Systems, Places and Spaces for Innovation

Creative ideas, new insights, and sustained action thrive in a community. As the world adapts to new ways of organizing and distributing our work, it’s worth considering what kind of spaces support this.

I work with organizations seeking to innovate and rarely does the topic of space come up at the start of the conversation. Most of the interest is in tools, techniques, methods and such, mostly because space seems out of people’s control. For many public service organizations, that’s mostly true. They have allocated space and certain requirements and regulations affecting its use that overlaps with things like labour agreements, health and safety regulations, and privacy and security concerns.

But even with these constraints in place, there are ways to shape our spaces to do much more than house people. Physical and social space (including online environments) are among the biggest influence on behaviour and it’s hidden in plain sight.

Focusing on the Wrong Thing

I spent a career studying behaviour change, and it frustrates me when I see so much energy placed on individual factors for change-making. I’m not suggesting these are wrong, but they are weak drivers of change at scales beyond an individual person. Behavioural science is overwhelmingly skewed toward studying individual factors that shape change rather than systems. By systems, I’m referring to things like the design of physical space, policies and procedures, social or cultural norms, or environmental considerations. These are the relationships and connections between things within a set of evolving boundaries (physical, social, cultural etc.).

Instead, we focus on attitudes, beliefs, personality variables, motivation, or knowledge. These all count, but they aren’t part of the story that most drives change in organizations, groups, or communities.

We have an iceberg problem.

Our Modern Iceberg Problem

Unlike real icebergs, the model below isn’t melting; it’s growing in popularity.

Below is a more accurate representation of what actually influences change.

To illustrate, let’s consider human attention. There are books, websites, videos and tools that focus on how we can be better at improving our attention or reducing our distraction levels to perform better. The world of productivity blogging is filled with hot takes and tips on what you can do to improve your focus. It could be habit stacking, box breathing, Pomodoro tools, or mindfulness methods- all focused on individual performance. Yet, we spend little time designing contexts that shape our tools (e.g, social media), our settings (workplaces), environments (urban living) and food. All of these contribute to our attention and are systemic design issues.

The top iceberg continues to mislead us into thinking we can choose how to better our health and performance. Unless we design spaces that support us in making sustainable healthy choices and taking healthful action, we will continue to struggle with motivating people to address a growing and changing threat to planning, strategy, and attention.

Unless we design spaces to encourage the three C’s of creativity, communication, collaboration, we won’t have sustainable innovation. And unless we create psychologically safe spaces by design (that means set up to succeed with the right policies, practices, and supports in place) then it won’t come to be.

Somewhat ironically, even the most individualized strategies for change benefit from tackling systems:

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

James Clear

How do we set ourselves up to be creative and innovative?

Designing for a Healthy Innovation Space

Unlike the image above, a healthy innovation space is not shiny, colour, angular or smooth. A healthy innovation environment is one that has bumps and curves — it’s not always straightforward. Like the image above, it’s a little disjointed and filled with different shapes and spaces to work. While the surface looks homogeneous, it isn’t when you imagine resting something on it. Think of that as work.

Healthy spaces allow people to move, to gather, to have independence and to rest. These spaces allow for collaboration, quiet or focused independent work, and transitions. It’s why so many workplaces get it wrong. They try for an open plan or a closed plan, when what they need is to treat space as a living system filled with diverse arrays of space options. Consider your ideal home or a time you really felt at home somewhere. It probably blended the kind of spaces that fit your preferences and needs for arrangement of furniture, availability of light, avenues to move, space to gather, and privacy. Whatever the mix, you’ll see a diversity of space options within home that hopefully combines space with aesthetics.

It’s what makes us want to be there.

So why wouldn’t we want this in our workspaces?

Places like Foundation House in Toronto have sought to create the kind of spaces that bring people together, support their work and make it attractive, even as more of their tenants spend time in distributed work. They’ve done this by design, not simply by hope. They’ve recognized the need to be intentional about the spaces they inhabit and designed for it using both performance and wellbeing as considerations (among others). Through a series of consultations, design workshops and discussions with the entire community in that space, we were able to envision ways to design the space for the present context and make it healthy and prosperous for the future. It happened because we designed the system, not because we focused on individual behaviour.

As offices become more complicated spaces with fewer people coming back, system design — space, relationships, roles, and connections — will become more important than ever. Motivating people to do things can help, but without a system to support reasons to change, most efforts will fail.

Build better systems by design and you’ll get better outcomes and the effects will sustain over time. Healthy spaces are far more robust than healthy individual actions.

So much is complex, but this is simple.

If you’re looking to identify the leverage you have in your organization and create sustainable performance and change, let’s talk. I can help.

Image Credits: LekoArts on Unsplash

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