Open spaces, open minds

Dec 17 2009 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Give them a choice and most people vote for private offices. Put them in an open plan office and they will hide behind the dividers. Remove the dividers and they will hide behind piles of personal junk. Throw out the junk and they will mysteriously relocate to corridors, water coolers, and nearby parks. Yet for some innovation tasks, being in the same room is the best solution. Why?

Some tasks are inherently solitary. Others are intrinsically collaborative. And there's a lot of cross-over between these extremes. Collaborative work needs moments of introspection. Creative solitude requires feedback, stimulation, and an audience.

As a species, we are not doing this particularly well. Witness the rooms at any major political conference – rows upon rows of seats with a lectern and a stage at the front. People talk at each other. There are no white boards, no reminders, no work groups, no chilling, nothing to break down the barriers of opposing desires or create mutual intelligibility.

Take the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen as an example. It's known as COP15 – in unintended memory of the thousands of police required to throw tear gas at the thousands of protestors who are there to put pressure on the thousands of politicians and their entourages (Brazil, for instance, has over 300 flying over to discuss reducing emissions!).

This giant talking shop has 193 countries arranged in the mother of all circles of death. If each country spoke for just 10 minutes there would be four working days (32 hours) of nothing but taking turns – like the worse conference call in history.

The conference doesn't appear to be delivering results – and the format doesn't help. There is no facilitation of discussion. There isn't even any discussion about facilitation and how best to run the conference – this mega conversation that needs to lead to breakthrough innovation and unparalleled cooperation.

Doesn't it seem a little bit insane to expect breakthroughs while using meeting spaces and meeting dynamics that haven't changed in a couple of hundred years?

Oobeya is the Japanese word for a big open space. Toyota uses the big open room as a way of bringing together large diverse groups to focus on creating innovative improvements to products. The Oobeya is not a replacement for the office. It is not a permanent residence for team members. It is a concept as much as location. It can take place anywhere.

The idea is to speed up the creativity process by having one place without interruptions, distance, phone calls or emails. In the Oobeya, nothing is taboo. It turns the brainstorming ideal into a physical space. It's an idea at the heart of Toyota's success in building innovation into their cars in recent years as a way of overcoming the monotony of continuous improvement.

In the typical company, project teams spend very little time together. They tend to spend that time in poorly designed rooms. Tables divide individuals. Laptops act as electronic barriers. Meeting agendas create little self-contained packages of time and subject matter. Most attendees daydream while waiting for their turn to speak knowing that most of their audience's minds will disappear elsewhere. Apathy and disconnection are the result.

Mother – the advertising agency that runs campaigns for Coca-cola – has its own take on big, open spaces. When the company started, its founders shared a table. As they grew so did the table.

In their new offices, they have created a working space with no internal walls, instead strips of plastic, transparent shelves, or chain link fencing divide meeting spaces. In the center is an enormous, winding table that snakes through the office that gives everyone a place of their own.

Not everything about open spaces has been successful. They are only part of the answer. First, they are specific tools for specific tasks. They work alongside private spaces to make a certain kind of relentless collaboration possible. Second, they require collaborative working skills and attitudes. A closed meeting will still be a closed meeting even in an open room.

A university spent millions on sparkling open-plan office spaces only to find that they conflicted with its academic culture. There have been rows over snooping, noise, and a ban on using telephones. Housing over one hundred people in one room doesn't appear to fit the nature of the work or those doing it.

Environment affects everyone. Constants: ugly working spaces are loathed, beautiful spaces are loved. Half of us have made career decisions based on work place aesthetics. People want big television screens, pets, cappuccino makers, table football, neck massages, and natural air and light.

Some of this is frivolous but much more is about our natural insights into our own creativity. I'm often appalled at the spaces and meeting formats in which people are meant to open their minds, solve problems and inspire progress.

There is a reason that Microsoft has white boards in the corridors and park benches in landscaped gardens. There is logic behind Google and Cisco's efforts to knock down partitions. There is real purpose in Intel creating clusters of armchairs and library style tables.

They know that space influences ability to innovate. They know that a focused carnival is better than death by a thousand agendas.

A dogfood factory in Topeka, Kansas paints different sections of buildings in bright colors to provide natural meeting places for teams to compare ideas, thrash out differences, and innovate to solve problems. In Hollywood, film industry people are using online games, Xbox live and Second Life, as an electronic space to throw ideas around. Creative agencies provide gaming consoles because they know innovation process requires space free from conscious thought.

You need different spaces for different people for different activities. The best working spaces provide choice. Places to stop and chat. Places for inspiration. Hidden places for work without interruption. People need the freedom to leave the office to find our own places in coffee shops and street markets.

Desks are for filling in forms and filing papers – not for creating, thinking, making, learning, or collaborating. If you want a better 2010 then find out how to open spaces and minds.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.