By Brian Trainer and Patrick Donnelly
Companies have long focused on fostering collaboration among employees, envisioning it as a solution to lagging innovation. To that end, architects have designed more and more open workspaces, where employees now easily and frequently interact. But it turns out that while this enhanced collaboration has improved bottom line results, it hasn’t necessarily generated the new ideas that mark truly innovative companies.
In a quest to best understand how to design for innovation in the modern workplace, Cincinnati-based BHDP Architecture convened leaders of more than 40 companies for a series of roundtable discussions. Participants spanned diverse industries, but they all sought the same things: strong company culture, less hierarchy, and — most of all — innovation.
The discussions led to an in-depth study by a sponsored research fellow, and the findings suggest innovative cultures require three things: definition, delivery, and design.
What constitutes innovation to each organization is unique, because each organization in and of itself is unique. Some strive to be market leaders; others are happy to be strong challengers. Thinking of innovation as a spectrum, and asking yourself what kind of innovation your organization is seeking to create should be the first step. As polio vaccine discoverer and historic innovator Jonas Salk has said, “Find the right questions. You don’t invent the answers, you reveal the answers.”
Do you need to catch up to competition, maintain your lead or completely shake up your industry? Consider where your organization falls among these four waypoints.
Iteration: Incremental change to an existing product or process. Iteration moves the needle, helping you catch up to the status quo in your market. There’s typically little risk involved for a company, since other organizations have already paved the way.
Evolution: Significant change to an existing product or process. Evolution can help a company maintain its standing among competitors, and the risk is low to moderate because it builds on an existing product or process. You’ll find that you need to better leverage your smartest workers and their research.
Revolution: Something new or a historic change to a product or process. This is where you create memories. A revolutionary change can set a market on its ear, establishing your company as the frontrunner that inspires others. There is certainly greater risk but also potential for greater reward. Like Thomas Edison’s light bulb, these are the innovations people remember.
Disruption: Something new that creates an entirely different market. If Edison’s light bulb was revolutionary change, disruption was when early humans first harnessed fire. This is the level of innovation that companies dream of but rarely strive toward. Beyond memorable, it becomes a significant point in human history.
Now that you’ve defined the level of innovation you’re seeking, it’s time to determine how your staff delivers the ideas and products. Keeping in mind the need to be as self-aware as possible, perform a review of your company’s culture and markets. The goal is to identify your innovators, the people who develop the ideas; your inventors, who turn those ideas into products and services; and your end users, without whom there is no need for innovation. Thinking about your team and your larger customer universe in this way also exposes opportunities to fill skills gaps, develop training programs and empower employees to be truly creative and entrepreneurial while meeting real-world needs.
The Innovators: “I have an idea.” From Henry Ford to Elon Musk, innovators display curiosity, creativity, passion and technical knowledge. Yet it’s hard to see their fingerprints on the finished products, because a small army of talented people take their inspiration and turn it into a creation.
The Inventors: “I know how to do that.” Without inventors bringing an idea to reality, the innovator’s idea is simply a notion. Successful innovators fill their skills gaps with experts and knowledge workers. Behaviorally, inventors share traits with innovators like curiosity and drive. Together, they become champions of a shared vision.
The End-users: “I can use that.” Acknowledging the role of end users is key, as they ultimately determine whether a neat idea brought to life will be embraced and result in profitable returns. Knowing when to invest in innovation based on market research combined with a keen instinct about consumer desires is critical.
Designing For Innovation
While researching innovators, BHDP also spent time studying their workplaces. From Menlo Park to Google, there are similarities, including strong infrastructure, a lack of silos around skilled workers and cultures of experimentation. The goal is for the workplace to encourage innovation and enable people to be efficient and effective. Consider the following:
Tools and Technology: Infrastructure allows modern employees to work, communicate and collaborate efficiently and effectively. Keeping tools and technology updated is critical — slowdowns can demotivate employees, halting innovation entirely.
Skills-based Knowledge workers: When groups become isolated in their expertise, they begin to protect that expertise rather than share it. Merging skills-based groups for projects creates a freshness in every initiative that allows for diversity of thought and expertise, building an environment of mentoring and sharing.
Culture Of Experimentation: Fear of failure keeps most organizations inching forward instead of taking giant leaps. Innovative companies have cultures that recognize failure as a signpost on the path to discovery. As Elon Musk says, “If things are not failing, you’re not innovating enough.”
So what type of physical space works best? Three models rise to the top.
Skunk Works®: First used by Lockheed Martin in 1943, this establishes a team of innovators who are physically separated from the rest of the organization. Free from hierarchical, process-driven cultures, they can achieve outstanding results.
Innovation Centers: While these aren’t isolated like Skunk Works models, they are a unique space inside the general operation to allow workers to think in new ways. For example, the formal and structured meeting room is exchanged for a casual space surrounded by the tools and technology needed to innovate and invent.
Embedded Innovation: The most daunting of all, embedded innovation is a full change to your workplace in a bid to permanently create an innovative culture at all levels. This can be challenging for hierarchical, process-driven companies because it requires disruptive change. For this to work, there must be a shared vision within that company that permeates all levels.
The Way Forward
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to infuse innovation into your organization. To get started, ask questions. How can we define innovation? Who will deliver it? How can we design our workplaces to foster it? A deeper exploration of your organizational culture, work processes and expertise will help you find the answers.
Trainer is a strategist/architect and Donnelly is an architect, owner, and client leader with BHDP Architecture, headquartered in Cincinnati, OH. BHDP designs environments that affect the key behaviors necessary to achieve strategic results for clients in the workplace, higher education, industrial, retail, and science markets.