As I have mentioned in previous posts, I’m something of a student of the processes that generate innovation. Innovation is one of those curious topics that everyone seems to recognize when they see it, but few know from whence it comes. There is a tendency to attribute heroic narrative to our tales of inspiration, but as Steven Johnson discusses in his book Where Do Good Ideas Come From? most innovations come from a slow accretion of understanding combining with outside ideas. His Ted Talk (video) on this topic is worth the watch.

But just recognizing that innovation requires collaboration isn’t enough. How can you create workspaces that encourage the most innovation?

Open Floor Plans Probably Don’t Generate Innovation

A recent Forbes article suggests that Open Floor Plans may not generate innovation. While the idea of OFP was that it would generate more collaboration (while cutting down on Cubicle-Farm costs) the reality doesn’t seem to live up to the hype. While this may seem counter-intuitive on the face of it, it is important to remember that a lot of the research around collaboration and innovation suggests that it isn’t collaboration during the grunt-work phase of projects that really inspires novel solutions, but rather during meetings when workers are free to mull over the various insights they’ve been developing through their work. Also, some people need more privacy than others and others find the open plan too distracting to be as effective. The optimal work environment for innovation probably would have some mix of private and shared workspaces. Sometimes people need to get “heads down” into their work to make discoveries that will become key to later collaboration.

Highly Configurable Spaces Promote Creativity

Back in the late 90s I worked for a Telco that was developing a new office space. One of the most delightful features was that every conference room had at least one full-wall that was surfaced to use dry-erase markers. Even in work environments that are using tools like Slack and Zoom to share and work together, sometimes gathering around a literal drawing board can be a way to quickly find testable solutions.

In the 1950s through the 1970s, MIT was creating Hacker culture in the “lets hack together a solution” meaning of the word. As described by Steven Levy in his book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, this crucible of innovation was built around the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) and the members' access to early IBM and DEC computers. The access to their equipment, combined with their learning the capabilities of the systems created a culture where they liked to compete to discover more elegant and efficient solutions to problems. The limits of their tools pushed them to discover clever “hacks” to get around those limits. They also worked closely enough together that they could collaborate and build off of the work of their fellow students. Yet they also had the opportunity to work alone with intense concentration. They were students, mostly not employed, and could work whatever schedules they needed to reach their specific goals.

Where was MIT’s TMRC located? In the now-famous Building 20. Building 20 was a squat wooden structure that had been created as a temporary space during WWII. Over the life of the building (it was demolished in 1998) it housed an astonishing array of innovative researchers from a variety of disciplines. The decrepit looking building was a hothouse of interdisciplinary investigators. When it came time to clear the building space for a new permanent structure, a sort of funeral was held and previous tenants from decades past came to celebrate the memory of their time in the workspace. Linguists, electrical engineers, computer scientists, physicists, and anthropologists all worked and made profound discoveries within its timber walls.

You might think that any old building on MIT campus would receive such veneration, but there were counter-intuitive reasons why many feel that Building 20 was especially conducive to innovation. Because it was old and considered “temporary” there were no strong proscriptions against re-configuring the space. As one former occupant remarked, if you needed to run a cable from one workspace to another you just punched a hole in the wall with a screwdriver and ran the cable through. Its plywood walls could be easily knocked down and moved to create larger or smaller work areas. It must have felt more like a garage workbench than an expensive bit of University-owned real estate, which gave liberty to the creatively inclined. Building 20 was exemplary of what Stuart Brand has called a “Low Road” building, a type that has many virtues for the creative.

The lessons of Building 20 have been carried forward into many innovative companies. For example, look at how Google is using extremely similar lessons for one of its internal workspaces.

I would be remiss in my duty to beat the drum of innovation if I didn’t also point out that a key value of the hodgepodge of disciplines working in Building 20 is that it meant people would likely be exposed to discovery and concepts outside their own area of expertise, and to be given an opportunity to articulate their own expertise to people outside their discipline. This kind of intellectual ecosystem is potentially priceless but difficult to quantify.

But that’s a discussion for another day.

The Break Room as Incubator

When the dot-Com crash hit in the early 2000s there was a lot of finger-pointing at the excesses of workspace frivolity. I’m sure it was easy for investors to look at the photos of Aeron Chairs, Foosball Tables and other accoutrements and think that these were the cause of the crash. But burn-rates aside, if you’re looking to foster Innovation in your workspace you need to create spaces where people can relax, and let their ideas percolate while at the same time allow them to interact with co-workers. As Steven Johnson pointed out in his TED talk, at least one place where this happens is in meetings. The majority of the attendees’ cognition will be focused on work issues, but they will likely have bandwidth to consider creative solutions for any problems discussed. Don’t underestimate the power of the coffee or lunch break.

There is so much we don’t know about how innovation happens, but we do know that articulating your problems and challenges to collaborators not only helps you define the parameters of the problem, it also engages the combined cognitive power of all the collaborators. The break room is a place where sudden and profound insights might strike. Does your break-room have a dry-erase board? Does it have a place where people can relax and unwind from the tensions of their respective work? Does it have sufficient separation from the workspace so that your cognitive workers can let their minds iterate on the days challenges in the background for a bit?

If you doubt the power of break-space (or meal-space) for prompting Innovation, consider how many companies are formed over napkin-based business plans? Make your break areas places where people can think (and relax a bit) and you’ll increase your chances of prompting Innovation.

Conclusions

Not every company has the power (either economically or within their rental agreement) to create workspaces that are ideal for Innovation. But consider these facets and see if you can maximize their potential in what space you have to work with.

  • Tools to share ideas (whiteboard, collaborative software, notepads, and writing utensils)
  • Spaces for collaboration (a workspace that lets people interact with collaborators)
  • Spaces for privacy (provide places for quiet, focused effort)
  • Spaces that are highly configurable (furniture that rolls and movable partitioning)
  • Spaces to relax (break areas that foster further collaboration)

As I hinted above, there is another aspect to collaboration that really seems vital to big innovation. I’ll write about it more soon, but building workspaces to encourage innovation is a bit like trying to lure butterflies. You might get them intermittently, but planting flowers increases your chances tremendously.