The Importance of People and Places

Evidence from new disciplines like complexity theory tells us that the physical proximity of people, and their everyday interactions, are big drivers of innovation, yet we all too often rely on technology platforms as innovation incubators. Doug Collins, whose day job is advising clients on how to create and build online innovation communities, gets physical.

If you believe that people who live and work in vibrant communities form and incubate the most compelling ideas, then consider the physical environment in which the members of your organization spend their time. This dimension influences the extent to which the organization fosters innovation over the long run.

Here’s an analogy. My work takes me to the new frontier towns that sprouted across the U.S. a couple years ago. Located forty minutes by car from the city center, they combine suburban office parks with lifestyle shopping centers and condominiums, all set on a landscaped green.

One town, or “towne centre” as it has been named, comes to mind. Driving in here I sense that the builders dropped their hammers and ran for high ground as the last, rogue wave of financial crisis crested over them.  I have renamed the place Ersatz Village. It contains all the structures that modern civilization seem to need, but possesses none of the energy of an authentic community with living, breathing human beings engaging with one another at many levels through the day.

Ersatz Village comes to mind when I consult with people who help their organizations achieve greater levels of innovation. Our dialogue often starts by exploring near-term measures of innovation effectiveness: Who contributes ideas? Who does not? Do the ideas help the organization overcome its challenges? Are they transformative in nature? Does the funnel that defines idea stages make sense?

Our own experience tells us, however, that when we go down this path without also taking into account the physical environment in which people work, we neglect an important aspect of any innovation initiative. Are we attempting to foster innovation in a dynamic work environment or in the workplace equivalent of an Ersatz Village?

Innovation leaders express surprise when I raise this issue with them. They wonder if their charter extends to the seemingly unrelated worlds of workplace design and facilities management. As an experiment, step out of your office for a moment. Walk the halls. Walk the floors. Where do you experience the most energy? Where do people congregate when they are not directly engaged in the work at hand? What do you see? Do you find yourself in the midst of an Ersatz Village, with each function physically compartmentalized by department, seniority, and rank? Or, do you find yourself in the workplace equivalent of Manhattan’s West Village, pre-gentrification?

Two writers, in particular, have shaped my thinking on how the organization’s physical space fundamentally influences the potential for innovation: Jane Jacobs, who wrote, The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Stewart Brand, who wrote, How Buildings Learn. Brand explores why and how certain buildings seem to lend themselves to reuse and reinvention over time. Jacobs explores why and how some city neighborhoods persist in remaining vital and inhabited, relative to the “great blight of dullness” that afflicts areas that have undergone urban renewal or other forms of rational planning. Innovation leaders can gain compelling ideas from both.

Brand offers perspective on the value of impermanence—that is, people can more productively explore their creativity when they can, by extension, readily modify their physical surroundings to accommodate their ideas. He offers by way of one example MIT’s Building 20 which the university constructed of wood during World War II to house the team developing radar. As the building was not meant to last beyond the project, nobody objected to its continual, ad hoc modifications over the ensuing 50 years, allowing a who’s who of now famous researchers to pursue their enquiries without the usual amount of administrative interference. The physical attributes of place served as a de facto invitation or prohibition to collaborate and, through collaboration, innovate.

It’s interesting to ask innovation leaders what would happen if they chose to pursue a policy of conscious, structural impermanence within their organizations by tearing down walls and reconfiguring work spaces on the fly to accommodate their initiatives.

Who would object? What price are the sponsors willing to pay in order to accommodate the team’s need to explore new and evolving workplace environments to find one that fosters the level of innovation everyone claims to want the group to achieve? If I had a hammer, I would hammer in the morning, too, long before the facilities supervisor arrived in order to see what sort of change I could create by altering the physical attributes of the environment. To what extent do the people in your organization associate your initiative with the smell of sawdust and spackling compound?

In her classic, Jacobs argues for the need for dense diversity, or for having a large number people pursuing diverse aims yet united in their commitment to a physical, geographical place. Diversity comes from different people entering and leaving the neighborhood for work, for school, for leisure, and for residences. Diversity comes from some people, such as keepers of street-level shops and the neighborhood religious leaders, serving as the nexus of information important to the community as a whole.

Look at your organization’s space from Jacobs’ perspective. Do the accountants sit with the accountants throughout the day, but not the engineers? When and how often do people engage with the people your organization serves? Do you see large swaths of dead space—places ostensibly designed for people to gather but that remain empty? Does your organization have the workplace equivalent of the corner bodega? If so, where is it? Why does it exist there? What information gets traded?

If I were leading an innovation initiative within my organization I would pursue a side project of working through How Buildings Learn with my facilities manager in an attempt to co-opt them to my cause. Make them part of your core team, especially if you need someone on board who is handy with a hammer and screwdriver. Spend time inventing and reinventing your space with them.

Overall, be willing to disrupt the work space if you suspect it needs disrupting in order to foster greater levels of innovation. You face your share of obstacles and objections, of course. Some come in reaction to perceived threats to the current power structure, masked as concerns for safety, ergonomics, and various other forms of corporate policy. Press forward, anyway. Observe what happens Monday after your group assembles a yurt for their collaboration space on the front lawn of the corporate campus over the weekend. At a minimum you gain a better understanding of the degree to which the organization commits to exploring the transformations that authentic approaches to innovation bring.

As a virtual complement to physical space, social media represents a powerful force that increasingly influences how we engage and how we innovate with one another. Yet, collaborative innovation, as enabled by social media, cannot on its own trump dull workplaces that fail to support innovation. Successful innovation initiatives have at least as much to do with enabling ideas to flourish in the physical world as they do in the virtual one. As the leader of your organization’s innovation initiative, you should feel as comfortable grabbing a hammer as you do grabbing a laptop.

In summary, begin your own enquiry on this front by assuming the role of cultural anthropologist. Walk your organization’s neighborhood. Ask yourself where, by location, the most compelling ideas originate today. Make the physical environment part of your charter. Make building new, temporary structures and tearing them down part of the process by which you help your organization achieve leadership in innovation. Lastly, per Jacobs, think about how to chip away at the “great blight of dullness” that exists in the organization’s neighborhoods: the places where the inhabitants have no place where they can think quietly and where they work by internally driven notions of convenience and governance, not by the externally driven influences of how the organization delivers value.

The following figure depicts some of the insights Brand and Jacobs can offer on this subject.

Figure 1: food for thought for the innovation manager from the Stewart Brand and Jane Jacobs.

By Doug Collins

About the Author:

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He has served in a variety of roles in helping organizations navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by creating forums, venues, and approaches where the group can convene to explore the critical question. He today works at Spigit, Inc., where he consults with Fortune 1000 clients on realizing their vision for achieving leadership in innovation by applying social media and ideation markets in blended virtual and in-person communities.

Previously, Doug formed and led a variety of front end initiatives, including executive advisory programs for industry influencers, early adopter programs for lead users, corporate strategic planning, and structured explorations of new market and product opportunities. Before joining Spigit, Doug worked at Harris Corporation and at Structural Dynamics Research Corporation which is now part of Siemens Corporation.
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  • Janelle

    Check out this Video Case Study series that details success stories from the front lines of innovation at companies such as GE, Adobe, Bosch, and more.

  • haydn

    Hi Janelle – wouldn’t you want to comment on this great article? We don’t mind you asking people to look at your material but let’s do that in a post.

  • Michael Moon

    You make a good case that “space” counts and, that all to often, corporations do not plan the space as an innovation-inducer. Rather, convenience of foot traffic and cost constraint all too drive the design and overall intent of working spaces.

    However, we have found two other factors that equal or surpass the importance of physical space: 1) Innovator’s mindset of corporate leaders; 2) Outright dismissal or disparagement of personal imagination (private space).

    On the first factor, most companies do not want, will not put incentives and rewards in place, or know how to accommodate “innovation” — where innovation represents a new way of doing something or getting something done that adds distinctive value to paying customers. Most senior executives find innovation messy, disruptive, and a personal affront to their power, self-concept, and presupposed role as a leader. Hence, innovation gets relegated to a well-guarded sandbox of innovators in R&D or external groups.

    An entire bookshelf of books examines this top-down issue of innovation-phobia, the need to innovate, and organizational designs for greater performance. Blah-blah. Expect no more here.

    On the second factor, authentic and sustainable innovation arises first in the imagination of a single individual who has developed often secret ways of stoking the fire of imagined and realized benefit of customers. While external space and configurations can influence one’s imagination, as various places have affected me in the past, I cannot overstate the importance for forced and intentional “ignoring” of the physical and the mono-maniacal focus on what shall be / must be / already exists in my experience.

    Remember when stupid journalists accused Steve Jobs of creating a “reality distortion field?” Quite the contrary, these sideline bleacher bums could not wrap their puny minds or imaginations around the “world-creating vortex of creation” of Jobs.

    In conclusion, it’s nice to have a “pro-innovation” space and supportive execs. I might argue that these “niceties” induce sleepiness and self-doubt. Rather, I will double down on the fierce and unbending intent of true innovators — who use crappy circumstance to drive their focus deeper into the vortex.

  • Doug Collins

    In 2000, at the height of the dotcom era in the U.S., established companies started to fear losing their talent—particularly their young talent—to the internet start-up starting up in the exposed brick warehouse loft down the street.

    One company in my neck of the woods decided to take matters in hand to staunch the flow of people heading for the exits. They studied the perceived advantages and disadvantages of the start-up lifestyle relative to their workplace. After a period of reflection and internal debate, they introduced… the foosball table, making room for it in their corporate offices.

    Later that week the local paper carried a story describing the transformation going on within one of our long-time, marquee companies. A picture of a couple youngish employees, dutifully manipulating the foosball grips, accompanied the article. The foosball table here represents in some iconic way the workplace equivalent of Jacobs’ loathed housing project: ostensibly good intent marred by a profound lack of understanding of why things work in certain ways.

    I agree that we can choose to embrace the cosmetic trappings of an idea and not its essence. My hope was that this piece would fit comfortably within the world of common sense: that is, allow your enquiry to fill the dimensions of your charter.

  • haydn

    It’s interesting you say “authentic and sustainable innovation arises first in the imagination of a single individual who has developed often secret ways of stoking the fire of imagined and realized benefit of customers.”

    We’ve been hearing a lot lately about innovation is not at all about the individual, how it is always emergent and a property of systems. Yours is a more refreshing viewpoint. I think we are still scared of creativity in business and so we have this entity out there called a creative agency, and we have creative disciplines. I like the idea of the design thinking community that ultimately there is an innovation lifestyle, a way to look at things differently and to be always a part of the change.

  • BrianSJ

    Don’t forget ‘Soft City’ by Jonathan Raban, still in print from 1974. He stressed the difference between planned and evolved places. It could be considered a complement to How Buildings Learn.
    Charlie Grantham and Jim Ware have a good take on the use of floorspace in ‘Corporate Agility’. We really need to know what we are doing with our square feet.

  • Jritter

    Part of it too is how you decorate and the energy that you bring to your work space.  As someone who constantly has people in thier office to “hang” or talk about inspiration I am convinced of this.  I could be talking on the phone or working at my computer and people will just come into my office to look at the magazines I have or just to escape thier stuffy area.  Most of the time if someone is in my office they are looking for inspiration…and i will always provide it

  • Anonymous

    I think you are right – the companies that still make use of cubes don’t
    serve people’s commitment – I think the company Morgan Lovell in London has
    now made a business out of designing inspirational interiors.