Saturday, January 31, 2009

Redesigning office space

What are the tricks to using office space effectively? I recently met with the HR Director of a global beverage company. I walked into the drab office building and immediately sensed an oppressive hush. There was a fully stocked bar in the reception which was all locked up. Grey-suited workers tip-toed by muttering quietly to one another. I couldn't tell you why, but I was immediately certain that nobody working there was enjoying themselves.

The HR Director was delightful. We spoke about cost-cutting, about the aggressive performance management they were in the middle of. Most of all we spoke about the depressing, low morale culture of the office. She asked me what could they do to change the look and feel of the office. It got me thinking more broadly about how to use office space. Here are seven issues that I think are important:

1. visual branding: what is on your walls can be used to reinforce the culture. Do you have corporate announcements that sit there curling at the edges? Do you have photos of community office activities? eople move in the direction of their attention. What do you want your workers to be paying attention to? Who is responsible for keeping it fresh and relevant?

2. unintentional signaling: who gets the corner offices? who gets offices at all? where does the most important person sit? where are the meeting rooms? who has to share with who? many many, real estate is everything . it depends on whether signaling strong hierarchy is a 'good thing'. Normally the more open plan the better (for the company, individuals would all like a room of one's own which leads us to...)

3. unplanned encounters: to what extent do you want people to be connecting with one another informally over the course of the day? Normally much more than they are now. This is how people build a sense of attachment, belonging and share ideas. People behave just like animals. They take the most selfish direct route for their needs: food, water, bathroom, mail. Companies who try to cater to what their employees say the want unintentionally create environments where no-one is forced into physical proximity with other people. There are no 'water-cooler' moments. The poor design of our kitchen is one example - it should be the place in the office where you can bump into anyone and chat (people of all levels) but instead people just scurry in and out. Having more places to get tea and coffee actually reduces the social connectedness of the office. Most organizations don't get this.

4. changing it up: we quickly adapt to our environments. much faster than we predict we will. companies spend time putting up notice boards, photo displays etc but if nothing changes, we no longer notice them. It can be important to make continual small changes to the office environment e.g. no-one is in charge of the notice boards where I work and they are neglected. they are a missed opportunity to reinforce the culture and signal what's important and tell people what they should be thinking about
5. dirty laundry: what space is 'private' for employees only and what is 'public' that clients & guests should be able to see. If you want a place for employees to eat / bond / joke with one another, don't put it by the main client reception area.

6. seating mix: who needs to collaborate for the organization to be successful. What type of colleague should sitting within the vicinity (same function as you, same level)? This may be driven by the organizational structure: functional vs industry vs geographic vs customer segment. One argument is that if you organize by function (e.g. junior marketing people report to head of marketing not to their brand product) then should all the marketing people sit together? well it depends. If you sit them together you reduce the transaction costs of them communicating. But they will likely not mix and speak to people from other departments. How important is it for cross-department collaboration?

7. lines of sight: the atmosphere of a place of work changes significantly depending on how many people you can see from where you sit. There are huge differences between open plan and cubicles where you can't see (yet can still hear) one another. I know of HR departments who were given high cubicle walls for privacy yet they were not soundproof so they can't have the confidential conversations they need to do their job. Yet they are now isolated from their colleagues. In local communities / neighborhoods you can predict the amount of crime by the number of lines of sight that people have when walking around. They didn't realise this when building in the 1960s but now it is a key part of planning 'walkable urban' downtown areas.
PS my blog artwork was designed by my sister

Friday, January 30, 2009

Five big ideas from Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers

If you haven't yet read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell you have probably read about it. Gladwell asks the provocative question: "why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential?"

He looks at the lives of outliers from Mozart to Bill Gates, he builds a convincing case for how successful people rise on a tide of advantages, "some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky." There are five powerful ideas in Outliers. If you are too busy to read it because you are becoming a successful outlier, here they are:

1. Skill

The concept: (i) skills strengths and abilities are as much about Emotional Intelligent as IQ (ii) you need lots of people to help you along the way (iii) divergent brainstorming skills are as important as convergent 'smart' skills

Examples: SATs & GMAT are based on convergent skills (e.g. solving a logic problem). Being asked to name 55 uses of a brick is equally hard and requires different skills (but it's harder to test for in a short standardize tests). If you are a lone genius but socially awkward it's very hard to sell ideas and get others on board

Tough questions: how skilled are you in enrolling others in your ideas? how often can you persuade others to help you and join you on your journey (do you have woo)? what can you be doing to develop your right-brained idea generation skills?

Relevant good books: 6 thinking hats - Edward de Bono; Made to stick - Chip Heath

2. Relevance

The concept: the big ideas of today will not be the big ideas of tomorrow. Important to pick long term trends that are emerging.

Examples: The people at the top of New York law firms are often Jewish men who were shut out by the law firms in the 1950s who then started out on their own with a hard work ethic. Rising to the top of a commoditizing, irrelevant industry is hard work and more likely to lead nowhere.

Tough questions: what are the likely long term trends in your industry? what will happen to prices & differentiation? what is getting outsourced to China & India? where are the emerging trends? what problems will people and organizations be looking to solve in ten years? if you are stuck in a disappearing industry, what is your plan to get out?

Relevant books: Blue Ocean Strategy; The World is Flat - Tom Friedman

3. Timing

The concept: when people are fast-tracked for success then huge advantage to have timing on your side. Being born in the right era helps match you to your skills

Examples: Professional hockey and soccer players are much more likely to be born closer to January. They are fast tracked at a young age and that's when a few months of additional growth helps you excel against you peers and picked for the team. That then gives you more experience playing with the A-players which creates a virtuous circle. Also true for what decade / era you are born in: Bill Gates, founders of Sun Microsystem etc were all born within a few years of each other

Tough questions: Where can you be the big fish in the small pond? How can you use that to get preferential experience?

4. Effort

Concept: Persistence, grit & self-efficacy are all necessary in getting ahead. Mastery comes after 10,000 hours of practice. Don't predict geniuses too young. People will only be persistent if they are doing what they love. For it to be meaningful a person must have i) autonomy ii) the task must be sufficiently complex (to enable Flow) iii) connect effort & reward (person gets appropriate timely, honest payoff / feedback from their work)

Examples: Mozart's early compositions were poor. Boris Becker, classical musicians, writers, almost everyone starts to come into their own after ~10,000 hours of practice. Kid's spelling Bee success is predicted by persistence more than verbal reasoning

Tough questions: where do you seek mastery? for what are you on track to get 10,000 hours experience? What needs to change in your life to get more? How much grit do you have in life? Are you really matching your work with your strengths? How well do you praise the efforts of others vs their innate ability?

5. Cultural predisposition

Concept: Parents play a huge role teaching kids to be assertive, questioning authority. As to proverbs we teach our kids to instill behavior. But also our predispositions go back generations (war-mongering for instance is much more genetic than we realize). Hofstede: Power Distance Index (PDI) predicts which junior team are prepared to question their boss.

Examples: incidence of national plane crashes correlate closely with Hofstede's PDI. High PDI means that junior crew is unlikely to question the captain when he makes a mistake. Crew is unlikely to assert itself with air-traffic control even when it is in trouble. Chinese proverbs are much more about hard-work than Western ones

Tough questions: how assertive and questioning are you? how much do you just want to go with the flow? when do you allowed yourself to be steam-rollered rather than standing up for your beliefs? How much do you allow others working for you to question your judgement or decisions?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fishing in Mexico

One of my favorite parables:

An American businessman was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to
catch them.

The Mexican replied only a little while. The American then asked why didn't he stay out longer and catch more fish?

The Mexican said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs. The American then asked, but what do you do with the rest of your time?

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life, senor."

The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually youwould have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your
own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But senor, how long will this all take?" To which the American replied, "15-20 years." But what then, senor?

The American laughed and said that's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.

Millions, senor? Then what? The American said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."