The Productive Workplace: The Novel and Adaptive Thinking Space

Novel and Adaptive Thinking: proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rule-based

Ask yourself these questions:

  • When was the last time you had a brilliant idea at the place where you work?
  • What precipitated that idea?
  • When was the last time you had a brilliant idea while outside the place where you work (at home, on a walk, cycling, relaxing, in the garden)?
  • Where were you when you had your best idea?

I know for myself that the answers to these questions are significant and point away from the workplace being a great place to think.

We’ve talked before about the changing work activities, particularly in the west, and the skills needed. This is leading to a concentration of jobs that require high-skill and abstract thinking. If it can be done by rote or by rule then it’s likely to be off-shored or automated.

The ability to see situations differently, to create unique solutions, to generate responses that are innovative has always been highly valued, never more so than now.

Brian Mathews, Virginia Tech tells this story:

How can we make the floors cleaner? That’s the question that Proctor & Gamble asked its chemists. Years of working on this problem, however, yielded no improved cleaning solution.

So Proctor & Gamble took a different approach and hired a design firm. Rather than focusing on chemical improvements, the designers watched people clean. Observations uncovered the real problem: mops. People spent more time cleaning their mops than they did cleaning their floors. The mop was an ineffective tool for the task at hand.

This insight led to the development of the Swiffer—a billion-dollar product line for Proctor & Gamble. The lesson learned is that innovation isn’t simply about asking the right questions; it’s also involves framing questions differently. Our approach to problems is affected by the manner in which they are presented. To the chemist, a cleaner floor was a scientific problem, while to the designer it was a human problem.

It’s vital that we are able to shift perspectives when we need to generate different types of results. If our thinking is too narrow then we may miss breakthroughs. How we formulate problems is just as important as how we solve them. In fact, our ability to discover and translate problems may well be the

There’s a joke that a consultant is someone who you pay to tell you what you already knew and charging you for the privilege. While there is a certain truth in the joke, there is also the reality that people can get stuck in standard ways of thinking about things and bringing in an external viewpoint can help frame the question more widely.

Bringing in someone external can only be a temporary fix though, the real challenge is in building cultures and working environments that reduces group-think and encourage adaptive thinking perspectives.

One group of people who have always been measured on their ability to be inventive and to constantly see things through a different framework are the artists.

The traditional home of an artist is a studio.

The Studio of the Future

What are the characteristics of a studio that makes it a place of creativity for an artist?

When I think of an artist studio I imagine somewhere with mystique. I’m not an artist and I’ve never really understood these places of creativity, but I recognise the results that they produce.

There’s a gallery of different studios here, to get you thinking.

As I consider it there are characteristics to the artist studio that might help us to understand how to build workplaces that support novel and adaptive thinking:


Every artist studio I have ever seen has had a very limited amount of fixed equipment. Where they have been fixed it has been because of necessity; the furnace in a glass blowing studio can’t be moved easily.


Light is significant issue for all artists, but not just because of the practical need to see what you are doing. Light has a massive impact on productivity and it’s become universally understood that working in a windowless office is both bad for productivity and bad for creativity.


Most of the studio spaces I can think of have a personal element to them. There is something of the individual artist embedded in the place.


While not universally the case most artist studios are created to enable the most open space. There is often a lot of what you might call white-space.

Tidy and Disorganised

There’s a level of organisation to an artist studio that could be regarded as both tidy and disorganised. Artists don’t operate clean desk policies as a norm. There are often pieces of half-finished work and objects of curiosity in various places, but they are rarely a complete mess.


The control of sound is just as important as the control of light. I talked a good deal about that last time. I haven’t really focussed, yet, on electronic noise that comes from all the gadgetry that we let into our lives, but I will. It’s enough to say, at this point, that concentration requires focus and we gain focus in quiet places. The present and future challenge to quiet spaces is our insistence on taking our gadgetry with us wherever we go.

Each of these characteristics enable artists to build different frameworks by which to see their art in many different perspectives. Contracts that experience to the experience outlined in 1987 by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister who wrote this:

When the office environment is frustrating enough, people look for a place to hide out. They book conference rooms or head for the library or wander off for coffee and just don’t come back. No, they are not meeting for secret romances or plotting political coups; they are hiding out to work. The good news here is that your people really do need to feel accomplishment of work completed. They will go to great extremes to make that happen. When the crunch is on, people will try to find workable space no matter where.

If you peek into a conference room, you may find three people working in silence. If you wander to the cafeteria mid-afternoon, you’re likely to find folks seated, one at a table, with their work spread before them. Some of your workers can’t be found at all. People are hiding out to get some work done. If that rings true to your organisation, it’s an indictment. Saving money on space may be costing you a fortune.

Does that read like it was written by someone sat in your office today?

While I’ve titled the workplace that we want for novel and adaptive thinking The Studio of the Future there is much about it that is ancient. We have always been most creative in certain places and these are places that inspire us. The other element about these spaces is that they make us happy, and that very important for productivity.

Many of these elements apply to what is acknowledged to have been one of the most creative workplaces of all time – Building 20 at MIT.

What was Building 20’s innovation secret? Architectural author Stewart Brand asked former occupants why Building 20 – of all the places at MIT, or in the world – had hatched so many innovations. Here’s what they told him: “Windows that open and shut at the will of the owner!…The ability to personalize your space and shape it to various purposes. If you don’t like a wall, just stick your elbow through it….We feel our space is really ours. We designed it; we run it. The building is full of small microenvironments, each of which is different and each a creative space.”

From The Build Network.

Some extras to help you think:


Learning of an Architect

I’ve worked with and near my friend Steve Richards for many years now and his insight has been helpful on many occasions.

Following a hiatus for a few years Steve has reinvigorated his blog with daily writing.

His recent posts give a lot of insight to the system integration projects and programmes that we’ve both been involved in for many years now.

I’m not going to comment on each post here because I think you should go over to Steve’s site and contribute there.

These are some of my recent favourites:

Spinning Patterns

Because it’s Friday: Spinning Patterns

I remember, as a child, sitting  alongside spinning circles of paper and creating patterns. Sometimes we created with a pen; we tried to be precise, but often ended up with a complete mess. We would also turn the spinner to top speed and splash brightly coloured paint onto the paper and watch it spread out through the centrifugal force being applied to it.

We never managed to create anything quite as mesmerising as this:


The Productive Workplace: The Socially Intelligent Space

Social Intelligence is the second of the future skills that we will need to create working spaces for.

Social intelligence: ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desired interactions.

What has the social interaction between people got to do with work spaces though?

We all recognise spaces that are socially unintelligent, we normally call them words like impersonal and sterile. Organisations have recognised this too. It wasn’t that long ago when on entry to a bank you would be met by a set of dark wood cashier desks with a thick glass barrier. These would form a barrier to anything that went on behind, it would also form a barrier to any social interaction. If you wanted to talk to someone you would have to do it through the glass or make an appointment. At the appointed time you would be shown into a dark wood panelled office and discuss your finances over a desk with a person in a suit with very limited social interaction.

While this type of bank still exists in places the move to internet banking and other demographic changes has enforced a change that has made the typical bank configuration not that dissimilar from a coffee shop. If I do go into a bank, which isn’t very often, I will be met by a person stood by a table with a tablet on it. They will check my appointment and show me to a comfy seat, from there I will be greeted by someone who will show me to a small booth, with more comfy seats, where we will discuss the business of the day. The bank can no longer differentiate itself by the efficiency of the way that it processes my transactions, that’s a given, they have to compete for my attention and if I don’t like the experience I’m not going to give them my attention, my money follows my attention.

There are other places where a similar shift has, to a certain extent, taken place. If I go to see the General Practitioner (Doctor) I sit alongside them rather than across a desk.

The purpose of this shift is to help me to interact socially.

The Breakout Area of the Future

There have been many initiatives and management fads aimed at getting people to interact in their workplaces. We’ve had management by wandering around; stand-up meetings, two pizza meetings, walking meetings, the third place and many more.

Looking at the office in which I work most there is precious little social interaction. We’re primarily IT people so perhaps it’s not surprising, we do have a certain nerdy reputation after all. I’ve worked with most of the people who sit near me long enough to have seen them in different spaces, put us together in a restaurant and we’d interact quite socially. I know because I’ve seen it.

Even the simple step of moving a conversation to a table changes the way that people interact. The intelligence comes from knowing this and using this knowledge to change the context.

It’s interesting that we still call these places Breakout Areas, which suggests that they are the place where we take a break from the important activity that we should be doing. If we remind ourselves that the machines are going to be doing more of what we traditionally regard as work, then we have to start seeing these areas as the place where the real work gets done.

I was recently looking around a university with my daughter and the faculty building where she would be based had far more breakout area than classroom. It was in stark contrast to so many offices that I see.

In many ways we are only just starting to understand the true impact of spaces on our ability to interact socially. There are reasons why people prefer to have meetings in coffee shops, all of those things that we call ambience have an effect: lighting, noise, colour, smell, temperature. It’s not surprising that someone has written an application to create ambient coffee shop noise.

Looking forward this shifts is going to be even further reaching as we become globally connected and see our interactions with the smart machines becoming more sophisticated.

In the global connected business world we spend so much time with words and voices that we overlook all of the other gestures that our minds are processing constantly and mostly subconsciously. A massive amount of business takes place through written communication which strips away much of the social intelligence. Another lump of global business takes place on the phone, which strips away another set of social cues. Where we have people co-located we create office environments that place people at desks interacting with a screen on written communication and talking on the phone.

I could, like many, write a book on the comedy of conference calls and the inhumanity of it. Only today I was on a conference call while one of the contributors was in a noisy vehicle on his way to a funeral. The intelligent organisations are already recognising that there are more socially intelligent ways of working that produce better results. Organisations that look at it from a return-on-investment perspective will fail to invest, that will be a mistake.

Many of the person-to-person interactions that we currently undertake are already ready to be overtaken by person-to-machine interactions. Just a few years ago I would have phoned my insurance company at renewal time, now I go to a web site (or two) and interact with a machine. These interactions require little social intelligence, but the higher the levels of social intelligence the more I feel like I want to do business with this organisation. When there’s little to choose between insurance companies then they have to make want to do business with them in other ways. As I interact with a machine via a screen the dimensions of social intelligence being used are very narrow.

It’s rare that we interact with a machine and don’t recognise it as a machine, because it doesn’t behave in the same way as we expect a person to interact. There’s lots of change coming quite soon though.

For a long time we’ve built spaces that enable us to easily interact with the machines limited ability to interact – we wouldn’t choose a screen and keyboard. As the machines get better as communicating in more human ways we won’t feel the same need to place ourselves in these impersonal working locations, we will demand far more social interaction.

Some videos: