I had the privilege of presenting to WORKTECH 2013 in New York, which turned out to be a fascinating introduction to workplace professionals who are truly committed to making a difference to the ways people work together.
I was lucky because my talk was complementary to some of the existing thinking, but also added some value to the ways people were thinking about creativity, innovation and collaboration.
I often think that people use the terms “innovation” and “collaboration” when they don’t know what else to call the kinds of improvement and change organizations are looking to implement.
And while I got a few laughs from the audience when I said this, I also got a few serious looks from people who seemed to be thinking, “Wow, you know, he’s right … and so now I’m listening.”
The audience came up with some good definitions of creativity and innovation. We eventually settled on creativity being the “spark” that starts a new idea, forming critical mass – and innovation being the actual implementation.
Our discussion led to examples like Virgin Galactic’s Spacecraft “White Knight” that floats down from space, needing less fuel and using the principle of gravity and feathers in some innovative ways.
Another example was Australia’s innovative Square Kilometer (SKA) array proposal; it uses 3,000 satellite dishes across nearly half the globe. When pointed at the sky, they transmit as much imaging data every day as we currently have on the internet.
The eventual implementation of the SKA will need some innovative ways of transmitting, storing, and sorting that data for future. After all, if we printed all the data on the internet today, it would form 10 stacks of papers between the Earth and Pluto.
After discussing these exciting examples of innovation, I flashed Peter Drucker’s definition and got lots of nods from my curious listeners:
Innovation: Change that creates a new dimension of performance. The ultimate test of performance it whether it does a better job for a customer
Having agreed on and unambiguous definition, we moved onto why it’s so important to eliminate ambiguity when we talk about creativity, innovation, and collaboration.
So, the next obvious topic for my curious audience was: how do we know when innovation is happening — and better still, how do we know if we’re on track to forming an innovation capability within a workforce?
We started this discussion with one of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes: “I discovered that the best innovation is sometimes the company, the way you organize a company. The whole notion of how you build a company is fascinating.”
And I agree, it’s one thing to create something innovative – a product or service – and it’s quite another to create an enduring innovation capability.
As an academic at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane, Australia, I invented the 12-point Plan for Effective Collaboration, which I’ve used commercially to assess the innovation readiness of more than 100 companies worldwide.
I described how I used the 12-point plan to assemble and implement an innovative project at QUT known as “The Cube.” The Cube was (and still is) my vision for public engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in QUTs new Science and Engineering Centre.
From The Cube’s website: “The Cube is one of the world’s largest digital interactive learning and display spaces dedicated to providing an inspiring, explorative and participatory experience of QUT’s Science and Engineering research. [It] is the heart of QUT’s new $230 million Science and Engineering Center, a new academic work place at the Gardens Point campus and completed December 2012. Part science lab, part digital engagement, the Cube is now the hub of scientific exploration for high school students, the QUT community, and the wider public. Soaring across two stories of the center, the Cube is designed to support interactive displays of research projects using advanced digital technology, including 14 high-definition projectors, over 45 multi-touch screens and sound technology.”
I conceptualized it (the spark one could say) while working at the Museum of Natural History in New York. We implemented it at QUT by starting with each of the 12 points to ensure we were unambiguously assembling the workforce that could deliver on time and on budget. We collaborated with QUT researchers and drawing on knowledge and data from research areas in Science, Engineering, Technology, and Mathematics (STEM).
Today, The Cube enables the public to discover, visualize, and contribute to research projects in-the-works. Environments are replicated at a real-world scale, allowing citizen scientists to experience real project scenarios and explore big questions of the 21st century. It inspires and engages the next generation of thinkers and doers thanks to our extensive outreach to schools – including hands-on and interactive workshops and public programs for high-school students, and QUT undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Talking through this experience led to a discussion of how we use space and workplaces to create innovation – and more importantly – how innovation relates to competitive advantage.
Innovation is fundamentally about people and how they work together. The 12-points address this issue explicitly.
One of the key issues that the 12-points emphasizes is that to be innovative, it’s not practical to have a full workforce of telecommuters. To mitigate the risks of not being innovative, we need face-to-face work, bespoke workspaces, and new work methods. Therefore, the workplace becomes not only where people work, but where people innovate and collaborate.
I’m not saying that the traditional workplace is where we need to go back to; rather, we need to think more clearly about the function of workplaces as vehicles through which we engage with the wider world and deliver on innovative products and services.
The real issue here is that the virtual world – where we work when we’re not in an office – is a complete mess.
We are all so over-connected to each other through so many devices and media that we risk bringing productivity to a grinding halt – unless we get our virtual spaces just as neat, tidy, and well-designed as our offices and workspaces.
In order to truly innovate, we need the collective mind. One of the challenges of innovation, workspace, and workplace is how, when, and where we balance the need for creativity and innovation and how we maintain relationships face-to-face and in the virtual world.
Interestingly, within three of the world’s most valuable companies – Apple, Google and Facebook – employees are not allowed to telecommute, as a general rule.
This emphasizes that the ways people work together to innovate and create competitive advantage needs to be location-based to get measurable results.
By applying an innovation-readiness framework like the 12 points, we can create deliberate and measurable work practices that show where it is appropriate to work in the virtual world, and where and when we need to be in the same workplace at the same time.
The dominance of the virtual world – and the fact that machines have entered the social realm – is going to force us to define, measure, and monitor how people work in physical and virtual workspaces. Social media will force new governance models that require the diminishing of direct supervision, plus the emergence of collaboration and trust over command and control. Finally, the 12 points address better planning, new performance metrics, and the creation of the unambiguous shared-values that are paramount to forming a successful innovation readiness capability.
The whole notion of work will be defined around a collective social intelligence that effectively combines our physical existence, tethered to geography – with a cleaner virtual world, tethered to technology.
Ideas and creativity will then become ubiquitous sparks that fly until a collective workforce is required in fit-for-purpose, socio-technical workplaces.
In this near-future world, socio-technical workplaces will enable people to embrace innovation.