The Spark of Innovation Video Series: Why Space Matters

Jun 14, 2017 5:15 PM ET

Every company’s innovation journey is different. Have you ever wondered how they arrive at their approach and what they hope their impact will be? In this first installment of a six-part video series, Innovation Center Director Kurt Scherer shares the company’s philosophy, transformative approach to innovation, and why space matters.

Q: For people who say that innovation is a fad, or just a buzzword, what do you say?
All organizations have two purposes – to innovate and to execute. Organizations must meet their purpose or stay in business, and to do that they should evolve. So, whether you call it innovation doesn’t matter, because all groups of people – humans that are driving organizations – should understand how to change. You can call that evolution change management, or lean management, or agility, or innovation – it’s still about change and impact. And so, if the word innovation falls out of favor sometime in the future it’s going to be replaced with something else that means essentially the same thing. But there must be some philosophy around how an organization or a group of people continue to evolve. Or else you’ll cease to exist.

Booz Allen had experienced tremendous growth through the 2000’s and that growth prompted the firm’s leadership to ask: what do we have to do to continue to be as relevant as possible to our clients in the future? We could choose to be like every other consultancy or contractor and try to compete and lower costs and cut people. But we believed that competing on cost would only serve to engage the firm in a race to the bottom. Instead, we chose to be different. But to be different we realized that we would have to change our culture.

Q: Let’s talk about the Innovation Center.  When Booz Allen was building the Innovation Center, what did we want the space to do?
We looked at some Innovation Centers across the country and noticed that many of them tended to look like museum spaces—with old computers and great artifacts—but nobody working. So, one of our design principles was that we wanted the Innovation Center to be a working space. We wanted to show off our legacy of innovation, but also have it be a place where real work was being done. Another design principle was that we wanted to make sure that we had a different feel than most Booz Allen spaces to date. We certainly wanted it to be open and collaborative. We wanted it to be on the ground floor. One entire wall is glass – and that creates a very real idea of transparency. We wanted to let people on the sidewalk see that we are getting work done here, and show that Booz Allen as a firm is transparent.

We wanted it to be world-class, because we wanted to use it to show our clients what we are doing.  We’re now able to bring clients into the conference room and show that we’re doing analytics, we’re doing cyber, we’re doing consulting, we’re doing data science, and we’re making things. There’s no better place to show that than a space like this. We also wanted to have space where our teams and our clients could feel differently—they could walk in and feel a sense of “wow.”

From a technology standpoint, we wanted to provide the best means of collaboration possible. One of the best pieces of technology we have in here are the mobile whiteboards. You wouldn’t normally think of that as a technology – but it is. Ninety-five percent of our walls are write-able. And these elements are representative of our principles around trust, sharing and ease of collaboration.

We had an opportunity where we brought in a team from the Department of Energy and a team of energy entrepreneurs—the cultures were dramatically different. But by bringing them together in the Innovation Center we realized that there were some opportunities to understand the other side’s perspective.

Bringing people together so that you can understand the other side’s problems, and work towards a solution and look for that third alternative piece, that is innovation. It’s how you take what you know and apply it in a new way to something else.

And some of the comments we’ve gotten from project teams that work in the center are that the space enables that flow, that ability to learn quickly. Because we’re all sitting laptop-to-laptop, we’re working together – it makes the work better. It makes it more fun, as well.

Q: Do you foresee this being a model for Booz Allen spaces?
I would love to say yes. Yes! I think the things we’ve learned will inform and evolve how we think about space and how we work. I think what we’ve learned is too powerful to ignore.

Q: What do you see as the future of the workplace? How do you see this evolving?
The future of the workplace is very exciting. We have moved beyond having a defined space where people work in a small cubicle to understanding the power of connection and sharing and collaboration. There’s no question that the types of problems that need to be solved among high-performing teams must have the help of collaborative technologies like monitors and white boards.

As we look toward the future of the workplace I strongly believe that we’re going to see elements of the whole person. It’s not just about sitting down with a laptop—it’s connecting with people. It’s feeling engaged. It’s having a sense of joy. It’s working out of a sense of achievement and purpose, not fear. It’s choosing to engage on things and bringing a diversity of thought to the problems. All those things can be enabled by where you work –everything from what the environment looks like, to the ability to have some choice in whether you’re sitting in a booth or at a table, or on a beanbag. And so, I think we’re onto something with that, and I think we’re headed the right way.

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