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Do you really need a special space to facilitate innovation?

SARAH.pngThat was a question someone posed to me recently when I was gushing about our Wathaus space here at SAP Waterloo.  Before I answer this, let me explain more about what these SAP apphaus spaces are.

While in Palo Alto I got to witness the move into a building that was redesigned for research and development within SAP, based from iterations of apphaus spaces in SAP.  I further got to talk to the two primary people responsible for the first apphaus space in SAP and the new SAP Palo Alto building redesign, Sanjay Rajagopalan and Philipp Skogstadd (who both just so happen to also have PHDs in Design from Stanford).  They had designed these spaces purposefully based upon the premise that the space you work in really influences how you work and what you work on.  Therefore if SAP wants to pull together some of the best and brightest minds from research and development to work on ground breaking innovations, the space they work in should encourage this activity.  So what were the design considerations for this innovative space? Here are the 5 principles as per Sanjay and Philipp:

  1. Function first. The space was designed with the basic elements that you would expect for any knowledge worker like good Internet connectivity, power supply nearby, and a desk with comfortable chair.  
  2. Flexibility for change.  All furniture that can be put on wheels is, so you can modify spaces without having to call someone for help.  This flexibility has been great for our team in Waterloo as we have changed working configurations multiple times depending on the projects we’re working on.   
  3. Fluidity encourages presence.  People are encouraged to allow others to use their desk space if they are not present, giving priority to those that are.  While in Palo Alto I sat at someone else’s desk who was away on a business trip and the culture of the team sitting with me was not negatively impacted.  They were used to the fluid nature of the space. While sitting with this team I got the opportunity to provide some feedback on a project they were working on, and they were pleased to get some fresh perspectives.
  4. Everyone is equal.  When you look around the space you shouldn’t be able to tell who is a boss or who is an intern.  Innovation comes from diversity and not a select few in ivory towers.
  5. Public by default.  The primary space is public space.  You have to seek out private space like a phone booth or semi-screened-in meeting room if you require it. This public space really forces collaboration.  This principle does not ignore those tasks that may require more quiet surroundings.  For these types of tasks there are designated quiet zones.  I have personally seen improvements in communication and transparency within our team as a direct result of this principle.

Now back to my original question.  Do you really need a special space to facilitate innovation?  Are they really that special?  These spaces were engineered to facilitate innovation and as outlined they were designed in a very methodical way based upon proven research and experience. Anecdotally, look at the next generation workforce coming up from the innovative startup community.  These types of spaces are their norm.  So no, we don’t need a special space.  However, what’s irrational is working the same way we always have and expecting different kinds of innovations as a result (what Einstein would define as insanity).  So yes, if we want to facilitate innovation we need to change the way we work and therefore the space needs to change as well. 

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