Workplace Design and the Innovation Process
Within the past couple of decades, companies of all size and industry have come to understand the strategic importance and competitive advantage/value of innovation. Whether it has to do with a tangible product, an intangible service, or some sort of process or methodology, the ability to think, create and act innovatively is what often differentiates one company from another and propels it into a leadership position within its market sector. Apple has done it with mobile phones. Tesla has done it with automobiles. JetBlue has done it with airline travel. Google has done it with online search. Uber has done it in personal transportation. And, the list goes on and on.
While many believe the act (or art) of innovation is inherent in a company’s DNA, and can’t really be bought, made, controlled and/or managed, extensive research in this field indicates just the opposite. Researchers have learned that innovation can be achieved on a regular and consistent basis when a certain process, commonly known as the Innovation Process, is supported, followed and adhered to throughout the organization. In fact, this research also indicates that if companies choose not to follow such a process they are more likely to fail when it comes to being innovative.
Over time, companies, consultancies, schools of higher learning, etc. have developed their own version of the Innovation Process but, for the most part, the central core of the process remains the same. Below are the stages of the Innovation Process as defined by MIT Sloan School of Management:
Stage 1: Idea Generation and Mobilization
Stage 2: Advocacy and Screening
Stage 3: Experimentation
Stage 4: Commercialization
Stage 5: Diffusion and Implementation
After reading MIT’s version of the process, and a number of others, what I find most interesting is that from one version to another there is no mention of the workplace or physical environment in which people (employees) work and strive to innovate. While the Innovation Process talks about idea generation, collaboration, testing ideas, challenging one another, etc., there is no discussion about the physical space people reside in where the Innovation Process gets acted upon and implemented by corporate employees. Strange, isn’t it?
It’s strange, because other researchers, those that focus on interior and, more specifically, workplace design, can show that design and the various elements found within an office setting (e.g., climate, lighting, acoustics, colors, furniture, etc.) have a very direct effect on how people work, interact, collaborate and socialize. In my mind, if the physical space in which employees work in is not conducive to facilitate independent thought, planned or spontaneous collaborations, etc., then all of the “process” in the world won’t matter as much, especially when the process in and of itself is reliant on these interactions and collaborations to begin with. While all of this may sound somewhat circuitous, the main point I’m trying to convey is that the Innovation Process should, for all intents and purposes, include some mention of the physical environment and how it is designed.
Knowing the impact workplace design has on employee productivity, well-being, morale and engagement, and how it ties into work flows and business processes, I believe companies would be better served and far more successful in their pursuit of innovation if the design and layout of the workplace was made part of the process, discussion and decisions being made by a company’s senior leadership.