Can an unexpected ending make for a stronger beginning?
One of our clients suspended their important new headquarters project this week. Their reasons for doing it relate to difficulties in the lease negotiations, but also in the background are varied, separate and interlinked considerations of organizational design, change communications, customer relationships, financial terms, economic conditions, cultural evolution and other strategically important factors that my not yet be fully developed.
We had committed a lot of emotional and creative energy to this project and are deeply disappointed that its momentum is now interrupted. However, our anticipation of its restart has us thinking that the learnings from the design process up to now could provide the opportunity for a yet more advanced project.
Our clients are always the catalysts for advancing our own thinking as we design to advance their interests. While a client’s project provides the initiating context for creative innovations, our background and experience from other contexts typically has us starting well ahead of our clients.
In this case, we’d been thinking about behavioral and experiential factors that could reframe the lexicon of the workplace. We’d been looking for the right project to explore how the form of the workplace could influence the dynamics of daily interactions that had been identified as critical components of sustained cultural development.
This client had recently initiated a brand repositioning project that was quite interesting to us. They identified what they considered to be salient behaviors of their employees that differentiated this company and culture from the others in their industry and markets. We speculated on how the design of the workspace could support, nurture and develop those behaviors and shaped a set of guiding principles for the design around that speculation.
Our client had entered the project in an entirely different mind space, but quickly embraced our proposition. For them, this was to be a simple relocation project. With little experience and exposure to the rapidly evolving thinking about the workplace, their assumption was that their new headquarters would be a refresh – same stuff, new place. However, we showed how their brand repositioning, by focusing on differentiating behaviors, meant taking a new approach to the design of the workspace to support the enhancement and development of their culture and the reshaping of their organization and operations.
That move in their thinking was a radical shift on their part, but it was only incremental for us. That is, their move out of a hierarchical, process-focused culture to a collaborative, solutions-oriented culture was very big. Accepting a more open, visually and socially connected workspace was equally big. But for us, the tools of this evolution – smaller workstations with lower partitions, increased and varied collaborative settings, opportunities for more casual social connections – were tools we’d been using and developing over the past decade or more. More interesting to us were the outward manifestations of their culture, and the way that they would be influenced by the design of the places, artifacts and technologies in the spaces in between the programmed components.
So why am I optimistic about their taking a bigger step in a restart? I think that the moves this client was making, perceived by them to be big moves up until now and that took a certain bravery in the risk of the previously unknown, may have become familiar and comfortable to them along the way. Taking a breath to resolve other clutter may have them return to the project with a sense that one step in their evolution may already have been taken, virtually, and they may now be ready for a bolder move.
What might be different? I think that the linkage of design to behaviors necessarily means paying attention to postures, interactions, and movements. Rather than designing for fixed, set, or assigned spaces, we can now engage a dialogue around the design of the places and spaces in between where the real work and evolution of the organization is done. We’d move from the conventions of organization defined by “business” to spaces and artifacts selected and designed for what people in the organization really do, or will come to do.