Creating a Culture of Innovation

Add equal parts engineering, human sciences, and visual design. Mix in your unique business needs and a dash of Zen philosophy, and you have MAYA—a design consultancy and technology research lab that is hell bent on taming complexity. Oh, and I should also mention they are consistently ranked in the top 20 best small places to work in the country.

Recently, I had a chance to chat with Mick McManus, President and Chief Executive Officer of MAYA, about their continued growth (they have never taken outside debt or had an outside investment) and how they have been able to create and sustain a culture of innovation.

You will only get about 10 feet into MAYA before you notice a large circular room covered (and I mean covered) with white boards. You'll also notice that, unlike most corporate conference rooms, it doesn't have an oversized table or any fancy office chairs. They call this space a KIVA—a reference to underground structures used by Pueblo KIVA 2Indians. The idea to rethink their workspace came from one of their founders who, as luck would have it, also happened to be an amateur archeologist. Beyond the cool name, the KIVA is a machine for brainstorming. And for all you gadget geeks, it also has TIVO (or KIVO as Mick refers to it) that allows you to capture and rewind audio and video and take single frame and panoramic pictures of the entire space—how many corporate conference rooms can do that?

"We force everybody to draw. It's not drawing for pretty. If you just did that—if you just forced people to draw between (functional) disciplines, you would actually be more innovative. People get lost in the wrong types of details with PowerPoint. Drawing is the lingua franca between disciplines," says Mick. As he pointed out, many corporations rely too heavily on one-sided dialogues driven by PowerPoint decks with 50+ slides that contain thousands of points of information. "What's the likelihood you'll remember more than 5-6 things? If you force everyone to use PowerPoint you are throwing away half of the interesting complexity." Oh, and their drawing isn't restricted to just white boards—you'll also find sketches and notes made by dry erase markers on windows and glass around their suite.

The other advantage of the circular design is that it facilitates cross-functional interaction. "As you push people out of the way to draw on the outer walls, you remix the group of engineers who don't like to talk to marketers. At the end of the day, they are now sitting together," McManus says. It also eliminates the likelihood of people grabbing the "power seats" or others withdrawing from discussions and hiding in a corner. In the KIVA, everyone is up and moving around—actively engaged in the brainstorming session.

The other thing you won't find in their LEED certified workspace is cubicles. They are instead organized in cross-functional neighborhoods—four desks positioned diagonally from each other about 10 feet apart. By bringing their employees together like this, they are able to immediately get input from others on the team from different disciplines. I'm not sure what their "residents" might say, but I will admit it was refreshing not to see a seemingly never-ending honeycomb of four-foot beige or light grey cubicles.

One of the last and arguably one of the coolest things that Mick pointed out as we toured the MAYA facility was an innovative award they give out to their employees. We're not talking about your run of the mill gift cards or plaques—we're talking about a customized action figure that is hand crafted by senior leaders of the company. Each creation is customized to resemble the recipient and includes a detailed write up of his or her individual contributions on the packaging. How cool is that?

To infuse interactivity, creativity, and innovative problem solving within your organizational culture, start by implementing the five key elements of workspace design currently being employed at MAYA:

1) Lose your conference table and fancy swivel chairs

2) Add a helluva lot of white board space

3) Force everyone to draw

4) Switch out cubicles for neighborhoods

5) Reward creativity creatively

Now that we've heard from MAYA, how are you using your workspace to create a culture of innovation?

Shawn Graham is the author of Courting Your Career: Match Yourself with the Perfect Job (www.courtingyourcareer.com). Find Shawn on Twitter @ShawnGraham or via email at shawn(at)courtingyourcareer.com.

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