For Innovation: Culture Trumps Office Design

For Innovation: Culture Trumps Office DesignInnovation Labs, either accelerators or corporate bunkers, are now becoming commonplace. As a result, workspace design is booming.

Browse around the web, and you’ll quickly see articles about startups that have designed their workspace to resemble their culture. For established companies trying to create a culture of innovation, this means copying the same design mantra of most startups, but more interesting is how they are using gimmicks to get people to collaborate.

Up there with “innovation”, “lean startup” and “design thinking”, the latest word to make it to buzzword-bingo is “Lab”. Whatever you think the definition of a Lab is, it is not what you think. I see them more as a workspace that let’s people collaborate right there on the spot, not at an offsite space where only a special few congregate. If a company calls their workspace a lab, it means anyone can take their gear, desk, and move it to be close to their collaborators.

This means that what in the corporate world used to mean that the R&D guys were the ones responsible for creating the future (aka innovation), they no longer hold the distinction of being the official innovators. No longer is everyone else, just everyone else.

No, today innovation is everyone’s job.

The Innovation Silver Bullet?

Workplace design exerts a powerful force on behavior, but what is its direct influence to innovation?

Beyond the initial jolt of excitement it effects on employees, we don’t actually know what happens to office employees after such re-designs?  Are they happier?  More comfortable?  More productive?  More creative?  It turns out that we’re not sure yet.

A few months ago I got a call from a financial company that wants me to help them reinvent their innovation capability. Little did I know that two years ago they opened their own Innovation Lab, complete with all the latest and greatest workplace tweaks, design trends in furniture, layout, colors and everything else.

Still, with all of that investment in workspace, the company accepts that they have a tired process for innovation. They want more dramatic results, not more of the same. Their exact words were: we’re aware that we’ve only released more of the same products.

A similar pattern is present in startup accelerators. Similar to the above situation, a week ago I got an email from a local one letting me know of their latest program for entrepreneurs: 3 month incubation with development help.

Great! But what difference does that make?

Here’s a more visceral day-to-day example, my office is located in a very nice and modern LEED Certified building. My workspace is nice too, with open floor and offices around it. But that hasn’t meant that the companies that fill the floor in this building are innovative. They may preach and say it, but innovative they are not.

I’ve gone to great lengths to try to change that mindset, but I’m looked at as being a little bit crazy.

Culture trumps construction

We’ve talked about how changing ones environment is the fastest way to change behavior, but unless there is direct way to nudge those specific behaviors, in most cases, it’s not going to work. And for all the research there is about open plan offices vs private vs mixed/hybrid work environment, one thing still holds true: 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.

So, your company may not be able to invest in a “startup” like workspace, but you can stimulate innovative thinking in other ways:

  • Job swap. Want to really challenge people to get out of their comfort zone, while at the same time send the signal that you are walking the talk? Start a job swap activity. Either inside the company, and even with another company. As we start seeing more and more companies embrace collaboration with outsiders, I see this as an emerging area of opportunity to drive innovation inside organizations.
  • Let people move around. Recent research indicates that employees are more engaged at work when they control their space. This shouldn’t be a huge insight, as telecommuting and BYOD have taken off in recent years. They drive this need for employees to want to feel like they are at home in the workplace.
  • Cut the number of days people work/week. Ok, this may a stretch, but ask yourself what would happen if your organization would only work 4 days/week, but work 10 hours/day. This isn’t a new idea, but any organization that takes this approach deserves respect.
  • Make Friday an anything goes day. Related to the last point, you need to give people time to reflect on “what could be” not just on “what is”. You can turn Friday into a time for daydreaming.
  • Conduct a Hackathon. These started in the tech sector, but have been borrowed by other industries as a way to get employees to collaborate on projects that are not handed down from the C-suite. These work even better when you can involve outsiders for a more unique perspective.

Bottom line: You can’t build your way to innovation prowess. Culture drives everything, and without the right culture there can be no innovation, just words.

image credit: blu maya office

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Jorge BarbaJorge Barba is an Innovation Insurgent and is the Creative Strategist at Blu Maya, a San Diego based Digital Marketing Firm that helps organizations build their online business with strategy development for new products and services. He’s also the author of the innovation blog Game Changer. And lastly, you can follow him on Twitter @jorgebarba.

Jorge Barba




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