Design for Innovation


06 April 2016 - TIM HAWK

“You are my fire, the one desire. Believe when I say ‘I want it that way.’” I Want It That Way (1999), Backstreet Boys, written by Max Martin and Andreas Carlsson.

My oldest son turned 23 this past weekend. Born on April 2, 1993, Sam graduated from high school in 2011. He and his friends grew up during the transition of music from 90’s grunge to full out appreciation of hip hop and rap. In the interim, he and his peers listened to popular music from some of the best 90’s boy bands ever compiled including N Sync, Backstreet Boys, 98 degrees. I have one particular memory from 2008. Sam hosted a pre-homecoming gathering at our house for his high school friends. They decided that they needed music to rock the party and proceeded to find a Backstreet Boys disk in our cd player. Once the music was on, the room lit up with bright nostalgia. The group was completely still and when their song came over the 90’s Bose speakers, they all immediately jumped to their feet and began to belt out the lyrics. It was very memorable and gave me huge insight into what universally motivates this group of individuals.

“But we are two worlds apart. Can’t reach to your heart when you say that I want it that way.” The song, I Want It That Way is a reflective party anthem for these kids. The lyrics speak to a generation torn by the tension that exists between pleasing others and self-indulgence. Interestingly, even the video of the Backstreet Boys displays the tension between individualism and group think. In one scene, all five members of the band are dressed completely in white, evoking the tradition of the boy bands of the 1960’s. Instead of each member wearing the same outfit, each performer wears a white outfit tailored to fit their taste, reputation, or sensibility. One wears a turtle neck, the other a long white coat. Each member is allowed to individualize their wardrobe to meet their own taste, as long as the outfit fits a powerful unifying theme. In this case, they all wear the same shade of white. What a statement! As a group, these millennials completely embrace personal choice. As a group, Millennials expect to be able to customize their experiences within limits, and, above many other things, despise mandates and fixed situations. Deadlines? Fungible. Fashion? Anything goes. Drawing Standards? Adaptable. Recipes? Modified. Rules? Questioned. It’s not surprising since many of these folks were raised by Baby Boomers who rushed in personal choice during their college days. These kids are very accepting of everything in society… except personal restrictions.

It’s no surprise that Millennials demand a customizable experience! Technology is a staple of their lives since it allows them to immediately gain access to their own personal experience. Some are even conscious about NOT using technology in order to meet their individualistic preferences. Some prefer to communicate through social media; others choose traditional methods. Still others prefer to engage through Facetime and Skype. As we have added a larger population of emerging professionals to the workplace, access to individual choice has come front and center. Gone are the days when employees are required to perform their duties using corporate standard solutions. I remember my first job out of undergraduate. What a shock! I was recruited to work at Wandel & Schnell, Architects (Yes, the same firm that I now lead.) and on the first day, I was given an assignment to label plans for a project the firm was designing. Tom Schnell, my lifelong mentor, set me up with the first duty. I was asked to label a site plan for a corporate office complex in Dublin, Ohio. I was determined to use my best lettering since we had spent a few hours each day at OSU learning how to letter, but Tom had a different goal in mind. He asked me to use a lettering device called a “leroy” to make the lettering look more professional. It was this strange device that released ink from a pen while the user scribed letters with an attached stylus on an adjacent rule. It was so complicated that I can’t even describe it. The challenge I had as a left handed person is that the device is strictly for a right handed person. I remember looking at my friend Terri Umbarger, who worked beside me, and asking her what to do. How could I mess up my first assignment? I was worried I would lose my job. What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t use this device and this was the way the firm required all drawings to be labeled. Well, I adapted. I used my right hand and practiced using the leroy. After a bit, I finally made good use of the device to label the buildings, parking, and ponds on the plan (albeit poorly). Ironically, when I turned the assignment in to Tom, he pointed out that I had not rendered the ponds on the plan correctly and he wasn’t able to use the plan for his meeting. What a mess! Anyway, the point is this: in 1986, there were conventions for process in the workplace. As an employee of a corporation, you were expected to perform the work using their tools, their methods, and their devices even if you were ill equipped to use them. My generation learned how to adapt. Fast forward to 2016, exactly thirty years later. I cannot imagine, not even for a minute, requiring one of my architectural team members to use a tool with their weak hand. Yes, we do utilize a set of standard software programs and apply quality conventions in the design of our buildings, but the process that is selected by each architect might be a bit different individually in order to promote quality, innovation, speed, and effectiveness. One’s personal use of technology devices is where this customization begins. Today’s software is seemingly infinitely customizable and every employee has a unique interface protocol. It is very clear. Technology supports our work process and efficiency is driven by personalization. When it comes to the integration of technology into the workplace as a means to drive innovation, it is critical that firms offer a variety of technology interface settings. Some workers may prefer to connect in a private space, one on one. Others need to hold group meetings using video-conferencing. A particular task might best be done collectively around a smart board which can record the proceedings for easy distribution to team members who each receive an assignment for a project. Most importantly, employers need to understand that each form of technology interface is necessary in a pluralistic response to workplace process. Yes, leaders will need to offer the most recent technology choices (like video conferencing), but not at the expense of other means which are equally important. We specify white boards in rooms which integrate today’s latest audio/visual technology. Team members need to be able to write in a traditional sense while they are harnessing video-conference technology to connect to distant team members while they display digital documents and access the internet. All are necessary, and each method needs to be supported because, after all, “I want it that way.”