How to develop a successful workplace innovation framework?

Confused about how to accelerate and inspire innovation in your office or workplace through its layout, design and culture building? To help, we share some insight garnered from an interesting Steelcase white paper "How Place Fosters Innovation." With its evergreen advice, we continue to refer to and share it with clients and partners year after year in our work with others. We feel its insights help frame and shape innovation related organizational thinking and workplace design strategies for large and small businesses alike.

an innovation mindset matters

Today's hyper-competitive business environments, whether in public, private or nonprofit sectors, demand high performing organization naturally seek a state of innovation, continuous learning and a growth mindset.  Successful companies adopt a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. To cultivate authentic and sustainable growth, especially with a focus on seeding innovation, mindset matters. 

Frequently though, we find the Place where people work and How they work misaligned with the needs of the business or organization adopting an innovation mindset. 

Frankly the office and workplace falls short!

We believe attuned place design supporting this natural drive for innovation can power healthy disruptive and sustainable growth, all the while providing the right resources for day to day work, pointing the way towards enduring success.

The Steelcase White Paper offers a framework for organizations to assess why, how, who and what is the work primary to their business. Through it, with the help of architects like ourselves and other consultants, they assess the kind of work culture they currently have, the work processes valuable to them today, and what they strive for in coming future that might be different than today with a growth mindset.  In light of this continuum, we believe it is critical to view your workplace as an ecosystem of flexible spaces and resources supporting your people doing their work. whether face to face and or virtual collaboration, heads down focus work, customer service, communication, potential development and human resources, training and development and more.  

The right kinds of spaces can help people collaborate, share knowledge, learn together and build social networks of trustful interactions so critical to solving big challenges.
— How Places Fosters Innovation - Steelcase Research | sourced 4/4/17 via https://www.arocordisdesign.com/blog/2017/4/5/culture-place-and-space-cultivating-innovation-at-work

Ecosystem Thinking

Aligning Place to purpose, needed work processes and collaboration requires choices of how, where and when to do differing kinds of work. We like to think of the office or workplace, or business as a unique organizational and space ecosystem. We use the concept of ecosystem to describe the workplace as an integration of people working within and together in their physical spaces, along with supporting technology, furniture, building systems and organizational systems. Doing so redirects the conversation away from entitled "I" space to empowered "We" spaces whether at the scale of one person, a small team or grouping of teams within a larger whole.  

Ecosystem thinking also acknowledges the changing dynamics of an organization, its culture and broader identity. Organizations themselves have lifespans and experience stages of growth, transformation. maturity and rebirth. Given these life cycles, placing them within a workplace ecosystem mindset seems entirely logical. Startup, mid-stage, mature and legacy phases constitute the major chapters of organizational life which if anything is dynamic rather than fixed. 

Photo by SrdjanPav/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by SrdjanPav/iStock / Getty Images

Your business is a work in progress just like you

This evolving process of carrying out and doing your business and its work befits what is really happening; we are all works in progress.  And yes work is messy, held together in some cases literally and/or metaphorically by duct tape more often than we like to admit, and full of failures which inspire potential future success.  Like natural systems, your organization fits into an eco-system with all of its parts and pieces serving some kinds of inter-related purpose.

We think the first step to more clearly understanding your organization's innovation oppourtunity is to closely examine and reflect together on what's your purpose and the primary motivations behind what you do. Or don't do.

Purpose and Cause: The Why

First look at your organization in the mirror with your team.  Do you have a clear sense of mission and purpose? Having a collective sense of identity and purpose forms a cultural glue uniting individuals into teams of mission driven performers able to carry out at different times, disruptive and sustaining innovation. If you lack organizational clarity and passion about your mission and core purpose likely it will be difficult to innovate together. 

The other aspect of this lies in the your organizational size and how your group, team or self fits into the overall whole.  Whether you have three or 5,000 colleagues makes a difference in how to work with an innovation mindset.  With smaller size comes greater agility and quick adaptability to change processes, tools and use your spaces differently.  The larger you are, the more complex the innovation equation becomes.  Also the greater oppourtunity.

Regardless of size, make sure you have a clear sense of mission and purpose and you authentically as individuals and teams can connect with it. If you don't, you have a terrific opportunity to codevelop and collaborate together on redefining your core mission and values. Then you will be ready to innovate together whether in disruptive or sustaining ways. The reason is you will already be innovating working hard together to cultivate and build your culture. 

Individual versus collaborative versus distributed work

Examine closely your ratios of how you actually work right now regarding how much is individual, group, collaborative and distributed work. Distributed work may be an unfamiliar term to you.  

In an increasingly global marketplace, a distributed workforce frees a business from the conventional constraints of time zones and work schedules, allowing work to be done seven days a week, 24 hours a day if necessary.
— http://www.inc.com/partners/comcast/the-distributed-workforce-why-theres-no-there-there.html

You may think you work in a traditional office setting with most people working out of your office.  But do you really?  You likely already work on the distributed work continuum. How often do you work from home, a local coffeeshop, park bench holding video calls with team members across numerous time zones and cultures? Likely much more than you did five or ten years ago.

Where you work right now, how much space is devoted to individual workspaces versus common work areas including social, learning and cafe spaces? Today's newer space ratios range closer to 60/40% for individual to common to 50/50 or even 30 / 70% in organizations taking pride in a more "We" focused culture.

In general today's innovation focused business work with less dedicated personal workspace emphasizing instead shared spaces ranging from heavily social to extremely focused increasingly popular quiet spaces.  Looking around your workplace do you see those ratios or do you see those from ten to fifteen years ago with a much higher amounts of owned workspace and less meeting spaces.

An informal collaboration space, Steelcase Global HQ - Grand Rapids, MI by Stephen Ml Frey

An informal collaboration space, Steelcase Global HQ - Grand Rapids, MI by Stephen Ml Frey

Depending on what your work is, you likely collaborate with partners and team members working from home, coworking spaces, other subcontractors assisting you with specialized services from a far needing occasional onsite workspaces.  The ratio of personally committed "owned" workspace versus shared in common, collaborative and just-in time work areas is very different than even five or ten years ago. 

You probably already work with virtual collaboration spaces like GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, Skype for Business, Facetime or Duo. Some of you work like this daily, others less frequently. This shared virtual working is distributed working.  Compared to 10 years ago and technology tools available then, today's tools offer unparalleled convenience, ease of use and collaborative functionality. Plain and simple, we are all working differently and by extension,  innovating in new ways. We can only expect this level of disruption of how we work to continue infinitely.  

So honestly, you're working more differently than ever before.   So then, what models of innovation might work best for your organization, your work, purpose and brand? Your why?

Models of innovation: Centralized to decentralized

"Some organizations look inward; others look externally for fresh ideas and new ways of solving problems." From Steelcase's research perspective they have eight or so models spanning the innovation spectrum from centralized (closely held, proprietary) to decentralized (open or crowd sourced and more). Where and how do you do your best work, where you and your coworkers thrive in regards to innovation?  Choosing one requires close examination of your organizational leadership style and how you collaborate well as well as your purpose.

Those models of innovation are:

  • (Centralized) In-house marketplace model
  • In-house share model
  • In-house center model
  • Off-site model
  • Partnership model
  • Consultancy model
  • Network model
  • Community driven model (Decentralized)

Depending on the kind of business you're in, your size and organizational complexity, one or a hybrid combination of the above will likely fit.  In our design practice, we have worked in a variety of models to best help our clients with organizational fit to purpose.  For some larger ones we act almost as an embedded design and innovation consultant. For smaller ones we act in the consultancy role as outside architectural design experts working on a project by project basis. Or we work on larger project design teams whether leading the overall effort on behalf of the client or participating as a team member among many. 

Defining fit to purpose for innovation efforts

Finding the right model also speaks to where your organization is in its life space and maturity. The model you choose to work with also echoes your leadership model and style. as well as active practice of innovation with recurrent and well supported work processes and resources.  Choosing a decentralized crowd sourced innovation model within a heavily centralized leadership model may not align, however alternatively, following it may fuel disruptive innovation difficult to achieve within such an organization and its prevailing leadership style. 

Defining the fit of innovation efforts to your organizational purpose is extremely important.  Part of this plays into understanding if your are looking for sustaining innovation or disruptive innovation outcomes.   Examining innovation models in the context of space design and layout is an essential next step. 

So then, how to foster innovation by design? Here are a few principles borrowed from the Steelcase research as well as augmented in (parentheses) by us from our own practice and applied research experience.

Workplace design principles to spark innovation

  1. Make a Place (and Tell Your Story): Create and cultivate strong pride in place and opportunities for creative collisions and focused work. Given the rise of distributed work choices and capabilities you must have strong reasons to come to work, bond socially with coworkers and partners face to face. Make sure to leverage your interior environment to integrate branded storytelling, touch and waypoints reinforcing mission, purpose, and core value messaging. Select furniture, finishes and materials which reinforce your brand DNA. 
  2. Make it inspiring: As the Steelcase research shares "creating stimulating, engaging spaces can jump-start and sustain creative thinking." (and collaboration opportunities.) Bring nature near into the interior, daylight and views with strong connection to brand values with a variety of choices of informal and more formal spaces.
  3. Make it flexible and adaptive: (Take care to carefully balance long term space needs with avoiding permanent "monument" construction which makes later space changes and adaptations expensive and time consuming to make. Use easily changeable, movable walls, furniture and lighting where feasible in the majority of your work spaces leaving a minority of areas with more fixed architecture.  This fixed architecture might include storage rooms, restrooms, special conference areas, labs, production facilities and specialized manufacturing. Embed technology which allows for telepresence and forward flexibility adaptable to emerging technologies along with wireless capabilities.) Create communication protocols internally via technology with an agile focused facilities and operations team to assist in co-creating and adapting existing spaces.
  4. Make it Social (Yet Create Quiet Places): "Social capital between co-creators is crucial for innovation to occur. It builds trust, especially important when teams are doing intense work. Open and relaxed areas for informal conversations (and creative collisions) are critical components for successful innovation spaces."  (Sprinkled within active collaboration areas provide places of refuge and Quiet Spaces and places for innovators to think alone, recharge, work in small groups have risen in importance since Steelcase released these findings. Provide "clearings" amidst collaboration areas with shared common areas with comfortable cafe style seating adjacent to food and drink for recharging and relaxed informal interactions. Create a shared kitchen counter area to act as an interaction hub.)
  5. Make it Collaborative: "Innovation teams require a shared mind. Individual insights and memory need to become learning and memory" with easy visibility to project or innovation work history throughout the space says the Steelcase research. They go onto suggest the following: (Our additions in parentheses)
  • Position individual workspaces around group workspaces to maximize visibility. (and proximity to shared work)
  • Provide group areas for informal brainstorming and informal information swaps. (fostering creative collisions)
  • Plan for extensive dialogue with digital information and intense collaborations around computers (and smart devices , wall and furniture surfaces) involving (face to face) and virtual team work.
  • Provide for vertical (and horizontal) interactive displays, white boards (white board surfaces applied to walls)
  • (Consider mobile, easily reconfigurable furniture to encourage DIY team oriented project based reconfigurations)
  • (Maintain an informal and evolving set of collaboration and design thinking protocols easily understood and widely shared to create continuity and clarity about the collaboration process)
  • (Provide a maker space or series of mini-maker spaces with maker tools and support props for rapid prototyping and ideating developing concepts. [Legos for adults.  But leave in the Legos])

Innovation is evolving

Since work processes, technology continue to evolve in truly breakneck speed many of these above ideas may well need to be dramatically rethought and re examined in coming years. How will machine learning and artificial intelligence impact innovation process and capacity development? Could be extremely powerful in regards to inventing many new possibilities arriving from human and AI collaboration.  While the future is unclear in respect to AI, our shared drive for new ideas and impulse to innovate remain constant. 

Remember sharing purpose and cause fuels your drive to innovate and cultivate the right kinds of workspace and culture to do this important work.  We believe without this cultural glue your innovation efforts will falter and lack purpose, with stunted success. In the meanwhile, keep aspiring to do good things and keep a steady supply of duct tape around.  

You will need it! Do you follow or practice an innovation mindset or framework similar to what we share here? Do you practice any of these innovation design principles? Or do you see different forces at play impacting how, where and why you work?  Please share in the comments sections below.  Let's build a dialogue. 

Contact us if you have more questions or if you want to learn more about how to apply this Innovation Framework to your business or organization by design. We want to help you thrive.