Taking Risks January 19, 2012

Futures Rambling – Issue 64

By Laurie Aznavoorian – Geyer Workplace Sector Leader

An old friend and past colleague suggested I write an article titled “Where Have All the Innovative Workplaces Gone?” Before knickers get in knots, I should explain my pal Dale lives in the US; a place preoccupied with Occupy, killing terrorists and digging itself out of debt. It would be safe to say innovative workplace design is not their current priority.  Dale’s suggestion was also somewhat ironic in that he is a project manager and knows damn well why workplace designers are having a tough time being innovative.

Dale… Seriously?

It’s shocking I know, but bland design is fostered by many links in the design cycle. Why workplace design hasn’t progressed at the pace some expect is a complex problem that warrants exploration of the design supply chain from client to project manager, to designers and on to a whole host of others who contribute to the inception, implementation and execution of a project. Face it, producing anything more than pabulum in design has always required vision, passion, persistence and cajonies. The state of the present economy has simply exacerbated what has always been an exercise that is not for the faint of heart.

Looking at the clients, it should be noted there are always exceptions; the bulk of clients are not scaredy pants, risk adverse weenies, looking for the easy and cheap path. On the other hand, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the few organisations with an appetite for risk taking could be counted on one hand. This is somewhat understandable, the public sector that we dabble in has been hit with debt and decreased tax revenues. Tertiary education is suffering from a drop in enrolment and the pressure to produce more research, which in turn attracts more students. Research costs money and places greater demands on time poor lecturers, it’s a catch 22. These pressures have forced Sydney University to eliminate 340 staff positions, 150 academic and 190 general staff.

The private sector fairs no better; desperate for higher profits and shareholder returns, companies are implementing aggressive cost cutting measures like holding off on capital expenditure. Few are planning large-scale expansions and when they do, costs are scrutinised. For projects that get the go ahead, schedules and budgets are tight and this leads to lower professional fees. Since those of us providing professional services are not philanthropies, we have no choice but to examine where corners can be cut and unfortunately this is generally in the area of innovation. As the old saying goes, time is money and when you don’t have any it can impact the time you dedicate to the ‘hunch state’ where ideas incubate and are co- mingled and swapped with others.

The really stinky part of this is some companies are so risk averse that even when they have money they opt to sit on it rather than invest in growth opportunities, innovation or R&D. A host of companies including Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard and Campbell Soup have cut research budgets and layed off employees, but managed to somehow scrape together enough cash to buy back millions in stock. Good news for shareholders, bad news for economic growth and jobs.

We know that civilization is not static; progress implies movement from the present. This is in sharp contrast to what many companies practice today when it comes to their workplace. Too many complacently sit on their duffs, feeling safe knowing they are not exposing themselves to failure. The Achilles heel is they also block their exposure to progress. Where the heck are we going to be in ten years if we don’t seek out new ideas, try new things and make mistakes today? There is a saying that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing wrong. If we are too scared to give something a go, engage in a process of trial and elimination, maybe what we are doing isn’t worth doing so why bother?

Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. If you believe this, you would be forced to question where the corner cutting and risk aversion is taking us. I fear we’re headed to a more dangerous place than what is implied when we relegate a large portion of the population to work environments that do little to inspire or delight. I may be being melodramatic, but suggest there is a hell of a lot more at stake.

In the book “Adapt, Why Success Always Starts with Failure” author Tim Harford talks about the difficulty of pinpointing the catalyst for success or failure in an increasingly complex world, where all things are highly interconnected. He asks why success is not insurance against subsequent failure and concludes that the level of complexity and change we are experiencing today creates new conditions that people and organisations need to adapt to. Adapt or die is the message. Unfortunately, the problems is organisations are so risk adverse they are willing to adopt, adapt or reject based on what others have already done, not a thorough questioning of alternatives and rationale. They do what is safe.

You would need to be living on Mars to not recognise our professional and corporate worlds are in a state of constant flux, what we feel is ok today may not be so tomorrow and this is the crux of the problem. Adapting blindly to practices, habits, cultures and workplaces we see around us without questioning their relevance is a compromise of commitments and beliefs. Of course this implies an organisation and their designers have taken the time to explore what their commitments and beliefs are.

Looking back at the past institutional failures around the world, one might conclude they are the result of this kind of blind adaption. Following others without thinking, whether it made good business or moral sense. As a teenager I did many things my mother didn’t approve of, my rational for doing these like most teenagers was everyone else was doing it. My Mother used to say, just because all of your friends are stupid enough to jump off a cliff does that mean you should too?

Another problem with taking the path most travelled is the loss of differentiation this signals. In his book That Used to Be Us, New York Times columnist Thomas Freedman identifies the dangers of being average in a hyper-connected world where people in other places and smart machines can do above average work.  He goes on to say that what was average ten years ago is below average today; therefore, we need to raise our game just to stay in place. Never mind what it takes to leapfrog the others.

The world is overflowing with products and services that are all pretty much the same, few stand out. We are translators of company vision, brand and culture and this gives us the opportunity to create a manifestation of what is truly different and amazing about a company. I don’t need to tell you, this is easier said than done. We don’t make companies, we translate them and if we are honest taking a mainstream organisation and transform it to something that is unique and compelling can be quite a challenge; particularly if the company doesn’t want to be great, but is happy to be no worse than their competition.

This takes us back to the beginning, workplace designers and all of the others involved in the process of creating place cannot do something wonderful if there is contentment with the status quo or a reluctance to stray from the pack. That takes courage. Robert Wennett had this when he bought a seven story parking garage in Miami Beach Florida. He decided to turn what was run of the mill repositories for cars, rats, beer cans and old Macca’s bags into an amazing place by designing the top two floors of the garage for both cars and functions. Those floors now rent for $15,000 a night as a venue for charity events, wine tastings and weddings.

Bob was prepared to take a risk, he had cajones.

I hope more of us will. There is promising news from the latest quarterly survey of CFOs by Deloittes that indicates many believe now is a good time for Australian companies, beyond those in the resources sector,  to take more risk and invest more. At the same time there is a greater appreciation by senior managers that space is strategic and that smart design can and should contribute to the bottom line.



Heskett, Jim, So We Adapt. What’s the Downside? Harvard Business Review, July 7, 2011

Pascoe, Michael, Have an Iced VoVo, an Investment Boom’s on the Way, The Sydney Morning Herald, April 17, 2011

Rosenberg, Jay, Angry Academics Question Real Reason Behind Cost Cuts, The Sydney Morning Herald, November 23, 2011

Schwartz, Nelson D, As Layoffs Rise. Stock Buybacks Consume Cash, The New York Times, November 21, 2011

Taylor, Bill, Average is Over. What’s Your Extra? Harvard Business Review Blog Network, December 19, 2011


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