Today, we would be hard pressed to find an organization that doesn’t believe innovation is an important part of their strategic plan. Whether it’s a non-profit, higher education institution, municipality, healthcare center or corporation, finding new ways to solve problems and develop disruptive ideas is essential. While there is much conjecture as to why “innovation” has become such a prominent buzzword of late, it is generally accepted that the pace and frequency of changes within organizations has increased dramatically. The end result is that innovation will continue to be a strategy organizations cultivate in order to stay in front of changes and drive industry practices.
Examples of the success of disruptive innovation are abundant. A quick visit to TED talks can provide anyone with hundreds of success stories about new products, programs, ideas, initiatives or business practices that could change our world. This increasing visibility of innovation stories, coupled with popular technology like the iphone, have amplified the demand for the creativity and ideation necessary for breakthroughs.
The demand is undeniable. However, why do some people, organizations and industries create new ideas faster and more often?
As you listen to TED talks from emerging innovators, they often recall that their ideas come when they’re outside “work”, connecting with others, reading, relaxing, running… There has yet to be an innovation story that began with the phrase “I was sitting in my cubicle when the idea hit me…” It would not be surprising to many of us that ideas don’t generally happen in our cubicle or private office. It could also be easily argued that it doesn’t take place in meeting rooms, board rooms or places were one person presents to a group. These traditionally designed spaces are primarily meant for the transfer of knowledge by one presenter at a time, not the development of new ideas. Despite organizations’ interest in fostering innovation, many still setup workplaces that support heads-down, individual work and presentation-based meeting rooms. Whether the environment is open-plan or private-office is irrelevant, traditional office planning methodologies are killing opportunities for innovation to take place.
So, how does an organization create an innovative workplace environment? Here are a few ideas that can enhance development and cultivation of new ideas within the organization:
1. Meetings are work, and not all meetings are the same.
Many leaders and managers don’t perceive employees time in meetings as a productive use of resources. In some cases, it may be that they haven’t embraced the power of collaboration and still only understand knowledge work at a tactical level. In most instances though, this perception exists because meetings in today’s organizations serve the function of purely sharing information.
Not all meetings are “Informative” meetings. Sometimes a group of individuals need to gather to review a pre-developed set of information, review and analyze as a group and make changes to the information on-the-fly. This type of “Evaluative” meeting might be where the finance team connects to prepare the annual report, or it might be the development group making group changes to the account strategy. A third type of meeting occurs when groups of individuals gather to create new information, develop new models or craft solutions. These “generative” meetings could happen when the operations team has been asked to drive out 10% cycle time, or where HR needs to develop a new recruitment strategy.
Inevitably, this leads to the question, “do we need so many “Informational” meetings, or can these be handled differently?” To achieve an innovative workplace, organizations should strive to, whenever possible, either find avenues to reduce “Informative” meetings through online collaboration or identify opportunities for these meetings to become “evaluative”.
2. Enhance the transfer of information.
We live in a world where it’s probably easier for you to find out the GDP of Latvia and the annual corn crop harvest of Russia than it is to look up your organization’s top revenue source or your greatest set of expenses. The ability for people to access information is critical. Many organizations fall short with ease of access to information and the need-to-know relevance of said information. Organizations should strive for “google easy” search intelligence with built-in measures to ensure necessary internal security measures.
Access to information isn’t only critical for individual work, but can fuel or hinder team dynamics. Have you ever been in an “Evaluative” meeting where someone is asked for information and they say, “Yes, I can get you this information. It’s on my desktop and I can email it to everyone after the meeting.” Or this individual, if it’s a critical piece of info, needs to run to their desk, download to a thumb drive, come back to the meeting, hand the drive to the presenter and they then project the information. Meanwhile, the team has likely spent the 10-15 minutes checking email, chatting about the weather, or discussing how they wish the information could just be accessed immediately.
3. Embrace mobility and create an Ecosystem of options.
Your desk was once a place that was the physical center of information. If you were away from your desk, it was impossible for you to work. Then remote access came along and you could accomplish your work from the comfort of your living room or a beach in Tahiti. But now, organizations are changing this work-from-anywhere strategy. Many are asking people to return to the office, most publicly evidenced by Marissa Mayer of Yahoo. However, this doesn’t change the fact that individuals are no longer chained to a singular place in order to accomplish individual work. In fact, it opens up the opportunity for people to choose a place to work based on the type of work that they need to accomplish at any given time.
Over the course of our work day, we need varying levels of privacy and accessibility in order to accomplish our work. A salesperson might need to do 2-3 hours of phone calls to set appointments, and they might not be the quietest people when on the phone. The marketing analyst might need to be away from colleagues when looking over data, but hates a closed off room. The finance manager may need to spend a day in a private office because of sensitive, confidential material.
Why is this critical for innovation? Getting away from our primary workspace, being in a room that supports the task at hand, or simply changing our posture can greatly increase the potential for new ideas. In addition, whether it’s overhearing a conversation while working in the company café or having an impromptu conversation with a co-worker en route to a private enclave, the cross-pollinization of information creates a breeding ground for new ideas.
4. Trust is the currency of collaboration.
An organization can build the most beautiful Work Café on the planet, but if they don’t trust that “work” can happen outside a cubicle or office, then the space will only be utilized during the lunch hour. If employees are given the option to work-from-anywhere, but are scrutinized for not being at their desk, then it’s highly unlikely that they will use spaces outside of their own workstation.
Organizations can create workplaces that have beautiful cafes, unique areas for respite, places for focus work, meeting spaces for teams, outdoor spaces for reflection and retreat. However, utilization of these spaces relies on a fundamental construct that the company trusts its employees to conduct productive work irrespective of where it takes place. It is important for HR teams to iterate to employees that they want people to choose the spaces necessary to accomplish the work they do each day.
Invariably, leaders will likely ask, “in an environment where we face strict budgetary pressure, where can we find the money to create an innovative workplace?” The answer is “All around you!”
What is the real estate cost of a 25’ x 25’ foot office for an executive that is rarely around or in conference rooms all day? How wasteful is it to have five conference rooms for 20 that are most often used by 5 people? Could the cafeteria be used all day for collaborative sessions instead of just during the lunch hour? When we begin to truly scrutinize and analyze the utilization of real estate, we can begin to conceptualize ROI for workplace enhancements and the question shifts from “How can we possibly create an innovative workplace?” to “How can we afford to not invest in an innovative workplace?”