[This article originally appeared at Harvard Business Review Online]
Most corporate buildings don’t do a good job of supporting collaboration, brainstorming, and innovative work methods. They tend to be dominated by cubicles or offices which are suited for individual work, or by hard-to-book conference rooms that teams can use but only for short periods of time. What’s needed is a more flexible space that better supports teams and inspires more open thinking. These are common at design firms such as frog where I work, but rare in corporate settings.
I recently saw one such space when I was invited to give a talk at Citrix, the Silicon Valley-based maker of GoToMeeting and virtualization and cloud software, as part of their Design Salon speaker series. The talk was held in the company’s recently completed design collaboration space, a large open area where multiple disciplines can come together to innovate. I asked Catherine Courage, VP of Product Design at Citrix, to talk more about how the space came about and how it’s working in practice:
Why did you create the collaboration space?
Citrix is a company with a unique mission: “Create a world where people can work and play from anywhere.” This means enabling remote collaboration and empowering people to work from any location. But it also means supporting the many different work styles of today’s workforce. Citrix is very serious about this mission for our customers as well as for how we work ourselves, so serious that we are adopting design thinking as a company-wide strategic imperative from our CEO, Mark Templeton. Opening the design collaboration space was a big milestone on our design thinking journey. It’s already played a key role in fostering a more collaborative culture that involves less over-the-wall processes, fewer silos, more and earlier collaboration, and better integration of design into the product development process.
We needed to create a shift in behaviors, and realized this would be best achieved by having people live the change, not just being told about it. The space facilitates this.
Describe the space, and what are some of its special features?
Physically, it’s a 2000 sq. ft. open and sunlit space with large windows that frame the beautiful mountain views. Everything in the space is on wheels and is configurable by teams as they need it. They can move tables and whiteboards around to create mini collaboration spaces. There are stacks of markers, Post-Its, and every “quick and dirty” prototype material under the sun…from construction paper to pipe cleaners. On the surface it might look like a child’s paradise…but in fact it’s heaven for designers.
Instead of being closed-off and secretive, it has all glass walls. We want passers-by to see the action happening and to see how we work. There’s total transparency, literally and figuratively! The space cannot be booked like a regular conference room, since having to make reservations kills the spontaneity. Anyone can drop in anytime and create their own working space.
The interior design is quite minimal. The “beauty” of the space comes from the work that happens inside it: sketches, flow charts, Post-Its full of blue-sky ideas, new product concepts from raw idea to real formation. The space was intentionally left not-too-perfect, so people are encouraged to manipulate it, not be precious about it. It’s intended to serve as a canvas for creative thinking. It’s also very flexible and can quickly change from working studio to lecture room.
The design space has been the ultimate tool in driving behavior change. Even the most analytical team members can’t help but sketch their thoughts and ideas on the table whiteboards while they sit and chat. The casualness of the space puts people in the right frame of mind to go outside of their traditional comfort zones and build stronger relationships with teammates. See the space (and design team members) in action as a part of our work better, live better video.
How did the space come about? How was the value proposition or ROI worked out for management approval?
Citrix was eight months into its journey of building a design practice when three General Managers and I returned from Stanford University’s Customer Focused Innovation class. Much of the class was spent in the d.school — a large, open, collaborative design space — and the benefits of this environment were immediately obvious.
Simultaneously, Citrix was creating floor plans for a newly acquired building. I thought, “We need this kind of space, and now is the time when we can actually get it.” It was indeed the right time to ask. Inspired by the design team’s newly released design principles, the Citrix facilities group had coined the new building initiative “Working Better by Design.” In my mind, crafting a custom design space fit perfectly with their mission to transform the existing building, turning it into a new, innovative workplace and conference center. Still, I worried that we might not be able to make it happen.
One Monday morning I went, together with one of our GMs, to chat with the facilities group. I had all the important points collected in my mind, was ready for the arguments and pushback, was expecting the typical corporate “no” to such a unconventional idea, with a dedicated 12x12 conference room for my team as a parting gift. Instead I was delighted to hear, “That sounds like a great idea!”
Our facilities team was fully on board with the idea of building the space, but it was totally different from anything they had done before. It sometimes took some explaining — and visiting similar spaces at other organizations like Stanford, Proctor & Gamble, and Haworth — to make it clear why some “off the wall” requests, such as putting everything on wheels, made sense. The initial reaction of “people will take everything away” changed to an understanding of how the new flexibility would create new ways of collaborating.
Who uses it? Do people use it the way you expected?
When the studio space opened, the design team immediately took to it by forming project pods and using the full range of tools the space provides. Over the course of the past several months, I’ve noticed more and more non-design teams — such as human resources and engineering — using the space to brainstorm. It’s awesome to see these teams use the space and its tools. It’s even more awesome to see their desire to emulate the design “culture” of uninhibited brainstorming, quick stand-up meetings, and collaboration.
Design team members say their favorite moments are when people look at notes and sketches left on the whiteboard, then go to others to discuss them. It creates a real transparency in the work, sparking conversations and cross-pollination — exactly the results we wanted.
Like all good design, iteration is part of the process. We have discovered that we do need a better system for engaging remote participants and better ways for capturing brainstorming and meeting notes in real time, so that others can see them later. This is something we are investigating for our next “release” in 2012.
What has been the reaction to it so far?
People love the space. Other locations want to replicate the same kind of space, and I’m hoping we can make that happen. We get “tour groups” of visitors or Citrix employees from other locations walking by to take a look at it.
There have been some fun unexpected experiences. For example, parents are often seen bringing their kids to see the new space, and they love it. The daughter of one of our product managers stayed in the space while her mom was in a meeting and created a monster/alien dog using clay, sticks, crayons, and bunch of material in the design space. She told her mom when she returned, “I want to work here when I grow up. This is so cool!”
But it has pragmatic benefits, too — in helping us recruit great candidates, for example. Brian Moose, our Creative Director, says, “Seeing the difference a facility makes in the hiring process is phenomenal…Job candidates shift their attitude from ‘win me over’ to ‘how can I win you over?’”
The fact that Citrix was willing to take a leap of faith and invest in what at the time was considered a very unconventional space, demonstrates our company’s fiscal and strategic commitment to design thinking. The new design collaboration space is a great example of how a nontraditional workspace has fostered collaboration, enabled a different kind of communication, and is ultimately improving the quality of the products we produce for our customers.
Photo courtesy of Citrix