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Designer Richard Holbrook’s Three-Year Quest to Understand the World’s Most Creative Companies

Written by: Aaron Britt

Artwork by: Tanawat Sakdawisarak

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To design Prospect, a new portfolio of semicircular freestanding furniture, Richard Holbrook teamed up with Herman Miller for a fairly epic research project. No end point in mind, no clear application on the horizon, pure research. As Holbrook puts it, he and his collaborators at Herman Miller went out “prospecting” to see how some of the world’s most creative organizations were working. “We had no preconceived notions,” he says, “and our intention was to go out into the world and simply learn about companies at the very leading edge of workplace strategy.” Starting in 2014, Holbrook and company travelled the world—he says that Holland and Australia were where he saw some of the most innovative ideas in action—visiting banks, architecture firms, consultants, and tech companies. He and his team talked with facilities managers, architects, designers, and workplace strategists to get a glimpse of where work is heading, the essential nature of collaboration, and to fuel what’s next from Herman Miller. At the end of his research he came away with four big ideas that drove the design of Prospect. Here’s Richard Holbrook on what he learned about the future of creativity.

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Co-Creation, Not Collaboration

This is the deepest dive research project I’ve ever done. Over and over again, we heard the refrain, “We want more collaboration, more collaboration, more and better collaboration.” So, I tried to really unpack what that meant. You don’t often stop to think, what do you mean by collaboration? But the truth is, there are so many different ways to collaborate, from simply sharing information to actually coming together to do something.

We tend to think of collaboration as knowledge transfer. But when I asked people what they meant by “better collaboration,” they said, “Well, we want people to actually do work together to produce what they wouldn’t get to on their own.”

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Herman Miller calls that co-creation, and they’ve identified this activity as one of the fundamental behaviors as part of Living Office. But we know that co-creation doesn’t happen out of nowhere, it requires a special kind of situation. There’s a kind of alchemy and magic that happens when people are making something new, and that, I think, is what drives co-creation. It’s not just coming together to exchange information or to share knowledge, but coming together to really do work. To create something better together than we would do on our own.

It reminds me of a presentation I saw during our research trip by Sophie Patrikios. At the time, she was a senior director at Lego, and she put up a slide that said, “Collaborate only when necessary.” I think that people are afraid that somehow collaboration equals wasted time. Sure, you share ideas, you connect, you talk, but you never get anything done. Shifting from “collaboration” to “co-creation” is a subtle way to say, “we’re here to do things.”

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Come Together, Come Apart

I had a real light bulb go on over my head when visiting the facilities manager at Expedia in Seattle. There, I saw teams that would get together in these scrum rooms—really scrappy, sub-architectural spaces—to meet in groups, and then they’d go back to their workstations for individual work. Then they’d meet again, and go off on their own again.

The literature on the best practices for real collaboration supports the idea of working together with intermittent periods of focused individual work. The idea is that getting together and then working alone actually enhances what you’re doing. As you do this—work together then work on your own—your ideas get tighter, more relevant, more refined.

We also saw that people’s creativity is strongly affected by group hierarchy, psychological dynamics, who’s an introvert who’s an extrovert, and even physical stature. But if you ask people to do their homework first before coming to a brainstorm or a collaborative co-creative session, people who are more introverted can come in feeling more confident, and you’ll even see people who are extroverted come in perhaps a little more thoughtful.

It started to become pretty obvious to us that we had to accommodate two different types of work to create a really great place for co-creation.

Design for the Behavior You Want

One of the most powerful moments during the research was over a dinner I had with a guy named Luc Kamperman, who’s one of the founders of Veldhoen and Company. Veldhoen invented the methodology that’s called “activity-based working.” I asked Luc how they typically began an engagement with a client, and he said that the first question they ask is if the client is prepared to think of their workplace as a tool for achieving business outcomes.

He acknowledged that it’s kind of a trick question because everybody says “yes.” So, then he says, “If you are, then we have to talk about the kind of behaviors you want to encourage and the behaviors you want to discourage.” And that’s also a little bit of a trick question because it uncovers the true culture of the company. If a company says, “We believe in hierarchy, control, and line-of-sight management,” then Luc knows he’s got a real tough battle there. But people typically go along with the notions that transparency, self-reliance, healthy motion throughout the day, and collaboration are important things to encourage in the workplace.

Hearing him say that really set my mind moving, and I started to wonder, okay if the workplace is going to encourage positive behavior, how does the furniture do that too? And what are the most important behaviors you can encourage with furniture? How can I facilitate the necessary conditions for co-creation to thrive: a sense of safety to contribute; engagement rather than disengagement; focus; a collegiality and a sense of the right kind of intimacy; the right physical proximity—not too crowded and not too far apart.

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Temper the Tech

I came away from a lot of my discussions thinking that there’s a big opportunity for furniture to encourage the most desirable behaviors and discourage behaviors that are undesirable. And what I’ve observed over my time visiting offices and working on conference room furniture and other contract furniture is that though technology is integral to what we do, it’s become such a distraction.

You look in a conference room with a table that seats 20 and you’ve got 10 people in there and eight of them are looking under the table at their phones. Or, they’re blatantly looking at their phones while there’s conversation going on. I think that’s undesirable behavior. In short, people are checked out of the situations in which they’re supposed to be engaged.

In our research, we saw a lot of examples of technology integrated into collaborative spaces. Big monitors, people using tablets and laptops, and we thought a lot about exactly how much we really wanted technology to be part of the co-creation and collaboration we seek. After some observation of how people are actually working, we came to believe that technology isn’t always an advantage in this type of work. Our goal became creating a setting where technology doesn’t overrule relationships. What we most want to encourage is the kind of work that happens when people are using their imaginations, their brains, and their voices.