Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The perfect setting for innovation

I've been thinking for a while about the perfect physical space for innovation. When we work with our clients we often are asked to help design a physical space for the team to work in. This should be a space that is open, colorful, inviting and really different from the regular work environment. The space needs to remind the people working there that when the teams are innovating, they need to be thinking differently than they do when in their day jobs. In a perfect world, there would not be such a separation of thinking, but until everyone is a perfect innovator, we'll have to settle for great thinking spaces.

The spaces we've worked on and in are usually spare space the firm can afford to reconfigure, and are usually the typical Class A space, with bare gray walls and industrial strength carpet. Sometimes the walls have been painted interesting colors or someone has put posters or other graphics up on the wall. Typically the space is fairly open, to allow a lot of movement, with smaller breakout areas for team work. Most of these physical spaces are a good first step, but don't really break out of the usual workspace - gray walls, cubicles, boring industrial feel.

After giving this some thought, I'm going to propose the best arrangement for an innovation space - a kitchen. Think about a kitchen and its properties. A kitchen is a place where you create delicious (hopefully) food from a wide range of ingredients following a methodology (recipes) and experimenting with new additives or flavors. Cooking is a good metaphor for innovation, because many of us follow a recipe to some extent, but we also experiment with different spices, flavorings or cooking styles. Experimentation is important, and having a number of different ingredients at hand is very valuable.

Also, at any party, where do people end up? In the kitchen, standing around, talking about the events of the day. A kitchen, because there's food and drink available, is inviting. People tend to remain there, talking about the issues of the day. From an innovation perspective, that's valuable. A wide range of people mixing together, exchanging ideas is a good building block for innovation. Additionally, kitchens are much less formal than a living room or sitting room, and invite people to interact. The fact that there are few comfy chairs in a kitchen encourages people to mill around. This ensures an exchange of ideas.

A kitchen also has all sorts of appliances, tools and utensils. These are the things that help prepare, mix and bake/broil/fry the food. Likewise, innovators need tools and techniques at hand in order to do their work effectively.

Another reason a kitchen, or some semblance of a kitchen would be an excellent jumping off point for an innovation space is because it would be so different, so unique from the rest of the working environment. A kitchen would be totally unexpected and offer people a very different environment in which to innovate, yet one that is potentially familiar and comfortable.

I can't wait to test this out - I think a kitchen, surrounded by some work areas or breakout areas and white boards, would offer a team a chance to "cook up" (sorry, couldn't resist) a whole range of new ideas. Clearly there needs to be some more traditional working space as well, but a kitchen, stocked not just with cooking utensils but tools for ideation, idea development and prototyping would form a unique site, ready for people to innovate. You could even staff the innovation site with personnel who are innovation coaches would could offer lessons on the methodologies, the tools and the practice of innovation, who could act as "executive chefs".
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:51 AM


Blogger Josh Cox said...

I am currently President of Washington County Rotaract, a relatively new service club for young professionals. We have been around for over a year, but things were stagnant when I took office.

Just this last weekend I gathered fifteen of our most valuable members and we went on a camping retreat. This change of environment, combined with the opportunities for real fellowship, allowed us to be the most productive and innovative we have ever been. In one weekend we redefined and re-focused our club. We have now have plans to actually be the most unique and effective club in our community. The change in environment really was the catalyst for our creativity.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Archizoo said...

There are 3 very interesting observations you make here –
1. Spaces "provided" for innovation activity in organizations are spare, sparse, second-thought spaces
2. The kitchen is a great socializing space
3. You'd cluster other types of spaces around the kitchen

I think that many organizations (and consultants) struggle with this issue, perhaps because the spatial "lexicon" of most organizations is still based on a procedural and hierarchical culture.

The world of work is changing and the change has a building momentum. Most of this change is around the recognition that innovation is inherently social and that work, simply, looks different now. (

Workplace planning has tended to be binary (open vs. closed), entitled (who you are not what you do), and assigned (per person or purpose).

Your musing illustrates what is perhaps the best response – make a social workplace, rich with alternative places, spaces and resources to support different types and phases of work, and let the task flow to where it feels best when it needs to. In other words, the kitchen is not necessarily THE solution, but it certainly ought to be a key part of the solution.


12:40 PM  
Blogger Miranda J said...

Fascinating post. Thanks!

8:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:03 AM  

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