The Importance of Space for Lean Operational Excellence

When taking methods of innovation leadership into your own place, what considerations do you have on the physical workspace? Does it matter? If so, why? What are the essential pointers, and which aspects are so important that you should not compromise and where can you be flexible? This article aims to show how experts in innovation leadership think about space.

Space matters

Space matters in innovation as it affects and effects outcome, especially when chosen and designed consciously. Physical environment influences how people feel, how they think and interact. All three conditions have a significant impact on the quantity and quality of output in innovation processes.

Innovation leadership has so many factors that influence and affect the quality and quantity of truly creative ideas. Of those, few can be controlled beforehand, while many depend on the wisdom that comes in the moment, as well as perseverance and making the right connection. The factors that can be controlled beforehand need to be raised up to the highest level – the cost of not doing so is simply too great.

There are three elements to consider when selecting an effective space: the location, the stage and the props. A special location gives its inhabitants a sense of identity as innovators while allowing for contact with the outside world. A stage provides the atmosphere and allows to orchestrate the way people interact and collaborate. The right props and tools will ensure the speed and capture of idea generation and development.

Location, location, location

It’s an old quip by realtors that the three most important characteristics to determine a property’s value are the above: location, location, location. As innovation requires openness, serendipity and outside inspiration, your location should not be hidden away or closed off. In fact, your location should bring into play openness, serendipity and outside inspiration. When choosing the location for the THNK home, one of our design principles was to be in a busy area and design the entrance like a shop, gallery or café, thereby triggering the curiosity of passersby. This enhances the chance of a serendipitous encounter. The location became the Westergas in Amsterdam, a thriving area with small creative gaming and media companies surrounded by a public park which hosts jazz bars, cafes, cinemas, and cultural events. Another example is the ABN AMRO Innovation Center in Amsterdam, with a chosen a location that has an open connection to a hallway, which is used by thousands of people every week.

Innovation Centre & Work Spaces, ABN-AMRO

Location gives identity

If a location can create a sense of exclusive coolness, a feeling of radicalness privilege will form within the innovation teams.

When Steve Jobs formed his team to create the Macintosh computer, he put the team in a separate building and raised the pirate flag to make them feel special and different. If a location can create a sense of exclusive coolness, a feeling of radicalness privilege will form within the innovation teams. This will underline and reinforce the fact that everyone is there to think differently.

A name needs to also be carefully considered, as a name can give some of the feel that you want people to have and influence behavior. For example, the THNK building is called the THNK Home, which immediately tells participants that they never have to ask if they can to come to spend the day working here-  it’s their home too. They are always welcome to grab a corner and work freely. Of course, it also means they have to clean up behind themselves – after all, it is their home.

Set the stage

Once you have the location, the next question is how to design the space. To maximize innovation leadership, think of analogies for the design: will it be a theater, a concert hall, a children’s playroom, a beehive or a family home kitchen?

Give special attention to the first thing people encounter when they walk in. If you want people to feel welcome and interact, make sure the first impression is conducive to that. For instance, design the kitchen or bar to be right where the entrance is. A well-designed hospitality area in a central place will make people remember the experience, and as a side benefit will ensure that people meet and have those conversations that can lead to a serendipitous breakthrough.

Creative advertising agency Ogilvy in Capetown,</br> partly inspired by a beehive. The main design criterion for innovation leadership when designing the innovation space is flexibility. If your design allows for change in the set up, you can create different working formats whenever required. The different stages of an innovation process require equally different modes of operation with multiple arrangements of furniture and workspace. Whether you are in a deep discussion, wild brainstorm, crazy prototype mode or have invited dozens of users to come in and give feedback, your ideal layout will be different. If the furniture, writing spaces, even walls can be moved around, you are most likely to get the best out of each situation.

A flexible workspace also says that at its core, there are no fixed positions. Thus your space physically gives you the signal that with any position you take you should at least be willing to consider another version and iteration of an idea. And if this change can be done quickly -just like furniture that can changed in a matter of moments-, many version of different ideas can be tried out in a short time.

For this reason,the THNK Home tables and whiteboards are on wheels, with brakes that can be clicked on and off in a second. Not everyone’s thinking may be as nimble as that, but it is an ever-present reminder that people have brakes, too, and that if you can find the lever, they can be switched on and off as well.

Inside a large space it is good to have niches or zones, where you can separate from the open space and still be part of the group. People like to work in corners: so make corners, and if they’re not there create them with whiteboards or curtains. Curtains have other desirable attributes: theater quality curtains are a good way of absorbing noise between different zones and adding a touch of softness to the general atmosphere.

Floors are not just to be walked on: use the floor as a thing to work with, by sitting on the floor, using it as a chalkboard, a place to tape stuff, etc.

Make yourself uncomfortable

Innovation is not an armchair adventure.

It is often said that innovation leadership should try to get their teams out of their ‘comfort zone.’ Start with the chairs! Comfort is indeed a consideration when it comes to picking the seating furniture. By avoiding comfortable chairs, you create an environment that stimulates agility and brings people to their feet. By using bar stools and high standing tables for work in small teams, people stay more vertical and there is less of a physical block between jumping up and sketching an idea. Innovation is not an armchair adventure. Create writeable walls by painting them with old-school magnetic blackboard paint. Complete that with movable whiteboard panels that allow you to write down ideas or info to enhance the feeling of working anywhere.

The option of working while standing is one of the non-negotiable elements for innovation leadership. During an on-site session at a client’s workspace, we discovered that they had arranged for a local carpenter to build a massive table for everyone to work on. It was indeed an impressive table, large enough to fill almost the entire room, built with beautiful materials and beautifully designed … and yet we had to ask for it to be taken away. The ability to stand and walk and connect is so vital to the process. Innovation doesn’t happen sitting down.

When new groups start there is value in having the space crisp and clean like a blank canvas, but, indeed like a canvas, the space should be able to get messy and still feel good. We need the messy parts of our brain when innovating, so the space should accommodate for said messiness. Much of the art of innovation lies in the non-obvious connections we make; messiness, therefore, is a necessity.

THNK Home, Amsterdam.No one that has ever been to a party doubts that music and light can make or break the atmosphere, and atmosphere determines how people feel, think, and behave. So innovation leadership should not leave this up to chance. Have a light plan: be able to switch off separate zones, dim the lights, close off the windows. It’s all about setting the stage. The default should be lots of light, specifically daylight. Flexibility is key, however, especially considering what kind of atmosphere you want to create, and the number of people you have to accommodate. Likewise, have different playlists of music. Know what the atmosphere you want, and know what you need to change to get it:

  • Easy, intimate, informal: somewhat closed off with curtains or whiteboards, low seats or bench, no tables, circle.
  • Upbeat, quick, prototyping, brainstorming: high standing table (possibly with barstools), and a whiteboard.

A bar in the kitchen makes conversations easy. Change the bar for a family-style kitchen table, and you have a completely different, intimate feel.

Where are the props?

If innovation leadership means creating the conditions in which innovation can flourish, then the tools of innovation need separate attention. The basics are post-its, markers, flip-charts and whiteboards. The main functionality requirements are ease of writing, ease of sharing and ease of moving. Not every pen is created equal. Some pens have the ability to both make thick lines and thin lines depending on how they are held due to the chisel shaped tip. We prefer having separate markers for post-its and whiteboards. You want to make it easy as you can to scribble or draw an idea on a post-it. Having plenty of medium tip filt-pens around makes that easy and they are thick enough to be readable from a small distance. Post-its should be big enough to capture an idea of some complexity. Movability is also key here, in clustering processes ideas and insights that are captured on post-its may move place multiple times and still should be strong enough to stay up there. Innovation leadership benefits to not take the cheap option in this one.

Moving beyond the basics brings us to the Prototype Cart. A movable open storage tray filled with post-its, markers, clay, Lego, pipe cleaners and other relatively random objects will stimulate visual thinking and creativity. You can’t have too much and abundance is certainly the word you want to think of when you are in the actual prototyping stage of your innovation process. Turn all the Lego boxes upside down and create bigger piles made up of cardboard boxes, string, aluminum foil, clay, toilet rolls, textile and anything that happens to be at hand. Abundance frees up hands and mind in this process, giving new ideas the chances to rise just by having this stuff around.

Innovation leadership is a multi-faceted challenge. Most of the time it means dealing with complex ambiguous situations that arise and need to be dealt with in the moment. Preparing the spaces that will encourage innovation is one process where innovation leadership can calmly prepare drawing on best practice to enable the shaping of new ideas. Getting the right location, the perfect stage, and an abundance of props gives us the perfect head start.

By Merel Post, Mark Vernooij & Robert Wolfe

About the authors

Merel Post, Program Management. Building the THNK curriculum to a state of the art program for our future creative leaders is what makes her job as Program Manager tremendously challenging. The interaction between participants, the way our Executive Program keeps on growing and being part of the THNK team, is what inspires Merel daily.

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Mark Vernooij, General manager, THNK. Building Passion for entrepreneurship, education and innovation are what drive Mark. Prior to THNK, he has lead several start-ups in the fields of music and entertainment and online. Next to his entrepreneurial ventures, Mark travelled the globe as innovation and strategy consultant for Accenture and McKinsey.

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Robert has been part of THNK faculty since the beginning of THNK as a leadership coach, storytelling trainer and innovation facilitator. Before he was a management trainer and personal coach in many countries, an improv actor, and he still is a writer of fiction novels for young adults. He specializes in experiential learning and voice dialogue.


THNK‘s mission is twofold: we accelerate the development of creative leaders from across corporate, private, public, and social sectors and from all over the world. Together, we create innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing and inspiring challenges. Dubbed by Stanford University as “the future of higher education”, we stand for creativity, business model innovation, and entrepreneurship for social impact. While a ‘B-school’ professionalizes management and a ‘D-school’ does the same for product design, THNK is a ‘C-school’ that applies creativity for positive change at scale.

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