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How a Work Environment Can Stifle Innovation, and What You Can Do About It

Written by Sean Tang

As today’s organizations strive to become more innovative and collaborative, leaders are realizing they need to change the way their teams work. As companies become successful, they start to optimize and scale what helped them achieve success in the first place. But if optimization becomes fixation, tools can become rigid or outdated, leading to stagnation. The leaders who avoid this slump are those who’ve come to understand that they have to be on the lookout for what’s next and adapt their organizations and work environments to match.

Executing innovative ideas requires a work environment that fits the needs of your most creative teams, from hyper-collaboration to heads-down time, while giving them enough room to creatively solve problems. Drawing on its experience as a pioneer of design thinking, IDEO, and its assessment tool that has measured innovation in more than 300 teams, Creative Difference (C∆), are revealing evidence-based ways to build a successful work environment. 

C∆ data shows that teams who use

their purpose to guide their

decision-making have 61 percent

more successful launches than

teams that don’t.

Through C∆, IDEO has found that leaders who create effective and sustainable work environment change, through flexible or adaptable spaces and tools, give their teams more capacity to experiment and solve problems in creative ways. These teams eventually outperform teams that stick to the status quo.

How can a company make and scale changes to its work environment that really stick? Let’s focus on the key factors in an organization’s environment, including digital tools, internal processes, and physical spaces, that must adapt in order to support modern modes of working — and how to get there.

Create a shared vision

A shared vision illustrates the future of your teams and allows the people on them to visualize what they’re working toward and what new behaviors they’ll need to adopt. A vision for the future should not only create a shared understanding about what needs to change, but more importantly, why. Establishing this vision alongside your teams instills a sense of co-ownership.

To start, establish your teams’ goals by identifying who you’re serving, what value your teams provide, and how your teams could improve to get you closer to achieving these goals. Next, create a set of guiding principles to help contain the scope of the initiatives you’ll try. Without this set of principles to align teams, they run the risk of getting off track or trying to do too much at once. Then, sync these guiding principles with the strategic priorities of your organization to ensure that your change is scalable, has a positive impact on your business, and influences the daily work of your teams. C∆ data shows that teams who use their purpose to guide their decision-making have 61 percent more successful launches than teams that don’t.

Give teams the space for creative problem-solving

Changing your work environment should free up more space for teams to solve problems creatively. Often, organizations over-regulate the way teams work in an attempt to limit liability, which suppresses creative judgment and collaboration. This can send the unwanted signal to your employees that they’re cogs in a machine, causing them to detach mentally and emotionally from achieving your shared vision. When leaders design work environments with their teams’ needs in mind, teams are more likely to be engaged and willing to adopt positive behaviors.

The way your team works is directly tied to the quality of their output, which means modern work environments should encourage, but not dictate, the most productive behaviors. The idea is to design an environment that encourages the collaboration and experimentation so crucial to creative work, while also empowering them to adapt as new challenges arise. C∆ data shows that teams that work collaboratively and have flexible spaces and tools to experiment are 32 percent more successful than teams that don’t.

For creative teams, work environments should be flexible enough to allow team members to manipulate and experiment with spaces until they best support their needs, while providing just enough structure to guide creative decision-making.

Learn how your teams actually work

Leaders who understand how their teams work know not only what their teams need to be successful, but also what they’re currently doing successfully. These leaders keep a finger on the pulse of their teams to get a sense of what they love, loath, and need to tweak about their work environments.

Keep an eye out for work environment “hackers” who are utilizing tools and spaces in unconventional ways — manipulating what’s available to support their work as best they can. For example, people in organizations that restrict access to online collaboration tools are sometimes forced to recreate the same benefit using a combination of project management, file sharing, and messaging software that is available to them.

As important as it is to find the tools, processes, and spaces your teams like, it’s just as important to sense when the environment is unnecessarily creating more work for them. One purpose of a leader is to spot and remove these barriers to success, such as a limited digital toolkit.

Prototype changes to your work environment

Start small and prototype organizational changes with high-performing teams. This allows you to test potential solutions in a live environment, while still letting you pivot as new insights arise. The key isn’t to start with the perfect solution, but to arrive at something that works and continuously improves. Starting with teams that are enthusiastic about change or those you have equity with lets you narrow in on what’s working as you invest in improving your prototype.

The amount of insight you can gather about your work environment is amplified when teams have the autonomy to modify the environment to fit their needs. Implementing modular work spaces or allowing creative teams to organically adopt the digital tools they’re most comfortable with can help make prototyping everyone’s responsibility, not just leaders’. When teams test five or more solutions in parallel, C∆ data shows they’re 42 percent more likely to create successful solutions than teams that don’t do this rapid prototyping.

Codify and share what you learn

As teams grow and mature, the lessons they gather from experimenting with their work environments should be packaged and shared with the larger organization. Solutions should reach the level of repeated success before they’re fully adopted across the company. Codifying the characteristics of effective work environments can help newer teams and individuals develop productive behaviors more quickly. Consider sharing these lessons beyond your team to inspire others to adopt similar changes or begin to experiment in their own work environments. C∆ data shows that teams that have access to information about prior initiatives are 51 percent more likely to create successful solutions, compared to the teams that don’t.

Creating change for your teams and empowering them to determine their optimal work environments is perhaps the most important challenge for leaders today — and one that has a material impact on the organization's ability to compete in an uncertain future. Internal change requires a unifying purpose for your teams, an understanding of why the teams need to change, an infrastructure that support different workflows, and an experimental approach to workplace design that affords for improved processes and systems.

Achieving positive impact in your workplace takes action — real action. Start small; change doesn’t have to be intimidating, alarming, or messy, as it’s often characterized. All it takes are leaders who are empathetic, empowering, and curious to set their teams on a journey toward self-discovery.

Sean Tang

Written by Sean Tang

Sean is a Quantitative Organization Designer for IDEO's Creative Difference team where he helps organizations measure and grow their ability to innovate and drive change

All Articles by Sean Tang