The innovation imperative

The key to transforming corporate facilities in a post-pandemic world

by Celeste Tell and Lisa Whited — Innovation is one of those topics that if you ask 10 people for the definition, you will get 11 different answers. Often considered to be part of a company’s “secret sauce”, innovation is a systematic way to look at situations, solve problems and address opportunities. One thing we can all agree on is that the most innovative companies in the world routinely outperform the S&P 500 by 228%. (Figure 1). Yet these same companies often default to conventional and standard approaches when it comes to corporate facilities.

Figure 1: The most innovative companies outperform the S&P 500 by 228%.  (Source: Design Management Institute)

Figure 1: The most innovative companies outperform the S&P 500 by 228%.  (Source: Design Management Institute)

Those of us who work in facility management generally do not think of ourselves as particularly creative or innovative, but if 2020 has taught us anything it is that a crisis can galvanize people to accomplish things we never could have imagined. While many organizations had been working for years to establish greater acceptance of flexible, agile and remote working, it took a pandemic to drive large-scale working from home literally overnight.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw a truly innovative corporate office space? Something that forced you to think differently. Something on the order of the first Apple iPhone? Or the first PC? Or a Tesla? Something so fundamentally different that it was a game changer? Innovation is the key to creating lasting, systemic, and sustainable change.

Innovation in retail

Outdoor apparel and equipment retailer REI opened their Seattle Flagship Store in 1996, changing the game of retail from transactional sales to a memorable, immersive user experience for its customers. REI’s store provided hiking and biking trails, climbing walls and other environments – all indoors – for visitors to test equipment. The retail world sat up and took notice. Keep in mind, this was two years after Amazon started selling books online. The retail world was really changing.

Innovation in workplaces

Corporate facilities have historically been late adopters of innovation. Until now. In a post-pandemic world, how we “do” work and place is providing a huge opportunity for innovation. In our post-pandemic world, REI is again leading the way. In August of 2020 REI decided to sell its brand new, never-occupied, visionary, centralized campus in the east side suburbs of Seattle to consider the strategic possibilities embedded in a distributed model. As an innovative company, they saw the opportunity to rethink – and reinvent – what, where, and how they “do” work.

“The dramatic events of 2020 have challenged us to reexamine and rethink every aspect of our business and many of the assumptions of the past. That includes where and how we work,” said REI President and CEO Eric Artz… “As a result, our new experience of ‘headquarters’ will be very different than the one we imagined more than four years ago…[This year] we learned that the more distributed way of working we previously thought untenable will instead unlock incredible potential. This will have immediate, positive impacts on our ability to attract and retain a diverse and highly skilled workforce, as we continue to navigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.” (Source: REI)

Innovation models

There are many models, or levels, of innovation. Is what you are trying to achieve a big, systemic, and comprehensive innovation, such as the creation of Google “Search”? That is Radical Innovation. Is it a new product or service such as the iPhone to target a new or emerging market? That is Strategic Innovation. Or is it a small, but impactful change to an already good product, service or process such as Bluetooth speakers and headphones? That is Incremental Innovation. None of these are better than the others, and each exists in an innovation ecosystem.

Radical innovation

Radical innovation comes from fundamentally new or novel ideas. This is the kind of innovation that results from new opportunities triggered by disruption. For companies seeking to transcend the pandemic, Covid-19 has provided a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-imagine not only their businesses, but also how we do our work, and frankly, whether we need corporate facilities at all. Radical innovation offers the opportunity to step back from a known situation and imagine what could be. In this case, it is an opportunity for FM to play a leadership role in thinking about what role facilities can play in supporting radically new business opportunities.

Strategic innovation

At the strategic level, we might be evaluating portfolio, campus or building-wide strategies, re-thinking how to balance capacity and demand, coming up with new ways to embody culture in a decentralized world, or engaging with new technologies for measuring and managing every aspect of facilities. Strategic innovation can position your team to pivot and shift as the world changes at an ever-faster pace. Planning, designing, piloting and rolling out these new strategies are big tasks that can drive the need to maintain teams – and even add additional staff – while offsetting any reduction in actual square footage.

Incremental innovation

Incremental innovation seeks to improve existing products and services. Small things can yield big results, and innovation can often emerge from these small, incremental improvements that roll up into larger shifts or trends. Since March, many FM teams have been engaged in incremental innovation – seat spacing, plexiglass dividers, surface sanitizing procedures, HVAC system maintenance upgrades, and more. It is not uncommon for incremental innovations to be the small step that acts as a catalyst, driving strategic or radical innovation from the bottom up.

A systematic approach

There are as many methodologies and approaches to innovation as there are theories and models. At AWA we focus on engaging users in participatory, interactive processes. One that we particularly like for innovation is called Systemic Inventive Thinking (SIT).

SIT is an organized, structured approach to idea generation. Rather than coming up with as many random ideas as possible (a traditional brainstorming approach), SIT uses the “Closed World” condition as its most important principle. Closed World simply means that everything you need exists within the problem or product in front of you. To find a solution you reorganize the existing objects or components using different thinking tools. This process has been used by senior level engineers and fourth grade students. It is taught at numerous universities and business schools worldwide, including Columbia, Duke and Wharton. It works, is fun to do, and has led to brilliant ideas ranging from the Sony Walkman to anesthesia devices used in operating rooms around the world.

Define the problem

The first step in using SIT is to define the problem. Once the problem is defined, finding the solution simply requires reorganization of the existing building blocks. There are 5 thinking tools you can use in the SIT process: subtraction, multiplication, division, task unification and attribute dependency. For the purposes of this brief exercise, we will focus on subtraction only. For further explanation of all of the thinking tools, please reference Inside The Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg.

How to use the exercise: You can do this exercise as a group, or you can ask your colleagues to go through the exercise independently and then come together to share the results. It does not take long to do, and participants typically enjoy the process. As stated previously, there is no right “level” of hierarchy or job title to participate in this exercise. All that is needed is an open mind and a willingness to try something new. Everyone, from janitorial and maintenance staff to global VPs of real estate, could be invited to participate. Even better, include colleagues from other departments like IT and HR to build cross departmental connections. Sometimes the most innovative idea comes from the least expected source.

To start: Define the problem and list all the parts of the problem. Share this information with your team and invite them to add any missing parts – they may recognize pieces or components you did not capture. For this example, we will use the process of occupancy planning an office environment for an organization that is planning for hybrid working. 80% of its employees will be in the office 2 to 3 days a week, 10% will be in the office 5 days a week and 10% will never be in the office.

  1. List the product’s or service’s internal components (Figure 2)
  • Workstation/desk
  • Chair
  • Employee headcount
  • Days of the week
  • Time of the day

    Figure 2: The components of the Closed World

    Figure 2: The components of the Closed World

  1. Select an essential component and imagine removing it. There are two ways:
    1. Full Subtraction. The entire component is removed
    2. Partial Subtraction. Take one of the features or functions of the components away or diminish it in some way.

For this example, let’s go with full subtraction and remove the workstation/desk component as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Remove one essential component from the Closed World

Figure 3: Remove one essential component from the Closed World

  1. Visualize the resulting concept (no matter how strange it seems).

We are left with planning an office without workstations/desks.

  1. Ask: What are the potential benefits, markets and values? Who would want this new product or service and why would they find it valuable? If you are trying to solve a particular problem, how can it help address that particular challenge?

We have chairs, heads, days of the week and time of the day, but no workstations. Who would want this type of space? What value would it have to an organization? How could it impact occupancy planning?

We’ll pause this exercise to share a conversation held last week with a client. The CEO of a global media agency was reflecting on how COVID will impact her organization’s work and the workplace in the future. “When COVID turned the world upside down, it also showed us what is possible. The office is a giant convention waiting to be disrupted. From a place to do work to a destination that brings us together for learning, team building, collaboration and engagement. I imagine a place for learning, meeting spaces with collaboration technology, small huddle rooms and far fewer desks.”

A space that is full of people gathering to collaborate, learn, and connect – the type of space that results from subtracting workstations – is exactly with what this CEO wants.

  1. If you decide this new product or service is valuable, then ask, Is it feasible? Can you actually create these new products? Perform these new services? Why or why not? Is there any way to refine or adapt the idea to make it more viable?

Once you have completed the exercise, ask yourself and your team where you can apply these ideas in your own work that might have meaningful impact to your facilities. How can you help your organization perform better, reduce expenses, and contribute to the organizational mission in ways that makes you and your team a key business partner?

Innovation is a systematic process that anyone can use. We look forward to hearing about your innovation projects in 2021. As Thomas Edison said, “The value of an idea lies in using it.”

About the authors

Celeste Tell is a Senior Associate of Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), based in Seattle, Washington. Lisa Whited is a Senior Associate of AWA, based in Portland, Maine, and is a member of IFMA’s Workplace Evolutionaries.

Workplace Evolutionaries’ (WE’s) mission is to “change the world one workplace at a time.” It’s a global community of over a thousand professionals who care deeply about the world of work and where it’s going. Among its members are workplace strategists, change managers, facilities managers, architects, designers, HR professionals, IT managers, academics, and product and service providers. WE members enjoy three conferences a year, monthly WEbinars with thought leaders from around the world, a monthly round-up of the best workplace research and news, white papers, and a vehicle for connecting with fellow evolutionaries around the world. WE is a global Community of Practice within the International Facility Management Association.