Friday, September 30, 2011

Workplace and Innovation - Some Thoughts

     Fall is upon Vermont in its wondrous glory.  We transition from the outward focused time of summer to the more inward reflective moments we experience with the change of seasons.  Maybe this is why even in adulthood we're still wired to "back to school time".
A Fiery Maple Tree - Crimson Abundance 
     Maybe that's why I so much enjoyed a recent seminar on Innovation, Culture and Workplace issues given by Rich Benoit from Steelcase's Applied Research and Consulting group at Business Interiors, their local dealership in Northern Vermont.
     Rich started the conversation out by asking us about what innovation, an all too common buzzwords in business circles today meant to us.  A participant shared how they thought inventions are things we consumers don't buy while we willingly pay for innovations such as iPads, iPhones, Sony Walkman's from a generation or two ago, IBM personal computer and iMac's.  Similarly the Toyota Prius also comes to mind.  The phenomena of Google and Facebook were also touched on by our group.
     This ice-breaking question led Rich to share findings from Steelcase's research about different innovation types moving from the incremental betterment of an existing product to the reductive, then to the break through to expansive and self-evolving.  The earlier examples our group came up with were mostly in the breakthrough and expansive category.  These products and services all altered how we live, play and work.  In some way they acted as game changers deeply resonating with consumer culture and the marketplace.
     What then is the secret sauce for cultivating work cultures which innovate?  Everyone talks about innovation being critical to business success but how do leaders make it happen?  Surprisingly Rich said effective workplace design done well can help set the stage for work cultures to innovate.  
     First off, as Rich shared with us and as found in the illuminating white paper published by Steelcase last fall "How the Workplace Fosters Innovation", you must  understand the DNA and behavioral tendencies of your organization before proceeding to deeply into workplace design.  Essentially you must know how your work culture ticks and why it works your way rather than another.  This is critical when designing buildings and interior spaces filled with expensive workplace equipment and furniture.  Wishful thinking with miss matched design choices can short circuit best intentions for organizational change and innovation efforts.
     So how and where do you and your organization begin? It's simple.  Seek to understand what kind of innovative organization you are now and identify the culture of innovation you can realistically become over time.  By combining best practices in work process, workplace design and integration of work tools supporting work and the workplace you can build organizational muscle memory expanding capabilities in collaboration, team and individual effectiveness, and enhancing speed of ideas and products to market.
Inspiration in Sky Blue and Yellow
     Rich shared an interesting graphic which is also found in the white paper on page 5.  It shows the spectrum of Models of Innovation ranging from centralized do it from within efforts to off-site to more  decentralized examples relying on outside consultants to provide innovation to the most decentralized of them all, the network model.  Wikipedia is a great example of a service and product being built in a peer enabled user community located in the cloud.  In this model there is very little physical workspace as the service is dispersed across the internet in a virtual community.  
     These models of innovation also sync with the developmental age of the business or organization.  An early stage do it yourself garage innovator may naturally need to transition to differing models of innovation to stay successful as the company matures, takes on more employees, begins to grow into larger more independent workgroup and expanding its facitilies.  As you can imagine matching physical design to ever evolving businesses, their leadership models and work cultures can be very tricky.  I believe successful work cultures try new things, are willing to fail and "fail forward", believing in the quality of their ideas, people and their core business offer.
     Rich then showed a variety of tantilizing images aligning collaborative workspace with these different Innovation Models.  The physical design very clearly depicted the Innovation Model in design of informal, formal meeting spaces, how much openness there was versus closed broken up spaces, how furniture and tables were organized, surface heights, lighting design.  For me it was extremely gratifying to see the translation of the Models of Innovation spectrum into physical form.
     The presentation led me back to re-examining the white paper more closely as I'm working with a variety of work cultures now located on various parts of the Innovation Model Spectrum.  I want to be sure to guide them to workplace and workspace design aligning with where they are today and where they hope to be tomorrow and years to come.  This research I believe will help me help them.  Maybe it will help you too!
     Thanks Rich and the team at Business Interiors, an Office Environments of New England company for this learning opportunity.  The experience satisfied my back to school needs for learning and helped to build greater awareness how I can best help our customers in the coming months.  I say be sure to focus on understanding how they tick and why and then take this learning to work together to shape appropriate high performing work spaces helping their organizations to soar in years to come!


Monday, September 26, 2011

Choosing Office Task Chairs - Aeron by Herman Miller

     As part of what I do from time to time I try out office task chairs. I do so because I used to have an old-fashioned wooden office chair which while swiveled hurt my back while not being adjustable.  I have set off on a quest to try out various task chairs made by some of the more renowned manufacturer's in the country.  As an architect working in workspace design it's important to cultivate a real understanding of what's out there and how the chairs really work.  Good task chairs especially I believe are less about good looks and more about performance, helping us do our work more effectively.
     Ironically the chair I begin with is the iconic Herman Miller Aeron. Bill Stumph designed it.  Click on the link I provided and you can find a video of him telling the story of its design.  It's a compelling and timeless one for those seeking a look into the process of innovation, product development and market adoption.
     The local dealership, Creative Office Pavilion located in downtown Burlington lent me this seat to try out for a couple of weeks.  I've really enjoyed this chair and if you're someone who  spends a great deal of time multi-tasking in front of a computer, phones, desks, drafting tables (for me) this chair may be for you.
      It's innovative and very ergonomic, with a generationally trendsetting webbing called the Pellicle, which provides a firm yet giving, breathable back and seat to sit in. Overall the chair is fairly light weight and easy to adjust.  The yellow block you see in the back ground is the foot rest I use to accommodate my higher work surface and not dangle my legs which strains my back with nothing to rest upon.  I recommend tinkering with this with any seating you're looking at.
     I find the seat controls easy to use and understand to adjust the chair to my body type and liking.  The lumbar support you see transparently behind the seat back webbing between the two rotating arms really, really works for my back.  The wide proportions of upper part of the seatback work well with my broad back and "give" with me as I move side to side.   The armrests rounded shapes are easy on my forearms when doing heavy duty repetitive tasks such as typing.
     Environmentally the chair has Green guard certification, it's 94% recyclable and 66% of the chair's materials are derived from recycled sources.  It's a silver MBDC Cradle to Cradle certified chair. As the Aeron Environmental Summary states, "[The]...Aeron is composed of environmentally safe and healthy materials, is designed for material reuse in a closed-loop system, such as recycling or composting, and is assembled using 100% renewable energy."

For all of these reasons  I recommend this chair.

      Next month I'll write about another chair in my quest to cultivate a clearer, real world understanding of the best of the best of task seating out there.  If you have any Aeron stories or comments I welcome them. Have you had any challenges with the Aeron in your workplace or success stories to share?  Don't hesitate to let us know.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Voices of 9.11 - The Power of Story

Voices of 9.11 (excerpts) from Ruth Sergel on Vimeo.
I visited the New York Times Portraits of Grief, a Day of Reckoning - the 9/11 interactive area sharing stories from people affected by the events of 9/11.  Towards the end there were links to other sites with similar stories to tell.  These short vignettes speak to the universal power of story and of our shared humanity.

The stories chronologically march forward from dawn before the events took place through into the evening in a montage of story at different locations around the northeast.  Yes they are painful at first but somehow in their telling they create a state of gracefulness rather than grief per se.  At the end of the collage of excerpts of stories from that day those who collected them shared the reflection that no matter how apocalyptic the events seemed at the time a shared sentiment by those telling their stories was "life moves on".

Perhaps life moves on yes, but it is important to never forget.  I say channel the emotion which will no doubt well up in your throat towards positive ends. Find someone you love and tell them how much you appreciate them.  Do something kind for someone in need for no reason other than it's the right thing to do.

Together let's move forward recognizing we can't change the events of the past.  However we can channel the stormy emotions we feel toward positive ends rather than focusing on the negatives.  While much has changed due to the events of that day the strength and beauty of our shared humanity powers us forward.  That's all we have isn't it?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Thoughts on Design - It's People and Smiles, Not Stuff

Design is about bringing smiles to people's faces.  It's not about the stuff.  So often we lose ourselves in the details as architects, designers, planners.  Yes, the little things matter, a lot! But for me smiles power my work.

What do I mean?

I ran into someone today who I've been involved in a design project with.  He's a leader of a user group who've I've been working with together with my other team mates.  He was smiling today.  He said "I am really excited about where things are headed for my area. We've finally got things rolling in a good way."

This in turn made me smile.  As you might guess the team I'm working with has been working really hard to facilitate a positive design outcome.  After numerous meetings, seeming breakdowns in design and lots of re-design we'd finally arrived at an approved solution.  I shared this with some of my other collaborators afterward.  They smiled too!

Of course, this means we get to go to the next stage of detailed design and cost estimating.  And yes we'll be making changes.  Some will be hard to make.  We'll have to let go design elements we deem essential.  This doesn't always produce happy results but I do celebrate the positive steps along the way.

And, as I have come know, "sacred cows make the best hamburger".

As many of you may or may not know, designing places and spaces for people isn't super easy. In fact it's a pretty hard thing to do.  The design process is often a very circuitous path where clarity is absent, ambiguity reigns and logic doesn't always apply.

I live for the smiles we can create along this challenging path and at the end when what what we've done together is finally built and ready to be used.  I smile when people move in to their new spaces and start using them.  I smile when I see people collaborating in their new buildings and spaces in new and different ways at work than they've ever done before.

The places and spaces I create in collaboration with others are mere vehicles of our every day lives.  For me if what I help to shape brings smiles and laughter, productivity and focus to others I am grateful to be of assistance.

Like I said at the beginning, it's not about the stuff, the glamour, the glitz of powerful intriguing materials, ego, being "right", being the sole creator of the's about helping people live, work and play more gracefully than before.

And, it's about the smiles we give and receive along the way.  In a way, that's what we really are left with anyway.  The smiles and the memories we make together and the work we do, the satisfaction it brings

So remember, when you get caught up in the details next time in the heat of design, don't forget to smile and be grateful for where you are, who you are working with and how far you've come together.