In a Forbes Article, Barbara T. Armstrong shares her insight to balancing the need of a culture of innovation with workplace design.
Every year, the Conference Board asks CEOs, presidents, and chairmen across the globe to identify their most critical challenges for the coming year. In the CEO Challenge 2013, innovation is front and center.
Surprised? Surely not.
Today, innovation is the secret sauce of business success. In a recent interview, Wharton marketing professor George Day argues that “innovation prowess,” a mix of growth-seeking discipline and innovation ability, is what distinguishes growth leaders from growth laggards. “Growth leaders get ahead of the laggards—and they stay ahead,” says Day. “The laggards are always catching up.”
But what does an innovative company look like?John Seely Brown, co-chair at the Deloitte Center for the Edge and former chief scientist at Xerox, contends that the cultures that constantly produce innovation share three characteristics: visionary leadership; an organizational commitment to breakthrough thinking; and a place that supports the work of innovation.
As a specialist in integrating workplace design and culture, I feel moved to discuss Brown’s third characteristic—that is, having a place that supports innovation.
Working with businesses of all types and sizes, from Global 100 companies to growing entrepreneurial enterprises, I am certain of one thing: Workplace design can, and does, inspire innovation.
But here’s the rub: Companies today want a magic bullet. As a result, many invest in a simple solution or two—ideas that, at least in their minds, will magically increase the company’s innovation. Too bad this approach doesn’t work.
As a leader at your company, beware seeking a magic bullet when designing or redesigning your workplace for innovation. Here are the four most common ones:
1. Build an innovation lab. More than a few CEOs have asked our firm to design an innovation lab for their company. Most recognize that their current environment, often just a sea of cubicles, has little space, physically or emotionally, where creativity and innovation can flourish. Good call.
Still, building an innovation lab is not a cure-all. No space, for instance, can change a culture that is risk-averse or that stifles experimenting, partnering, or sharing.
Bottom line, you can’t build your way to innovation prowess. Culture trumps construction.
2. Tear down all the walls. Now more than ever, there’s a misguided belief that when walls come down, collaboration and creativity automatically rise up in their place, and then innovation just happens.
Yes, open workspaces may well influence collaboration and creativity. But as I discuss in an earlier post, they can also impede progress. Noise is a significant problem in open-plan offices; for example, new scientific research shows measurable declines in workers’ performance in cognitive tasks, such as reading, writing, and other forms of creative work.
Before knocking down walls in pursuit of designing your innovation mecca, remember that people need a balance of open and private spaces.
3. Copy company XYZ’s best practices. In a high-speed, hypercompetitive business world, companies need to work smarter, faster, and better. This causes many leaders to rely, if not over-rely, on so-called best practices. And when it comes to increasing innovation, they want to quickly deal with it and move on to the next thing. So if company XYZ is an innovation superstar, and they created this or that kind of space, let’s just copy them and call it a day. Not so fast!
The aha? There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Only by understanding how your company works can you design an environment that supports your unique model of innovation and gives rise to your own best practices.
4. Acquire the latest and greatest technology and gadgets. These days, there’s a plethora of technological tools and resources to support workplace creativity, from special furnishings to newfangled gadgets. No doubt, there’s a place for these things when designing for innovation. But buyer beware: Acquiring a lot of gear can backfire if users feel annoyed or overwhelmed by it.
In the article “Making Room for Collaboration” by Herman Miller, the authors assert that knowledge transfer is an essential element of innovation. They point to the value of visual display to allow a group to illustrate ideas, post thinking-in-process, and involve others. “An integral part of communication, visual display helps to document, reinforce, and focus group members on a shared project or idea and encourage participation,” they explain.
However, before you invest in anything, big or small, high-tech or low-tech, consider your culture and users’ needs.
In their book Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility, authors Eric Lui and Scott Noppe-Brandon affirm that innovation is the direct result of people transforming imagination and creative thinking into action.
So here’s the question: Does your company’s physical environment support or squelch imagination, creativity, and innovation? It’s time to have that discussion.
- ‘Managing’ Innovation – Applied Creativity, July 2013 (johnwhatmore.com)
- Want to build a culture of innovation? Listen to employees, and then take action (business.financialpost.com)
- Be more brilliant: Innovator shares his secrets (utsandiego.com)