We are social animals. We live in spaces, with rules, with rituals, in tribal environments. We are both architects of working environments and prisoners of them. Good or bad, it’s up to us how to craft them. It’s the old Winston Churchill’s Houses of Parliament phrase: ‘We shape our houses and then they shape us’. It’s a symbiotic relationship: us and the walls. Love or hate it, open working environments, for example, shape behaviours and culture very differently from individual offices with closed doors. If all you have in front of you is a computer screen, your sociability will be great with Pixels.
It makes sense to artificially, almost unnaturally, create a dedicated space for X, where only X takes place. If in that space, either X, Y or Z, or all, can take place, it’s not dedicated. It’s (behavioural) shaping power is low. Meeting room C-24 is not terribly inspiring, or not more than B-65. In behavioural terms ‘dedicated spaces’ shape behaviours: a library makes you read, not chat or dance; an office makes you get on with your work, not listen to music for pleasure. There is an old rule in behavioural change and kids: if you can, don’t let kids do their homework in the same place (bedroom) as the one where they are supposed to sleep. Another simple work-efficiency (behavioural/environmental) rule is to have, if you can, two desks, one ‘analogue’ (no computers; actually despite common belief you could do things like reading and taking notes without a screen in front of you) and one ‘digital’ – your screens/laptops. The change from A desk to B desk will mean a different type of focused work. Many working environments are designed to look constantly at a screen in front of you, which makes you de facto an Information Traffic Controller.
Not surprisingly, organizations have played for a long time with these ‘dedicated/protected’ spaces, consciously or not, by creating ‘environments’ such as War Rooms or Brainstorming Rooms. A good idea, for example, is to have a (dedicated) Beta Room where all discussions, brainstorming and blue-sky thinking takes place. It’s ‘beta’: in progress, unfinished, testing and prototyping ideas, a place free of constrains. Let’s got to the Beta Room equals permission to test thoughts.
A good example of an Innovation (dedicated) environment is Amazon’s Lab126. This is how its history is described on their website:
In 2004, the Amazon team had a vision – to improve upon the physical book, making it easier than ever for customers to discover and enjoy books. Gregg Zehr, vice president of hardware engineering at Palm Computing at the time, was part of the team that accepted the challenge. In October 2004, Gregg formed a small team, moved into a shared space in a Palo Alto law library, and got to work as Lab126.
The Lab126 name originated from the arrow in the Amazon logo, which draws a line from A to Z in “Amazon.” In Lab126, the 1 stands for “A” and the “26” stands for “Z.” The subsidiary functions as an Amazon lab of innovation, research and development for consumer electronics products, drawing the best minds in Silicon Valley together.
The very small team of engineers functioned in a Silicon Valley skunkworks environment – boxes of candy and cookies filled the office, and they worked long hours embarking on engineering that had never been tried before. The team did not know their chances of success, but they kept working and growing.
After office moves in 2005 and 2006, Amazon Lab126 moved to Cupertino City Center in February 2007. On November 19, after 3 years of research and development, the first Kindle e-reader launched with 90,000 e-books. The Lab126 team watched a live broadcast of the announcement from New York, holding their breaths as Jeff Bezos introduced Kindle. 5.5 hours later, Kindle was sold out.
Carve out space and time, protect them, and free them from the standard corporate rules. You can do this with a small team or a big one, a few rooms, one room, or a building. Do it forever, or for 3 months. Experiment with your own version of Lab126. Social engineer the environment until you see the fruits. Kindle ideas! We shape the spaces so that spaces may shape us.
Dr Leandro Herrero is the CEO and Chief Organization Architect of The Chalfont Project, an international firm of organizational architects. He is the pioneer of Viral ChangeTM, a people Mobilizing Platform, a methodology that delivers large scale behavioural and cultural change in organizations, which creates lasting capacity for changeability.
Dr Herrero is also an Executive Fellow at the Centre for the Future of Organization, Drucker School of Management. An international speaker, Dr Herrero is available for virtual speaking engagements and can be reached at: The Chalfont Project.
His latest book, The Flipping point – Deprogramming Management, is available at all major online bookstores.