People have been thinking and writing deeply about how we interact with the places and spaces we habituate and habitate nearly forever. Even those of us who know nothing of the disciplines know what it feels like to turn down a street that feels somehow inviting and one that doesn’t; what it feels like to walk into a home or building that “just works” and one that doesn’t; what it feels like to walk into a room that puts you in the mood for the activity at hand, and one that makes you squirm.
In business, we have somehow lost sight of the connection between right and left brain, thinking and feeling, talking and thinking, meetings and decision making, the spaces we use and the processes we undertake in them. So we find ourselves in bizarre settings like trying to work hard problems or think deep thoughts while sitting in the midst of a cube farm under an endless sky of creepy fluorescent lighting. Or using the same meeting room for “brainstorming meetings”, formal “Ops reviews,” and overflow space when there is no other place to sit. Or going off site to a hotel facility that’s better suited to a cocktail party and trying to make it work for what you need to do. Or pick your favorite example.
There are lots of reasons why the collective we don’t do the things in business that we say we want to do: Be more innovative, make better decisions, work smarter not harder, collaborate, focus on the necessary few . . . pick your favorite shibboleth. The biggest and most obvious reason is that if we don’t organize how we think and work any differently, why do we think we’ll experience different results? Another is that if we don’t change what we value, why do we think people will make different trade-offs?
The processes and props we use prove to be extraordinarily important in signaling the people involved what’s going on, what’s expected, and the smart way to play. If I invite the person I’ve been dating to dinner at some impossibly elegant restaurant that’s five times more expensive than anyplace we’ve ever been before, what do you suppose that person is expecting? Similarly, if we schedule a one hour meeting (and we schedule a lot of them) for a board room where everyone will sit around a rectangular table roughly according to their power relationships with the boss and look at a deck none of us have ever seen before, what do we really think is going to happen in that meeting?
If we want different outcomes, better outcomes, we have to work differently. If we want to work differently, we need to change the processes and tools we use to both support and signal the new schema. We need to change what the group values to make a space for innovation and orthogonal thinking. And we need to change to spaces and places that we meet in to support more dialog and less advocacy, more inquiry and less explanation, more serendipity and discovery and less walking people to the conclusion we’ve already arrived at.
At GroupPartners, one way we think about this is to create something we call an Innovation Lounge. It is as much high concept as it is physical instantiation. Here are the general principles:
Creating the container is the first and most important step.
The container can be defined symbolically, physically, energetically, spiritually, or by any other agreeable means at your disposal. It really depends on what you’re needing to block in and block out (sound, light, attention of certain people, etc.) A council fire does it with light. What’s near the fire is in the container. What’s in the darkness is not. You can hold hands. You can go into a room. There are lots of options.
By container we mean dividing the universe now into two spaces: what is in and what is not. Inside the container exists the work. Outside is everything else. Inside the container we act according to special rules. Outside the container we follow a broader set of norms and edicts. Inside the container, it is safe to do whatever it is we came to do. Outside the container . . .
In thinking about a permanent or semi-permanent Innovation Lounge in a corporate setting, our general rule of thumb is 100 square feet, or about nine square meters per participant. You can certainly use more or less, but that amount of space creates lots of options for different types of work, fluidly making and remaking sub-units, and maintaining persistence and support (see following).
During the full cycle of the work, the output during all phases of development needs to remain in place. Creating a visual, affixing yellow stickies to things, scribbling notes on a flip chart—it doesn’t matter what your process—the bits and pieces you used to record, organize, and honor your thinking, inquiry, and dialog simply must persist. It creates an ever richer context. The artifacts hold ideas even when you’ve moved on, always there for you to see them and be reinspired by them. Putting things on the walls creates purposeful and serendipitous juxtaposition. Relationships you never saw before often jump out at you as you walk by or glance up.
For longer pieces of work, that same sense of persistence keeps your efforts rooted in a common earth. As new actors enter the drama, they can not only dig into the ground you’ve already tilled, but also see the sweep of what’s gone before with new eyes. It’s the new eyes and insights we need from these people. But if we are to usefully explore new directions and possibilities, it must always be in reference to the work that has gone before. If not, then the container is broken (maybe a good thing) and a new piece of work needs to be declared.
In thinking about setting up a space, the 100 square foot rule now starts to make more sense. If we want to be able to leave work in place so that we can constantly reference and rediscover it, we need wall space, floor space, and/or table space. To some extent this can be facilitated electronically though not as well as you think. Every time we turn a page, flash a screen, or otherwise remove something from our line of site, it’s like we remove it from consciousness. It’s just gone.
Everything needs to support the kind of work you need to do. A wide open space with little structure invites the group to first work out how it will work before it does the work. That could be a good thing. Big walls covered with whiteboards or paper with lots of markers invite people to draw and explore. Pods of chairs, or chairs and tables, invite groups to form up around tasks. Stacks of supplies like paper, stickies, markers, index cards, and tape make it possible to create a decision table on the fly, or throw together a quick Baysian influence diagram. Access to the internet and a printer offer the possibility of bringing the outside into the container without actually breaking the container. Everything counts. Everything matters. Everything either supports the work you’re there to do or takes away from it. There really isn’t a middle ground on this.
In our experience, work that extends for more than a couple of hours tends to create shifting demands for how we interact. We might start out co-creating a visual on the wall and find that we need to break into smaller groups. For work that extends over days, weeks, and months, that is absolutely true. So having the luxury of space, again referencing the 100 square foot rule, we open up the possibility of turning the space into a town square one moment, and the Lascaux caves the next.
You could also think of this as focus or even connection. The container, the Innovation Lounge, needs to send strong signals to those inside what the work is about. It needs to draw the people together around the purpose at hand. It needs to help people connect to both the work and to each other. The concepts of containment, persistence, and support do this. So does the actual content. Our ancestors didn’t just sit around the big fire at night: They sat there to hear the elders’ stories, to learn the way of the people, to consider big issues. The content matters.
The content is the problem we’re trying to solve, the opportunity we’re trying to reach, the puzzle we need to work. It takes form in words, sounds, pictures, and gestures. How we package and present the content going in, how we create and iterate the content while we work, and how we preserve and honor the content when we’re done makes the difference between inspiration and boredom, aspiration and rejection, encouraging people to bring the best they’ve got vs. their shadows, cynicism, and doubt.
In the realm of innovation, this means chucking overboard the usual decks and spreadsheets, the lifeless attempts to animate what is to often uninspired in the first place. Instead, we should be drawing pictures, looking at ethnographies, and generally seeking all manner of weird and divergent provocations. We should be recording our work on walls and on the floor, using markers and slips of paper. We should let the form follow the work and not the other way around.
Inside the Innovation Lounge, the “normal” presentation of content should be banned. The content should focus on exploring possibilities (could do) long before we start filtering down to what we should do and will do. This is where good methodology and process help.
A great space to work isn’t the magic talisman that will ensure great or even good thinking. No such amulet exists. Nor is it the case that it’s impossible to think great thoughts in a noisy restaurant or the most miserable of cube farms. It’s just that bad spaces and bad setups collide with millions of years of programming. The truth is we are highly responsive to the spaces we move through and settle in. The Chinese have been serious practitioners of the idea for at least 3000 years. It’s called Feng Shui. Much more recently, Christopher Alexander and others have written brilliantly on the topic in A Pattern Language. In between, hundreds of thousands of land use planners, space planners, architects, and researchers practice their own versions of building spaces to contain and support a particular kind of activity. An Innovation Lounge is just another example of something that works, that makes a difference, that betters your chances of better thinking and hopefully better outcomes.
Tags: patternlanguage, Chirstopher Alexander, Innovation Lounge, Feng Shui, Decision Making, Structured Visual Thinking, GroupPartners