Design for Innovation
 
 

REMEMBER CAPITALISM?

06 July 2016 - TIM HAWK

The United States of America was founded by groups seeking personal freedom. Our entire society is directed toward the rights of individuals and their (your) ability to make decisions is driven by personal choice within legal boundaries. Our economic system (capitalism) supports the actions of each individual. When we earn money, we are able to use that money as we see fit. Well, after we pay our taxes. There is that. But, as a whole, our capitalistic society promotes profits for business owners who directly benefit from their team’s hard work or the demand for their talent or idea. Many of our citizens believe that if you become educated, apply yourself, and have a great idea or talent, you can further your status and achieve a comfortable lifestyle. Riches come to those who control the game, those who “capitalize” on the context, and those who are first to market with a concept, idea, or service. Conversely, as the saying goes, “If you snooze, you lose.”

If you look at our culture in the United States, we place a lot of emphasis on winning. From an early age, we are thrust into an academic setting that is based upon competition. When I was a young boy at South School, I realized pretty quickly that we were in competition with our neighbors and I received positive reinforcement when I did well academically. Others excelled in athletics. Some in music or the arts. Yes, we were rewarded for our work and given a grade relative to the performance of our peers. The life lesson was clear: if one works hard and applies themselves to the work at hand, or if you have a great idea, or if you practice your skills, you would be on your way to success in life. You got an “A.” On the other hand, if you did not apply yourself, or if you could not muster the proper skills, you were destined for failure. We even skipped the letter “E” to give those kids an “F.” Pretty harsh reality. You failed.  A bit dramatic, but the truth nonetheless. This was the way that we told the story in post-world war America. It was a pretty simple equation to solve. Work hard and gain success. Slack off, you fail. Similarly, if you had a great idea and did a quality job, you would attract customers and win the game of life. This was life in the 70’s and 80’s. I took the bait, hook, line, and sinker, and did remarkably well in my professional development during high school and the first few years of my undergraduate degree, since I was able to play by the rules and get my work done well. But, then along came architecture’s upper level curriculum, and I was thrust into a world rife with complexity. During my first quarter at OSU, I found out that I couldn’t fit everything that I needed to do into my day, since I was pushing for a high level of quality on all of my projects, and my grades suffered. Quickly, I learned that the key was to get everything completed to a level that was simply above average and then focus on finding that one thing that needed deeper exploration. When I figured all of that out, my grades began to improve. Time management was critical in architecture school, and I really couldn’t figure out a reason. Why did the professors give us so much work? They had to know that it was relatively impossible to complete all of the work. It seemed like there was a plot to weed us out from the program (which happened in droves). Later, I came to understand that balancing the demands on our time was key to becoming an architect, and they wanted to ensure that those who completed the curriculum knew how to deal with the pressures. Ironically, to this day, time management remains my biggest issue in practice. We always have too much to do in too little time. It is implicit in architectural service, since there is no finite answer to the many problems that we solve for our clients. 

Meanwhile, while I was struggling with time management in architectural school, most of my friends (not all) had less demand on their time and were able to balance life and school pretty well. They gave of their time in service or social organizations, and sharpened their interpersonal skills throughout college while they studied the liberal arts, business, education, or an allied profession. They graduated with a deep understanding of how quality effort can influence their success, but they were never really introduced to the rigorous demands created by compressed time frames. They entered the workplace in the late 1980’s and began to contribute to a work culture based upon the 20th century model, and many of them had instant success. Enter technology and a drive towards globalized economic pressures, around 1990. The game changed. No longer was being a good kid who followed all of the rules enough. Access to the American dream changed and new parameters were introduced which complicated the formula for economic success in the United States. When we consider today’s route to success, playing by the rules to create the highest quality is not always the best way to go to market. Conversely, we find that some folks who skipped right past major steps have been very successful (think Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame). Timing has a lot to do with today’s success, since ideas, products, and service approaches can be quickly observed, translated, and copied. So, businesses need to be quick to get their products to market, and processes need to change to support this demand for speed. Quick decision-making can make the difference between a product or service being successful or a failure, and the workplace needs to be designed to support this fast pace. Gone are the days of linear processes with folks placed in isolation to ensure quality work. Quality work that is done too late doesn’t matter today. Speed wins. Every time. At least for now.

In the future, what will win the game? If the 20th century was about quality, and speed is today’s differentiator, what will guarantee success in the future? The workplace of the future will blend speed with high quality. Imagine an atmosphere which allows employees to collaborate towards innovation AND test these models in real time. Both environments need to be supported and both must be present and inform the other. So, if the old model was driven by quality and our workers sat in isolation, and today’s model is all about open office environments which drive innovation and speed to market, the future will provide both privacy and openness in peaceful co-existence. Architects and interior designers need to address this need, and in order to provide the most effective designs, they need to be involved with decisions beyond the configuration and specification of walls, doors, mechanical systems, and finishes. The architect needs to drive the specifications for technology, computing tools, communication devices, and furniture systems. All of these components collect to make a workplace that is supportive of focus and collaboration. Each worker must be equipped with mobile computing tools and untethered from a dedicated location. Workers need freedom and the ability to make individual choices to suit their work process, and we need to recognize that their needs will shift from collaborative and open to private and secluded, quickly. All of the building systems should have individual controls within each space as well, since the control of lighting, heating and cooling, and sound is often paramount to success. It really comes down to supporting individual choice…that freedom which is at the heart of our representative government. 

Workers with individual choices, arranged to support an organizational mission, are at the heart of American capitalism. When we empower our workers, we enable effective production driven by speed to market. Top quality at warp speed: the new goal of American capitalism.