As we gathered around the dinner table, my son asked me why we never eat in front of the TV anymore. I responded, “Because we live in Pittsburgh now,” implying a cause-effect relationship that at 7 years old, he accepted. While the relationship between our move from Arizona and our new family dinner habit might be a stretch, the impact that changing one’s environment can have on behavior is real. Our environments don’t directly cause behavior, but they can encourage (or discourage) actions that, in turn, enable (or hinder) desired outcomes. There is significant power in a design approach that tracks backwards from a desired outcome: to the culture that delivers the outcome, and to the environments that will support the culture.

Identify the Desired Outcome

When someone comes to me with an “architectural problem,” it’s usually described in terms of spatial or functional needs. Medtronic asked for a “café,” Ticketmaster asked for a space plan, and Bank USA asked for a new branch building. If I gave these clients exactly what they had asked for, they would have missed an opportunity for significant impact: to leverage connections between physical space and behavior. What gets built may have top-of-the-line features, be aesthetically appealing, and get published in a design magazine, but still not solve the right problem.

Instead, we should approach the problem by first figuring out what is constraining the organization and what is preventing it from achieving its desired outcomes. What we discover is that physical space is a tangential need, but the underlying need is the ability to attract and retain younger workers, or collaborate between siloed departments, or convey the right brand to a target market. By digging in and discovering the constraint that is preventing the business from achieving its desired outcome, we can more accurately frame the problem and apply the appropriate resources to address it.

Design the Culture

An organization’s culture is made up of behaviors that either support or interfere with achieving desired outcomes. Once we identify a set of ideal behaviors, we can compare them to the existing organizational culture and design an environment that will bring the two into alignment. It may sound easy, but for anyone who has ever managed people, here is the problem: you can’t attack culture directly. It is formed by existing behaviors, mindsets, and the environment. Like Nobel laureate Herb Simon’s scissors metaphor, you can’t operate the tool without the simultaneous movement of both blades. That is, to produce the outcome you’re looking for in your organization, you have to understand the connection between behavior and the environment.

Environment in its Totality

When I refer to the “environment,” I’m including organizational structure, programs and amenities, and the workplace (virtual and physical). The complexity lies in creating designs that respond to the entire context of how the environment motivates (or demotivates) people. This is an enormous challenge in a typical organization where the COO and HR are only tangentially involved in physical space projects, and the budget between physical space and virtual space is split between Facilities and IT long before the problem is even framed. Virtual and physical space are complementary tools, but they are rarely used that way. Virtual and physical workstreams usually follow independent paths in a project, and then come together—usually with some level of disaster—about a week before move-in. To mitigate this, we must first understand the organization’s business process, and then ask whether each step should have a virtual or a physical manifestation to create the desired culture and deliver on that outcome. This, in turn, informs a more robust strategy focused on the total creative environment that will lead to success.

Creative Environments

The Kiva—MAYA’s iconic ideation space—is designed for a specific outcome: to support the culture of our organization and elicit specific types of interactions from our practitioners and our clients. Over the years, we have built Kivas for many of our clients across the country. With the Kiva, we have proven how physical space can provide people with an increased capability to tackle creative problems in a creative manner. We know from iterating on the design of the Kiva that this specific environment—consisting of physical space, accessories, and programs developed to fit it—strengthens creativity and innovation. (How the Kiva “works” is fodder for another blog post!)

MAYA’s Mega-Kiva

Building on the example of the Kiva, we want to explore how physical and virtual spaces can work together to drive an organization’s culture and produce meaningful outcomes. It’s a strategic way of thinking about the role of physical and virtual space, and MAYA—with our designers, engineers, human scientists and strategists—is uniquely poised to take on those challenges.

On the personal note, I will use my new role as Practice Lead of Creative Environments and my family’s move to Pittsburgh to make sure that we eat around the dinner table, that I paint more and read more, and that there is space for both new challenges and creativity. We will hike in Pittsburgh’s amazing parks, enjoy its libraries and museums, and learn to drive in snow. And we will leverage this environmental change to help us grow. I look forward to the challenge of helping business leaders think about the design of a “creative environment” as more than just a physical space.

Ready to take on Halloween in Pittsburgh

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