Leadership by the window

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INSPIRATION

It ‘s not often that a designer gets to use Borat as an example for how organizations behave, but this might just be the case for me today. Don’t worry I will NOT reference any of the vulgar jokes that make up about 99% of the movie.

For no apparent reason other than doing the Borat accent with a colleague at work, I decided to watch the DVD a few weeks ago. To my big surprise, I had completely overlooked one of the most insightful scenes the first time I watched the film: Borat’s interpretation of leadership – well, at least my interpretation of Borat’s interpretation of leadership.

In this scene Borat associates the access to a mundane hotel chair with the authority and power of a leader. He sits on the chair and immediately takes on the personality of a demanding king. And then it hit me! Leaders in large organizations have their own version of Borat’s chair – it’s called a window.

I have had the opportunity to work on a few space redesign projects over the past few years. The design briefs are always about transforming cube farms into more open, innovative spaces that foster collaboration and innovation. As with any design project, you first engage key stakeholders in establishing the hard constraints. Well, when it comes to most organizations, the constraints are pretty simple:

  1. x number of people need to fit in this space
  2. the location of the restrooms cannot move by much because of plumbing
  3. every senior leader must get an office by a window

While I can live with the first two constraints, I have always questioned the rationality of automatically giving a window to the leaders at the top of the corporate ladder. If the purpose of the space is to foster collaboration and innovation, shouldn’t it be designed to facilitate such interactions and behaviors for the majority of the occupants? I can’t recall the number of times my team and I had to stay clear of the space’s “prime real estate” (i.e. the corners where two windows intersect) because it was reserved for the highest ranking (and mostly traveling) leaders in the space.

As a result, the buildings of most companies are filled with empty, well-lit offices for the “kings of the castle”, and dark cube farms for expected-to-be innovative and collaborative minions.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

As usual, this blog is not about throwing stones at the status quo. It’s important to recognize the symbolic meaning of having a window. In most organizations, the window becomes the tangible manifestation of one’s successful career. That said, it is also important to balance that reality with the fact that traditional workplace models are being challenged in a rapidly changing environment. As designers, it is our job to challenge the third constraint by engaging leaders in co-designing and exploring alternative configurations. Here are three principles that have helped me and my teams get key stakeholders (facilities, architects, occupants) to think beyond their existing assumptions about leadership and status:

1. DESIGN WITH, DON’T DESIGN FOR – It is amazing how easy it actually is to break taken-for-granted assumptions when you get occupants (including leaders) to co-design with you. We have often built full-scale foam core models to immerse key stakeholders in the design process. By building together, occupants develop empathy for one another and open up to new win-win possibilities.

2. GET LEADERS OFF THE BENCH – Good leaders want to be part of the action, and not just via email. Many leaders actually miss the daily face-to-face interactions with their teams. Unfortunately, the office by the window reinforces the gap between leaders and their teams. We often hear the term “leading from the front” or “leading from behind”, but we never hear “leader from the bench”.

3. LET THERE BE LIGHT…FOR EVERYONE – Light is energy. Light is inspiration. Light is fuel for innovation. Light is a reminder that there is a world outside of our buildings. That’s the same world where our customers live and breathe. Capitalize on the “prime real-estate” available to you by making them hot spots of collaboration and innovation.

ACTION

As Borat would say, “Dziekuje” [thank you] for reading my blog, and as always I hope to hear from you!