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Here’s How Architecture And Design Giant Gensler Mobilizes Good Ideas

With thousands of employees, innovative ideas could get lost or buried–which is why Gensler created institutional ways to recognize them.

With 5,000 employees across 47 offices in 114 countries, Gensler takes its internal communication strategy very seriously.

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As one of the world’s largest architecture and design firms, Gensler churns out about 3,000 projects a year, everything from building skyscrapers like the Shanghai Tower to interior design. But it also manages to hold robust internal awards programs, turn out yearly research on the future of design and workplace innovation, and evangelize bright ideas from its huge employee base to the rest of the company.

Gensler even wrote the “handbook”–literally–about workplace innovation, with its Workplace Performance Index, which is updated as new information and research becomes available through workplace surveys.

“For us, it’s about collaboration. We’re a flat organization. Because we’re a constellation of stars and because we’re local and global, we’re able to deliver that design innovation locally,” says Gensler’s Andy Cohen, who leads the company with his co-CEO, Diane Hoskins.

Here’s how Cohen, Hoskins, and the rest of the Gensler team make sure great ideas surface:

Gensler co-CEO Andy Cohen

Collaborative Leadership

There’s no getting around the fact that Gensler’s immense employee count and geographical expanse mean that the company is split hierarchically into many levels.

To make Gensler as flat as possible, Cohen says each group–from the company’s nine global practice areas to the expertise-focused studios within each of the 47 offices–doesn’t just answer to one figure. Instead, groups have two to three leaders and multiple avenues for funneling ideas up.

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“The reason we do that is because we believe everyone has aces and spaces. I’m great at some things, and I’m not so great at some things. But you put two people together, and one-plus-one equals five,” Cohen says, highlighting his co-leadership with Hoskins. “She handles the things that she’s great at, and I handle the things that I’m great at. But we collaborate together.”

For example, Diane leads much of the company’s research and strategy efforts, while Cohen excels at client relationships, internal innovation, and design.

Cohen calls the model a “constellation of stars”–having not just one Don Draper-like guru in a group, but multiple.

And to make sure every employee is invested in a shared goal, the entire Gensler organization comes together each decade to author a shared vision and set of goals for where the company is going for the next 10 years. Then they commit to them.

Gensler designed the Denver International Airport Hotel and Transit Center, which opened Nov. 19.

Constant Communication

But to stick to that vision, communication is key, Cohen says.

Leaders and their employees alike absorb ideas in a side-to-side flow instead of from the top-down. Every Monday morning, office leaders join on a video call to talk about ideas that have sprung up in their corners, as well as business opportunities and client relationships. Every other week, regional offices call in to share observations. And twice yearly, Gensler holds a super meeting to bring together leaders of the company’s practice areas and client relationship efforts to talk about innovation in their groups, trends in the industry, and client observations.

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“Every two weeks, we’re sharing five, 10 ideas–concepts ideas that might have been developed in one region or at the firm level that we want to roll out across the firm,” Cohen says.

Those “super meetings” function more like TED Talks, he says. Gensler employees present thoughts on company innovation and strategy. Even clients guest star to talk about trends and what they want from the firm for a more objective look at the company’s priorities. Four times a year, higher-ups give State of the Union-style broadcasts to highlight good ideas inside the company.

“We do world-class design, and how we do that is by having constant feedback. We’re critiquing each other’s work. We’re bringing in different points of view into the design process so that it’s iterative,” Cohen says.

But communication is also key for another reason. Gensler’s model of a “one-firm firm” mean that multiple of its offices are working on projects for a single client at once.

“Geographically, we are set up so that we can deliver seamlessly around the world. We are one integrated, seamless practice,” Cohen says. “You have a to have a common purpose. You have to have this sense of pride that you want to deliver anywhere in the world, that it’s not just a division or one office. You’re part of this incredible global network. We call it ‘lighting up the network.’ It’s really hard to be able to deliver seamlessly because most companies are set up so that they’re profit centers individually. And we tend to look at it holistically as one integrated organization.”

The Shanghai Tower, completed in September, stands at more than 2,000 feet tall.

Celebrate Successes

In addition to championing ideas from anywhere and communicating them constantly, the Gensler organization makes a point to celebrate successes internally.

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“We’re all in this together. And we believe in our future together. It’s not about the individual. It’s about the team. If we win, I win–not the other way around,” Cohen says.

There’s the firm-wide Gensler Design Excellence Awards, in which the company culls thousands of projects for about 150 finalists; outside critics like design editors critique them and hand out awards. The company also celebrates its strong research arm–which puts out seminal research like the yearly Gensler Design Forecast–with the Gensler Research and Innovation Awards, also judged by a jury.

The results of both awards are celebrated and broadcast throughout the company’s network of 5,000 employees and beyond.

“It really becomes this benchmark every year of how much we’ve pushed the envelope on design and design excellence,” Cohen says. “We’re constantly focused on the idea of having discourse, having feedback, having different players and points of view coming to the table. A lot of other firms have one innovative person or one chief designer, and everything goes through that person. We are the antithesis of that.”

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