The Architecture of Solitude

The big news this week is that my department has moved to a new building on our campus. If you have read my book GROUP GENIUS, you know that I have quite a bit to say about building architecture and office design (for example, see my post “The building that threw up on itself”). What kinds of offices foster creativity and collaboration? They are offices that support flexible work arrangements and frequent spontaneous reconfigurations, of people, furniture, walls, and cubicles. In innovative organizations, you find a blend of solo work, work in pairs, and collaborative teams. But most of today’s offices are designed to support only one kind of work: solitary work, alone in an office (or a cubicle). In innovative organizations, people are always moving around, bumping unexpectedly into others, and stopping for a few minutes to chat. Offices that support these natural connections have chairs and tables in the hallways or near the stairways, to make such conversations easier.

Space for solitary work
Space for solitary work

But there’s a problem. In a typical organization, everyone wants a private office. A bigger office is even better. And once the architects have finished giving everyone what they want–a nice private office–there’s no room left over for anything else other than halls and stairways to take them from the front door to their office. And that’s exactly what’s happened in my new building. I love my own office, and I’m sure everyone else does, too.

Space for collaboration
Space for collaboration

But there are no spaces to foster collaboration–no nooks in the hallways, no reconfigurable furniture or walls. We have a lounge with the coffee machine and frig, which is nice; and another function room which is very nice (but I wonder if it will be locked and require administrative approval to use?). But these spaces do not support spontaneous conversation and collaboration.

I have often said that university bureaucracies don’t look anything like the most innovative organizations. And when you walk inside most any university office building, you’ll see this right away: when you look down a long corridor and see a row of office doors running down each side. The challenge is: How can we convince everyone–employees, managers, and architects–to change their expectations and see the benefits of a new office design paradigm?

(Note: both photos in this post were taken while I was standing in the same spot, at the head of our new office hallway.)

The Neuroscience of Creativity

I just returned from speaking at a workshop hosted by the National Science Foundation headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. I know everyone loves to bash government bureaucracy, but the NSF is a quality organization and I’m always impressed with everything they do. This workshop was no different, with the title “Art, Creativity, and Learning”. The mission our group of experts faced: to prepare a list of important research questions for the future, and to advise the NSF on what types of research should be funded in the next few years.

The event was organized by Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Institute in San Francisco, and neuroscience research was a constant theme–what does the brain look like when it’s being creative?  Or when it’s listening to music?  Or looking at a painting?  The other constant theme was, when we participate in the arts or in creative pursuits, do we learn things that can make us smarter in general?  For example, everyone seems to believe that playing music makes you better at math.  But, surprisingly, there’s no solid evidence that’s true.  We proposed several research projects that could help us to understand what’s uniquely valuable about the arts.

For me, the high points of the conference were presentations by Ellen WInner of Boston College, perhaps the leading scholar asking questions about the arts, development, and learning; and Dan Levitin, a neuroscientist and author of the best seller This is Your Brain on Music.

I wish I could report some surprising new answers, but our goal was to ask the big unanswered questions, and we did a good job of that: Does participating in the arts give you any increase in general mental ability that transfers to others domains?  If you use dance, music, or painting in math or science class, does it help people learn math or science better?  (This is a common belief that has no solid research support.)  I personally love the arts and I want them to remain in the curriculum.  But, as a scientist, I want to be able to argue for the arts using solid data and research findings, not just wishful thinking.

How Long Will It Take?

I’ve been cleaning out my file cabinets to get ready for an upcoming move to a new building.  Buried in a long-forgotten file folder, I found a 1999 “Innovation Survey” by Price Waterhouse Coopers.  Many readers of my blog already know that just about every consulting firm now publishes an annual innovation survey; the best known are Boston Consulting Group (published in connection with Business Week magazine) and Booz Allen Hamilton (published in their own magazine, Strategy+Business).  The amazing thing about the 1999 PWC report is that it is right on the money.  Remember my blog posting from last week, about Gary Hamel’s “Inventing the Future of Innovation” conference?  Just about every recommendation that we came up with was already in this 1999 report.  Here’s a sampling:

* The critical role of knowledge management in gathering, discussing, and disseminating new ideas from both inside and outside the firm

* Innovation can’t be limited to a separate group, like an R&D lab; it has to be everyone’s responsibility and be built into everyday ways of working

* Diverse teams generate better ideas

* The most critical element of an innovative culture is trust between people that will enable them to share ideas freely

* Survey respondents fall into two management styles: managed (planned, systemic) and open (radical, discontinous initiatives that have no obvious connection with past successes; balancing the consensual and the anarchic).  Of the top 20% of performers in their survey, 75% displayed the open style; of the top 5%, all displayed the open style.

If you’ve read my book GROUP GENIUS, you know that I wasn’t surprised by any of this.  But what is surprising is that this knowledge has been around for so long, for at least ten years, and the majority of companies still aren’t paying attention.  If we all get together in ten more years for another “future of management” conference, it would be pretty depressing if nothing in the corporate world has changed.

Expert consultants to the report included: Mark Brown and Dominic Swords of Henley Management College; Scott Isaksen, Brian Dorval, and Ken Lauer of the Creative Problem Solving Group at Buffalo; Gerard Puccio of the Center for Studies in Creativity; and Chris Dewberry of Birkbeck College.  The report originated in the U.K. and has a distinctly U.K. flavor (or “flavour”?) but the findings are valid in every region.