In 1975, musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt created a deck of cards called “Oblique Strategies” to break through writer’s block in the studio. Their idea was to collect phrases that would return them to an artistic state of mind when they found themselves struggling under pressure. The cards provided inspirational words of wisdom such as, “Honour thy error as a hidden intention,” or “Work at a different speed,” or “Gardening, not architecture.” The latter is a personal favorite, and here’s why.
Architecture is envisioned, planned, and executed. It is a singular expression or provision, closely conforming to a plan, always requiring control. Ideally the architect achieves success when all the elements are arranged as presented. The architect makes the physical world obey.
Gardening is attentive, responsive, and warm-hearted. It’s about helping living things grow to their potential—living things that are under your influence, but not within your control. The elements provide or destroy, and the gardener is in dialogue with the plants to encourage and heal.
“Gardening, not architecture,” has become my guiding statement for leading a studio of wildly talented, creative, and sensitive people.
While there is certainly a place for highly structured approaches in the design world, I think the gardening metaphor is best suited for studio culture. If creativity is gardening, creative leadership is about selecting and nurturing its gardeners. Let me illustrate.
On the fourth floor of our IDEO Boston studio is a large common area. Three years ago it was essentially a peninsula of empty desks surrounded by project spaces. Sometimes they were occupied, but most of the time they were vacant because people were on projects. After some time it just seemed counterproductive to have this space outfitted as such. We asked everyone with a desk on the fourth floor to move their belongings upstairs with the rest of the gang. We intuited that this newly made blank canvas could serve as a flex space.
It must have been winter because the new space sat neglected for some time until one day a project team decided to make something of it. Frustrated with being confined to their corner project room, they took an afternoon to build a new lounge in the flex space. Sofas, lamps, and chairs (including airline seats from a former project) were relocated from different parts of the studio. The team built a standing height table in the shop and painted it turquoise with an intricate gold interior pattern. The space quickly went from “abandoned” to “owned” and found new uses—from gaming, to coding, to reconciling credit card statements. New life had sprung.
Soon after things were organized and rearranged, an exhibition of non-billable work brought the space to life in a new way. A documentary film series, “The Sundown Film Festival,” sprouted during the darkness of our short winter days. Spring and summer passed and it appeared that interest in the space was waning. (more…)
In my most recent post, I mentioned some of the biggest obstacles to an effective workplace strategy including the integration of the physical work environment, human behavior, organizational dynamics, and business processes. One aspect of these challenges comes up in almost every discussion I have with designers and workers around North America about the NetWork paper: Most of the time we look at ‘the workplace’ as a “one-and-done” interiors project, rather than as an ongoing system to be monitored and continuously improved. (Just to be clear here moves, adds-on, and changes are not what I mean by continuous improvement.)
Looking at workplace making as a periodic event creates an even bigger disconnect between the “place” and the activities happening in it. Work is dynamic, so is human behavior, and business processes will undoubtedly change over time. If we’re doing our best to link “place” and “work”, shouldn’t place be expected to keep up with work as it changes, rather than our current strategy of getting it “right” at a moment in time, then waiting – on average seven years — to rebalance it again?
Workers’ demands change with every generation, too.
I’ve been standing on my soapbox, preaching the virtues of aligning the workplace with the goals and objectives of each organization as well as with their workers’ activities. Some of you, I suspect, disagree with that idea. But if we were to engage in a debate, we might be discussing how this shift actually plays out in reality, and not the shift itself. Recently I came across an article singing the praises of ‘breakthrough’ office-less offices (USA TODAY, June 6th) and another one decrying the soullessness and dysfunction of open-plan (The NEW YORK TIMES, May 19)
Alternate realities: loving or loathing an open-plan office
Why such polar opinions to, and experiences of, the workplace? Why is this so hard to get it right? And why, if we generally agree that my thesis is directionally correct, aren’t we moving there more quickly and easily?
Well, there’s the obvious answer. Change, no matter how desirable, is intimidating and seemingly risky. After all, we’re exchanging the known for the unknown. I’ve been known to glibly summarize the steps involved in “change management” which refers to defining and communicating the reasons the status quo is no longer acceptable; paint a compelling picture of the possible future; slay the monsters on the path from “current state” to “future state” so that people are less afraid to make the move. Each of these steps requires serious decision-making, conscious commitments of resources, and a deep and broad willingness to drive both cultural and structural change. Sayin’ it, don’t make it so.
In my last post I argued for the need to enable face-to-face interactions, though I certainly didn’t mean to imply that we should require people to show up at the office every day. The big idea in the NetWork study is providing or enabling a choice of settings that support a breadth of needs. “Face-to-face” is one still-needed capability. Another is being able to move between several options for getting the work done.
Whether or not an organization recognizes or even actively supports it, chances are really good that work is happening in places (virtual or physical) that don’t resemble the familiar assigned seats approach. Whether someone travels to customers, or sits in meetings all day, works from home or at their neighborhood Starbucks, they are working in places and spaces other than a workstation. In fact, they are working in places other than “the office”. This shift is partly driven by the nature of modern work and partly by personal preferences.
The authors of our NetWork paper urge us to recognize, plan, and manage “the workplace” as an expansive network of settings – only some of which are under the control of influence of the organization. This implies that we need to provision workers – not just workplaces – to enable them to work anytime and anywhere.
Perhaps this gentleman has grown too comfortable working in the car.
I admit it. I tend to overuse the phrase, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” So here I go again. I’d like to point out that we need to bring two issues together when it comes to getting things done: We need to temper our ability to do our work digitally and in places that aren’t offices and at the same time appreciate the role played by shared physical places in enabling performance.
In the first few pages of our Network paper, the authors emphasize the value of face-to-face interactions: They note that “the more we live in a digital world, the more important it becomes to reconnect with the physical environment. We’re spending more and more time working, socializing and playing in virtual settings. Communities of practice are expanding, effectively combining social and information networks. Games are becoming incredibly realistic – some in terms of sight and sound, while others replicate real life with virtual pets, babies, families, gardens. However… there are certain skills that are critical to successful face‐to-face social interaction, and we only master those skills by using them. So the physical environment remains vital to communication, interaction and developing skills”.
Google is known for thoughtfully provisioning workers: Visitors to any office can expect to find Googlers sharing cubes, yurts and “huddles”; video games, pool tables and pianos; cafes and “microkitchens”; and good old fashioned whiteboards for spur-of-the-moment brainstorming.
In my last post, I suggested that the ways we used to plan workspaces are no longer effective. Maybe they never were. I have several reasons for saying this. First and foremost is the fact that many organizations think of space allocation according to entitlement or status whereas they should consider designs that support the business of their business. Certainly, organizations are free to determine who gets what, or to use space as a reward or symbol of accomplishment as they choose. But this approach erodes designers’ ability to link “place” to “work” and teach workers to see space as a resource, not an entitlement. A workplace should be considered a resource that its users can adapt over time as their work changes.
This adaptability can help an organization redefine itself for the new market conditions; it also teaches and empowers workers to be conscientious consumers of their own environments and feel so much at ease with it that they can modify many aspects of it for themselves.
Another faulty assumption is that work happens mostly at workstations or in assigned offices. AECOM Strategy Plus, as well as other workplace-consulting firms have plenty of evidence to prove that people are only in their assigned seats half the time or even less. And this applies across industries and worker types.
In my first post, I suggested that we humans tend to rely on self-referential thinking. It goes like this: Somebody makes a statement at a conference or in a blog like “Baby Boomers are slow to change and will resist learning new technology,” and it gets repeated, maybe in a news story or tweets about the presentation – and over time, it’s passed on and on. And now, because it’s been uttered by a whole host of voices, and we’ve heard it from a number of sources, we assume it’s true. While this clearly happens much too often, we rarely discuss the implications of drawing conclusions based on shared assumptions, over simplifications, or the latest trends.
Instead of repeating received wisdom, we need to develop or adopt effective evidence-based methodologies for gaining a thorough understanding of work as the basis for workplace design. For instance, can we really assume that open plan is always better than private offices? Will people collaborate more and better when they’re in the open, together? Will placing some soft seating in a corner cause spontaneous collaboration to break out? Should we be putting everyone at benches, regardless of their job function or work practices? If we work with these assumptions, we risk designing spaces that sit underutilized, occupied by workers who don’t have the tools or other ‘affordances’ they need to do the best work they’re capable of.
Zipcar’s new ad campaign encourages office workers to “Zip Out of the Bored Room.”
How can we design spaces that workers won’t want to escape?
“May you live in interesting times.” So goes the Chinese curse. And make no mistake, ours is one of the most “interesting times” we’ve ever experienced. I’ve been around long enough to remember working pre-computer, Internet, email, Apple products, and even pre-fax machines. The amount of change in my lifetime has been staggering and the pace of that change is only increasing. More than that, my anxieties about keeping up, let alone getting ahead of the curve somehow, are also increasing.
A typical office space in 1962
The evolving office in 2012, equipped with Allsteel’s collaborative furniture collection, Gather