growing exponentially, which is sharply reducing the costs of doing business”.
Regardless of your view of this radical prediction, the truth is that in order to simply survive, an organisation has to be willing and able to mobilise and engage its people and supporting infrastructure when and where customers demand. Many will be dependent upon their ability to recruit and retain the best brains with the best attitudes who are able and willing to meet such extraordinary demand.
How is your organisation responding to this challenge?