Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Space matters

Our workspace effects our thoughts, attitudes and behavior.  They also effect how we take in and process information.  They may even play a role in how globally competitive we are.

A couple of summer’s ago my family sat in the choir stalls at Westminster Abbey - the 500-year-old English church in London - and listened to choir voices echo and then fade into the Abbey’s ancient spaces. My normally fidgety son was glued to his seat, in complete awe. The previous summer we stood at the base of Yosemite Falls and felt the spray on our faces. Looking skyward through the on coming drops we collectively we took a deep breath. 

There was something magical about both those experiences. They put us into what I might call the zone, or a state of flow.  In business, being “in the flow” encourages creativity, open communication, effective problem solving, creativity and innovation; qualities some say are needed for the U.S. to compete globally.

Corporate environments also have a dramatic effect on the way we think and behave. John Medina in “Brain Rules,” says our typical office environment discourages higher brain functions. Sitting for hours in confined spaces under unnatural light dulls our mental processes and reduces our tolerance levels, creativity and ability to communicate effectively.  One study suggested employees’ IQ levels decrease after attending a poorly run meeting in cramped, windowless rooms, painted white or grey.

These spaces promote stagnation, not flow.

Instead of "process work", which is increasingly sent offshore, there’s a growing emphasis on "knowledge work”, which depends more on learning, collaboration, initiative and exploration. So, if we value creativity, trust, innovation and open communication, we need to create office spaces that activate higher brain functions that promote these desirable behaviors.   Medina and others offer these suggestions: 

Color: Paint walls the right shade of color to stimulate these behaviors; yellow (confidence and energy), green (relaxation and openness), blue (harmony and creativity). Lighting: Use full spectrum and natural lighting. Break Down Walls: Open up workspaces to allow for movement and discussion.  Truly effective workspaces encourage chance encounters. They invite people to move around, start unexpected conversations and collaborate spontaneously. Open workspaces encourage the sorts of fortunate accidents that lead to new perspectives on vexing problems. Break Spaces: Provide areas that give employees the freedom to work how, when and where they want. Place a few comfortable chairs in unusual spots— in corners of large rooms, hallways, in front of large windows. Knowing that creativity arrives at all hours, these spaces and amenities should be accessible around the clock.  Idea Walls: Have large write-on/wipe-off walls where people can draw, envision new solutions, and communicate in pictures- doing this taps the right (creative) side of our brains. Walking Meetings:  Our brains work far better when we are active than if we are stationary.  Hold more walking meetings.

Workspaces may never feel like Yosemite or an ancient church. But they can and should encourage the behaviors of creativity, collaboration and innovation that are necessary for succeeding in today’s global market.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

26 years ago the Challenger shuttle exploded on takeoff and 9 years ago the Columbia shuttle exploded on landing.  As tragic as they were, what lessons can these accidents teach us that we can apply in business?

According to the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, NASA never fixed the underlying institutional problems that led to the 1986 Challenger tragedy. As a result, many of them played a role in Columbia’s doomed flight in February 2003. “In both cases,” the investigation concluded, “engineers’ intuitions, hunches and concerns were disregarded by top management because of the absence of hard data.” 

To some, this indictment is a call for more measurement tools.  Sam Walton’s famous quote backs up this plea when he once said, “People behave in the areas in which they are measured.” 
Yet, does excessive data-measuring play to our lowest assumptions about people?  Have we become so focused on measuring data and results that we no longer listen to the voices of our people, effectively squelching great ideas or even warnings of catastrophic importance?  Could 9/11 have been prevented if the right people in the federal administration had heeded warnings that Al Qaeda was conducting a dress rehearsal at US airports?

Measuring data—measuring history—is a vital business activity. But it’s hard to imagine a business that doesn’t also need to be able to create new concepts or things. That involves using different thinking skills, valuing different sources of information, and remembering that hunches, intuitions, concerns and creative ideas cannot always be backed up by a spreadsheet.  Innovation, healthy cultures, and competitiveness often are the result of people speaking up and saying what is not popular or tested.  Kennedy’s “we will go to the moon speech” is a great example of a bold, creative vision for the nation’s future.

Richard Florida, in The Flight of the Creative Class, says our over-reliance on data is dampening creativity, and that a nation that is not creative is not competitive.
“Today, the terms of competition revolve around a nation's ability to mobilize, attract, and retain human creative talent,” Florida says. “Every key dimension of international economic leadership, from manufacturing excellence to scientific and technological advancement, will depend on this ability.”

Florida is not alone in his assessment.  Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind, observes a trend toward a more creative mindset.  “We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the information age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capability of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age.”

Data is seductive.  Data is factual.  Having it makes us feel secure.  Intuition, hunches, concerns and creativity, because they represent what is unknown, can be scary and unsettling. But a company who embodies creativity and trust, where management and employees are engaged in a compelling purpose, new products are made, new jobs are created and new global markets are born.
We need to support people who speak up. We need to raise trust levels, heed concerns, consider the unproven and even encourage the outrageous: Because to be competitive we need to be creative.
Measuring data tells us where we are and where we’ve been. Both are important.  But, they don’t tell us where were we can go.
Dean Newlund, president of Mission Facilitators International, Inc., can be reached at www.missionfacilitators.com.