Future’s Ramblings – Issue 7 – February 29, 2005

Yesterday I gave a talk to facilities managers at the AusFM conference. My talk was aimed at FM professionals, but I believe the message is also relevant to the design profession. The thesis of my presentation  was: FM professionals have a unique pragmatic and political knowledge of the organizations they work for, they know where control lies in the organization, who the squeaky wheels are and who the thought leaders are; they know a bit about everything! Consequently they are well positioned to take a more accountable leadership role in the creation of environments that can do more for their organizations, if fact they could behave more  like a Hollywood movie director might and assemble the most talented people, and direct them towards creating environments, that if they were movies, would sweep the Academy Awards.  As providers of space (both facilities managers and designers) need to get off their arses and rise to the challenge of making environments that go beyond the status quo and address tomorrow’s problems. Tomorrow’s problems are not communication and collaboration,  breaking down silos, or empowering workers – those were issues of the past. To really support the organizations we are working for, we need to begin thinking about how space can influence and impact the issues that are on the horizion. Those new pressing issues are supporting the creative class, shortage of skilled workers, management of distributed teams, and the cultural implications of offshoring to name a few.

If we want to make a difference, we must take on this challenge. I offer two ideas for how to proceed. One is to change the process of how we talk about and use space and open the conversations we have to more people within the organization. The second is to use the skills we have as creative innovative people and think differently, sorry for the cliché but think out of the box which we sadly do not do often enough.

Pulling together a group of people with different interests and agendas is a scary prospect for most managers of projects, even more frightening for them is the concept of engaging their “clients”. There is a logic that if you don’t ask, they wont tell, then you wont know, so you will not need to deliver. Success!  In many organizations expectations have been managed by keeping them very low. This is a shame, companies  gain from their interactions with others, the act of interaction itself yield benefits if for no other reason than it has the ability to change our perspective. Companies get better at what they do by working with outsiders whose specialised capabilities complement their own. Some would argue that these kinds of transactions are a key to driving  innovation, the friction that is produced coined “creative abrasion”.  It is obvious that different enterprises and people  bring different perspectives and competencies to tackling a problem. When people from diverse specializations interact,  the potential for innovative solutions to result rises .

Assembling the right team is a start, there also needs to be a process to maintain control. There is a company in the San Francisco Bay Area called IDEO who has won more design awards over the past decade than any other firm. You probably have not heard of them because they don’t design buildings or fitouts – they design things. In the 90’s IDEO was responsible for the design of the Palm V,  Polaroid I zone camera and the first non squeeze stand up toothpaste dispenser for Proctor and Gamble. The founder of their company, David Kelly was responsible for the design of the first Apple computer and the first mouse. I heard David Kelly on a panel at the Alternative Officing Conference in San Jose. Later I had the opportunity to  watch a video called “The Deep Dive” which was a replay of a 60 Minutes spot on IDEO and their creative process. It was a great, very inspiring video about how this company has applied a process to innovation.

The process that IDEO employes looks chaotic but is very controlled and clearly produces fantastic results. The IDEO’s design process begins with a diverse team, they advise clients by teaching them through others eyes: anthropologists, graphic designers, engineers and psychologists. The creative part of the process is done very fast, they insist on client participation, and in creating mock ups to test their ideas.

The design process has five steps:

Step One – Observe

This is done by shadowing, behaviour mapping, having clients keep a camera journal, and having Unfocused Groups ( an odd mix of people to discuss an issue)

Step Two – Brainstorm

Intense idea generation where the word but is not allowed, only and.

Step Three – Rapid Prototyping

Quick no frills mockups to demonstrate creative scenarios

Step Four – Refine

Narrow down the choices, brainstorm and engage the client to get agreement

Step Five – Implement.

The video showed the IDEO team designing a shopping cart. There were a few things that have stuck with me about the IDEO process. One was the courage that David Kelly had in leading his team, he defined the goals, set assignments, outlined basic protocol (the task had to be completed in 24 hours) and then let his team go wild. The team threw out as many ideas as was physically possible, none were abandoned or labeled as “duds”,  they let their minds be free without constraint. After a set period of time, Kelly reigned the team in. The group narrowed down the ideas, eliminating those that could not be done within the time frame, or were unacceptable for other reasons. When they settled on the new shopping cart design they quickly built one and tested it in a grocery store, where they discovered flaws that could be improved.  My colleagues and I were impressed and wondered if we could use a similar process for interior design. We began our own version of rapid prototyping, which is the same as the Translation process we have done with some clients here at Geyer.

Whether we adopt this process, or some other, as providers of space we must take on the  challenge to solve tough problems, ask different questions and use the skills that we have as creative people. We do ourselves and our clients a disservice by following the status quo when it comes to workplace design because we know that ‘work’ is not what it used to be. The existing set of solutions we work with today will not effectively contribute to solving the problems of tomorrow. I am not advocating blowing the budget, or project program but suggest we challenge ourselves to provide greater value, by taking some time in a controlled manner to consider the issues and the different options that might exist.

The pressing issue for businesses in the next decade is the eminent labor shortage and associated problems that will result from it. So what are we doing about it? Nothing. In the same way that I challenged the FM professionals at the conference I want to challenge you. If we begin to develop some innovative thinking around this we are going to provide our clients much more than just a design for their new office. Lets start by thinking about how we make space take on an active role in the process of innovation? What process do you go through when you innovate? Can space be used to help transfer knowledge?