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:

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