In intense, creative pursuits, one bad habit is as easy to adopt as it is fatal: spending too much time on bad ideas. That’s why most high-risk operations have developed ways to quickly and honestly critique and toss out the projects that are going nowhere. In politics, they call it the situation room. In Hollywood, it’s the writers’ room. In art school, it’s the crit.
Innovation is a similarly high-risk pursuit–the future of the business can depend on it. Yet only the world’s top organizations seem to take weeding out bad ideas seriously. At these companies, it all starts with a single room.
I spoke to three talented innovation leads at companies that have used such rooms to find out how innovation can be sustained in the long-term. I discovered something fascinating: For them, the room is a catalyst, a simple way to start taking innovation seriously. But the world’s best innovators don’t stay in the room. They take the room to the rest of the company.
Building Fluency At Mount Sinai Medical Center
That’s how Ashish Atreja, chief innovation officer of medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, tells me he thinks about creating the right conditions for innovation.
“When I started this innovation lab at Mount Sinai, I thought having a physical space was absolutely necessary for all activities,” he says. But once the multidisciplinary team of doctors, researchers, and technologists learned to speak the same language, they quickly realized they could take most of the processes elsewhere, through virtual meetings and chat-based communication. “If everyone is fluent and there’s a method to do it, then you can scale it when people are not there,” says Atreja.
Making The Invisible Visible At Capital One
Aaron Irizarry, head of experience infrastructure at Capital One, tells me he thinks about progressing out of the room in the same way.
“The idea of having dedicated space, I think that’s awesome,” he says. “But if you have this dedicated space and you go to the next area and you don’t have one, does that mean your innovation practice is broken? If it is, then your innovation practice was broken all along. You’ve just been surviving.”
Irizarry explained how a particularly successful group at Capital One, the Commercial Digital Innovation program, managed to create a resilient innovation process.
“The leadership set a specific tone about how these teams should be working, and what they want them to do, and how they should integrate across the teams,” Irizarry says. “It’s established that we’re going to be candid with one another, we’re going to raise concerns, but all of it is in an effort to get us to a specific end goal.”
Once the team had their critique practice established, they turned it into a process. Irizarry says that the key to building that process was making their work transparent, so that everyone who worked with the team could see what they were doing. “They make all the work very, very visible,” he says. “They are constantly showing their work on boards, on walls, everything, with invitations on them.”
Making their process visible has made the team resilient to change, Irizarry tells me. “What I think is interesting about that is there’s just the common guiding, understanding. People will join this team, people will leave this team. Their office will change, the head of their department has changed, yet they’re still productive.”
In this way, innovation at Capital One has trickled down from a set of rules established at the top, to a team in a room, to a process, and now into other parts of the organization as former members of the team take their learnings elsewhere.
Democratic Design At Royal Bank Of Scotland
But that transformation doesn’t need to be driven solely from the top. Kristen Bennie, the head of open experience at Royal Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh, tells me a similar story about moving beyond the room by creating transparent processes.
“It was a fantastic place to start,” she tells me of her team’s original space in the basement of an old technology building in Edinburgh. But for her, the room was never the final step.
“When I started, innovation was already happening, but I think it was only happening in parts of the organization and this wasn’t necessarily joined up and threaded throughout the organization,” she says. The basement room allowed Bennie to start building a serious innovation process. But it was by inviting others into the space, and sharing this process with other groups at RBS, that allowed her team to transform the innovation culture of the entire organization.
Today, RBS takes innovation seriously at every level. Bennie’s team has moved well beyond the concept of a single room to a new innovation space at the company’s headquarters. “It’s completely open,” she tells me. “Anybody in the bank can walk in.”
But not just anybody in the bank walks in–the company’s leaders have adopted the innovation culture, too, with a monthly innovation forum that includes the CEO. Innovation doesn’t just happen in one place anymore, Bennie says. “It’s everyone’s responsibility.”
The Room As A Metaphor
What I realized in talking with these experts is that the room is the place where innovation starts to grow up. Instead of being a place to play or model or ideate, the room creates rules and norms that require you to take innovation seriously every time. Over time, if you expose the lessons of the room to others in your organization, you can create a process the helps everyone take innovation seriously, and eventually even become a core part of your company’s culture, from the bottom to the top.
My entire business is built on taking innovation seriously, but that doesn’t mean we have nothing to learn. As I finish writing this, I can’t help but notice a pile of colorful toy bricks lying on a table in the common space outside my office. No one really uses them anymore. We’ve moved beyond viewing innovation as play, and established a culture where any employee can speak his or her mind openly without fear. After this piece is done, I’ll pack them up and put them away. It’s time to ditch the Legos and get to work.
Matthew Milan is the CEO and cofounder of Normative, an innovation and design firm headquartered in Toronto.
4/20/18: An earlier version of this article misstated that Nest had an innovation room. The article has been updated to correct the error.