Written by Marc Bolick
While it is not the final frontier when it comes to collaboration, it’s definitely one of the first considerations when planning a design thinking session. In fact, there are different kinds of “spaces” to prepare and negotiate when people come together to solve tough problems in creative new ways. Workshops or design sprints are not like a hack-a-thon, where the desired outcome is pretty much set. Rather, you want people to be inspired to think and work differently. To achieve that, you need to prepare your overall collaboration spaces in a purposeful way.
The wrong physical space can derail your collaboration efforts, whereas the right space can be a strong priming signal to prepare people for what they are going to experience.
The first thing to do is get away from “the office” – away from the building where participants work, if possible. During breaks, you don’t want people to walk out of the creative space you’ve created and into an environment that knocks them right back into their normal mode of thinking. An offsite space gives the subtle cue that normal workplace hierarchy and ways for working are put on hold, and it encourages people to engage at a different level. Time and again we have seen how an unfamiliar physical space makes it easier to generate and embrace unfamiliar, even wacky ideas.
As a rule of thumb, we aim for a room that has a seating capacity that is double the number of expected participants. Windows and natural light are key; there is science behind why natural light stimulates brain activity in a way that conventional indoor lighting cannot. There is also just the reality that you can stare out of a window and think. The same cannot be said of staring at a fluorescent-lighted wall.
While these are only a few of the considerations, you generally want to look for an inspiring venue, somewhere with ample light, lots of wall space, reconfigurable furniture and, ideally, architecture and design that set the right tone for creative thinking.
Time and again we have seen how an unfamiliar physical space makes it easier to generate and embrace unfamiliar, even wacky ideas.
Once everyone is gathered, it is important to set the mental and emotional framework for people to address a common challenge. Make sure everyone understands what you’re working on. The protocols that govern interactions – what we call “principles for creative collaboration” (hat tip to David Phillips from FasterGlass Consulting) – should be set. That includes things like articulating how disputes will be resolved and how critical decisions will be made.
It’s important to define what success looks like and identify what can get in the way of success. In design thinking, we are asking people to build empathy for a variety of people, and often this can be challenging. Other barriers can include people not contributing their energy, not being “present,” or not being fully frank and honest. Failure to accommodate different types of people – for example, introverts versus extroverts – can also be an obstacle. Set the expectation that quiet thinking time and interactive group time are equally valuable. Written and spoken expressions should also carry equal weight.
Finally, everyone who is essential to the process has to have their head in the game, figuratively and literally. In our workshops, we will encounter a situation where some people decide they’re “too important” to spend as much time on the problem as others, showing up only at points in the agenda when they feel it’s important for others to hear their opinions. These workshop “butterflies” can be hugely disruptive, so try to identify people who like or need to participate only partially. Then, plan to involve them in ways that you control, respecting their needs and ensuring minimal disruptions.
Written and spoken expressions should carry equal weight.
The room is important, but don’t let the existing configuration of furniture dictate the activity. Do anything you can to signal to people that this is not going to be a traditional way of working. People need space to get in close or take a step back, so move the chairs and tables if needed (or better yet, get participants to arrange their spaces themselves).
Set the tables at an angle if they are arranged in a grid. Take the artwork off the wall. Open the curtains. Keep hot food out of the room (especially if it smells really good when it arrives!). In short, do whatever it takes to make your collaboration space amenable to active, small group work.
If it looks a little disorderly, so be it; it’s not so much dressing the space up as it is making it a blank canvas, because at the end, you know it’s going to be full of sticky notes, canvases, and other representations of activity posted all over the walls.
If you are the facilitator, be aware of your own position in the room. Be conscious of your impact standing in front of the room versus in the center of a circle or semicircle of people. Part of your job is also to make participants aware of how the physical space affects the way they collaborate. It’s amazing how that simple awareness helps folks work and engage better.
Also, bear in mind that humans are nesters. We put our stuff down at a chair, and it becomes “our chair,” our little nest. Moving from that spot can feel uncomfortable, but that’s exactly what is necessary for productive team-based work. Again, moving people out of their physical comfort zones shakes things loose so they can move out of their mental comfort zones.
GETTING IT RIGHT
We once had to run a workshop in a space that broke all of these rules. We ended up in a windowless training room in our client’s office building, jammed into a space we would normally use for a workshop with half as many people. The mandatory, two-day training session was scheduled … wait for it … over a weekend! Needless to say, creativity was a struggle for everyone, and we really had to work to get participants fully engaged and in a learning mode.
Compare that to the great collaboration earlier this month with Bacardi USA, where all the different elements of creative space came together perfectly. We spent three days in bright, open venues. The participants committed themselves to the ground rules. At the end of the day, the connection was so strong and positive that they wanted to keep the momentum going over drinks after the scheduled day was done. That’s in part an expression of the company culture, but much of the credit was due to our purposeful efforts to create a space that let the best of that culture and its people shine through.
So much of doing design thinking right relies on careful planning and preparation. Fortunately, in most cases, you can influence all of these elements of a good collaborative space. And if you can get that right, your sessions will be more productive for your team, more enjoyable for participants, and a heck of a lot more rewarding for you as leaders of the design effort.