The Spaces You Need to Innovate
Innovation is a process with a range of other ideas nested within it. When you peer inside you see creativity, curiosity, feedback and taking action. All interdependent and collectively they might be called innovation.
When you think of the "space to innovate" what immediately springs to mind? The physical environment around you? Space where you might develop ideas? Alternatively perhaps something about the time you have available?
During my work with architects and learning environment projects over the last eight years, I have started to identify a richer, more complex, set of spaces and dependencies. Beyond just the physical space we design.
Each space contributes to the culture and in particular (for this blog post at least) the conditions for innovation. Some spaces are more prominent and noticeable than others, whereas some have a more significant influence than others but cannot be seen.
For each concept, I have shared some initial thoughts, links and quotes. Each section concludes with some small steps, Protocols and Practices you might take to encourage thinking about it's relationship to your innovation efforts. You will see these in the green blocks like this one.
To conclude the article I have shared a mental model to explore the relationship between the different spaces. I am interested in what happens when one of these spaces is missing or poorly resourced. What impact might this have on the overall Space for Innovation.?
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One of the first times I consciously experienced the impact of the physical environment on my thinking was when organising some of the first Teachmeets in my region back in England.
I was able to secure a modern, purpose-built professional learning space for an inaugural TeachMeet in the Midlands and it was a considerable departure from the Victorian school buildings I was accustomed.
The physical environment signalled collaboration and connection as well as high expectations. It was an inspiring place to plan and develop the event.
Of course, the impact of the physical space on our ability to innovate can be unconsciously negative. We normalise our surroundings pretty quickly and so get used to a lack of collaboration, visibility or space to externalise our ideas.
Physical spaces for innovation have become a little cliche. Whiteboards and open spaces, you don't have to go far to find image galleries of all sorts of workspaces squarely designed for innovation and creativity.
On a much more personal level, the physical space for innovation may look very different for each of us. Fresh air and exercise is an excellent primer for new thinking. Or perhaps you prefer the utility of the whiteboard and the proximity to abundant post-it note supplies.
Of the spaces I am exploring in this post, the Physical Space for Innovation is the most observable. Take a look around you now dear reader; you can quickly judge your surroundings for yourself in how much they are the right conditions for curiosity and ideas.
Protocols and Practices
> Triage your space for what is not needed or used infrequently.
> Create visible spaces for externalising and storing your ideas.
> Change things up – get outside, get out of the room.
A further space that often conceals the opportunity for innovation is Time. It is one of the most critical aspects of creating the right conditions for change and new ideas to flourish.
It is not just about the amount of time we have but the way we use that time. Too much haste is an emotional block to creativity and will likely push people away from exploring original ideas.
Think carefully about how the pace of thinking and work is being used to suit the needs of different people. Vary the pace to allow everyone the opportunity to share ideas and develop original concepts.
Just as "one size does not fit all" – when it comes to the Temporal Space for Innovation one pace does not fit all.
There's never enough time to do all the nothing you want.
The structure of Time can be lightly resting on us, or it can create pressure. A pressure to perform, create or submit ideas by a deadline. This false-haste can have a negative impact. We need time to play.
John Cleese explains it well:
The open mode is a relaxed, expansive, and less purposeful mode in which we're probably more contemplative, more inclined to humour (which always accompanies a wider perspective), and, consequently, more playful. It's a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we're not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.
In schools, we organise time into a table. That enduring structure can dictate the experience way beyond the original remit. Blocks of time signal the start and end of thinking or work. Often days are punctuated by a rhythm a long way from what might be considered ideal for play, deep thinking and innovation.
We might have beautiful, creative physical spaces but time structures that do not match. We have to pay attention to them both.
Protocols and Practices
> Explore different times of day for development work.
> Protect longer blocks of time you have set aside for deeper work.
> Look at the medium to long-term provision of quality project time.
The further we are from the Physical the more difficult it is to observe these concepts. The Cognitive Space for Innovation refers to the capacity we have for thinking in a playful, creative and exploratory way.
When our thoughts are swamped or overwhelmed with too many projects, deadlines and tasks it is very difficult to be able to commit to the challenge of innovative work.
You will always be able to pick those moments when your Cognitive Space is crowded, or when your colleagues say, "I don't have time for that now." We need to ensure we clear some room for the wide-ranging thinking that innovation requires.
One of my favourite mental models is the analogy of the mind used by Sherlock Holmes. He describes the (Cognitive Space) as an attic. You may have heard of Attic Theory. This passage from a Study in Scarlet explains it some more:
"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these, he has a large assortment and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
A Study in Scarlet – Arthur Conan Doyle
Attic Theory is an excellent example of applying a physical space analogy to the Cognitive Space between our ears.
The Cognitive Space for Innovation is something that can be hidden to us. Teachers, facilitators and leaders need to carefully uncover the signals of an overcrowded cognitive space.
My favourite method is to ask "What is on your mind?" to a group. Give it a try and then adapt what you are about to do in response.
Protocols and Practices
> Identify ways to relieve the pressure so others can focus.
> Pay attention to the number of active projects and programmes.
> Ask "What is on your mind?" to allow the pressures to be shared.
"Head, heart and hands" right? The Emotional Space for Innovation is a close ally to the Cognitive Space. The Emotional Space for Innovation for me refers to the commitment, passion and purpose each person has.
This space is about how much we care about the ideas and challenges we are exploring. Perhaps it is linked to whether the people in your team have self-selected (see Agentic) to be there or they have been told.
In teaching, we often talk about how our relationships are at the centre of what we do and how to engage students on an emotional level. Deep down this is true for creating the right conditions for innovation and creativity.
It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don't care about.
So our neurobiology dictates terms when it comes to purposeful work. Regardless of the Physical, Temporal or Cognitive Space, unless we care, we will always be working against a neurobiological tide.
Protocols and Practices
> Take your time to connect to the wider purpose of your work.
> Use empathy activities (like shadowing) to connect with others.
> Regularly re-establish the emotional connection to the task.
Many of us have experienced this particular space, mainly due to the lack of agency we have. The Agentic Space for Innovation is the room we have to define our own experience.
Put a different way it is how much license we have to implement new ideas. This type of space impacts the pointy end of any innovation process, the implementation and application of ideas.
Without agency, innovation can falter. I sit here writing this thinking I have complete agency over my work. I have control over my calendar and who I work with. As a small business owner, if there is a new idea I want to implement, I don't need to seek permission or beg for forgiveness.
To better understand this space let's look at the various versions of agency we might encounter:
Proxy agency – rely on others to act.
Collective agency – coordinate with others to secure what cannot be accomplished in isolation.
Personal agency – act with intention, forethought, self-reactiveness, self-reflectiveness to secure a desired outcome.
Which do you most commonly experience during Innovation processes? I would hazard a guess that Collective Agency is the most frequent experience. This is due to the collaborative nature of innovation.
If we are relying on other people, we have very little ability to act with intention and purpose.
The Agentic Space for Innovation may well be a circuit breaker. With all others in play, we may still be waiting for the permission from others. Consider how you might de-couple teams and colleagues enough to have a more open Agentic Space for innovation.
Protocols and Practices
> Establish how much agency a team has from the beginning.
> Reinforce the permissive culture within the project.
> B authentic about follow through and implementing ideas.
What happens to innovation when one of these spaces is missing?
The relationship between these spaces is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work. They each depend on each other in varying forms. Let's explore some of the potential ripple effects if we have a space that is not functioning well.
When you don't have the Physical space for innovation, the process takes longer. This might be true because there is less visibility of ideas and progress, fewer opportunities for working collaboratively and poorer communication between teams.
If our Cognitive space is crowded and overwhelming us, we will likely only engage at the surface level. The commitment to the work will probably wain over time as other competing agendas and projects take their toll. Mental energy is limited.
Time is a crucial ingredient for any creative or innovation work. Without enough quality time, ideas might become less ambitious and revert to safe bets.
Without the Emotional commitment to the work, we get projects that fizzle out. We don't see the connection to the broader purpose and start to reduce our energy and effort as the drive is not there. Fighting our neurobiology is futile.
If we are trying to innovate without Agency in a culture that historically moderates heavily from the top-down, it creates apathy. Why bother getting invested in innovation when nothing changes? Why should we care when the decision is out of our hands?
This article is not an exhaustive list so let me know what different types of spaces for innovation you might add.
While I have been working on the post, I have been wondering about the Digital space for innovation as remote teams across the world build software products together.
Alternatively the Collaborative space for innovation which directly refers to the overlapping physical and digital spaces we use for creating ideas together.
From an education perspective, the concept of a Pedagogical Space for Innovation is interesting. The room provided in the approach to teaching and learning for change and renewal.
This article is an exploration of some emerging ideas, and I would be pleased to hear from you in the comments about each of the different concepts.
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