In business, innovation has turned into an obsession. This is hardly surprising – the world keeps evolving, producing new products and new market players and no-one can feel safe. Everything has been turned upside down by cutting-edge companies set up within the past two decades: Netflix (1997), Google (1998), LinkedIn (2002), Facebook (2004), Spotify (2006), Airbnb (2008), Uber (2009), Snapchat (2011) and Tinder (2012). BlackBerry replaced Nokia only to give way to Apple smartphones, while Apple may be replaced by another brand yet to emerge.
Inspired by Google, Amazon, IDEO and Tesla, the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are always looking for ways to quickly establish an innovation-focused culture within their organisations. However, they often fail to recognize the working environment as a key factor. During my work with Cisco, Dolby, Nokia and multiple start-ups I had the opportunity to examine the key characteristics of innovative space.
The era of the solitary genius has passed. Most problems faced by innovators are now too complex to be handled by a single individual. Interdisciplinary knowledge, often supplied by a team of specialists, is required to come up with workable solutions. Employees need to be able to interact in a friendly, inspirational environment. The workplace must facilitate the sharing of ideas among individuals from a variety of specialisms and create opportunities for ‘positive collisions’ and ‘constructive overhearing’.
Google’s brightly coloured office spaces are designed to encourage informality and a relaxed atmosphere that downplays office hierarchy. All Google workers have the right to come forward with their own ideas and to criticize those of others. No individual offices, no suits, no ties – all this encourages a sense of equality. What matters is the idea, not the person who came up with the idea.
Work with concentration
‘Innovation means collaboration’ is a familiar mantra at conferences. However, innovative businesses add another very important element: work with concentration. Silent rooms and sound-proof telephone booths alongside rooms for informal meetings and brainstorming are now essential features of modern offices.
Embracing change is fundamental to innovation. Change-oriented firms often rotate their teams and their tasks every few weeks or months. In companies such as IDEO, the physical space also undergoes modification at regular intervals. All the company’s furniture is on wheels and its employees can use large foam cubes to construct walls or seats. Giving employees the power to rejuvenate their workspaces generates creativity and innovation.
It may be difficult for some corporations to incorporate all these elements, but two changes can be introduced even in the most conservative of workplaces.
The easiest way to spur on innovations in an organisation is by revamping and de-formalising workspaces. Providing surfaces for stick-on notes and discussing issues standing up are excellent ways to abandon traditional corporate routines and quickly construct a world of projects (your ideas and those of your colleagues surround you on walls and boards). Imagination and visual memory are much better than aural memory – it is easier to remember discussion topics when you see them on notes on the wall. And it is easier to communicate in such an environment. Because proposals and ideas are displayed, there is one common objective and little risk of conflict or misunderstanding.
Another way to foster innovation and ideas is to create social areas. For instance, if coffee machines are located in multiple places, the chances of meeting people from other departments are slim. However, by designating one room for coffee breaks, everyone will congregate there and the creative communication that engenders innovation will flourish.
Maciej Markowski, Partner, Head of Workplace Strategy CEE, Global Occupier Services and Strategic Consulting, Cushman & Wakefield