Can a table kill creativity and collaboration?

Boardroom-orangeSit on the floor. Get rid of the chairs. And the desks. And the teacher at the front of the room. What happens? Ideas happen. And creativity happens. And collaboration happens.

It’s amazing the influence that physical space has on how we determine our roles, perceive ourselves, and interact with one another.

In Ed Catmull’s new Creativity, Inc. he tells a story that I’ve seen play out over and over. Alter the space and improve the work.

In the opening chapter of his new book, Catmull tells the tale of a long, elegant conference table that hosted Pixar’s production meetings for 13 years. Despite it’s beauty, Catmull grew to hate it. The table exerted too much control over the production team’s dynamics.

In the West One conference room 30 people would sit at the table facing each other  in two long lines. The big cheeses — director and producer — who had to be at the center of the conversation always occupied the middle of the table. Everyone else was relegated to the outer ends. Sitting on the far ends meant it was harder to hear, difficult to establish eye contact, and impossible to be involved in the conversation.

The table declared, “If you sit in the middle your ideas matter. If you sit at the ends, they don’t.” That’s a lot of power for an inanimate object to wield. Yet no one complained as they assumed the bosses wanted it that way.

But once, by accident, a key production meeting moved to a smaller room and a square table. No one was at a disadvantage. What happened? Eye-contact was automatic, ideas flowed freely, everyone felt involved, communication went unhindered.

Space, rooms and even tables matter a lot if you are trying to inspire creative collaboration. I saw this myself a few weeks ago when I moved a weekly creative workshop from a classroom — teacher at the front, chairs and desks facing forward — to a new “war room” where a couch, coffee table, rollable chairs and a comfortable floor invited people to sit in a circle, look at each other’s computer screens, free themselves from the mindset that there’s an authority at the front of the room and students at the other end.

One simple change led to greater energy, faster idea generation, natural peer-to-peer collaboration and a roomful of people building on each other’s ideas in a natural “let’s make that idea even better” kind of way.

Today Matt Howell, most recently the chief digital officer of Arnold Worldwide, and a co-founder of Boulder Digital Works’ professional workshops, spoke at a class of mine and then joined me for lunch. He had just shared a brilliant presentation on the increasing rate of change, the never ending disruption it causes, and the organizational processes needed to cope.

Getting agencies and creative departments to work faster, leaner and more iteratively — all requirements for success in the digital age — are among the greatest challenges facing the advertising industry. It will never be achieved with management mandates or internal emails. It calls for different briefs, different talent, different teams, different workspaces and an entirely different mindset. The latter, perhaps, being the greatest obstacle.

As Matt, or I, or Bud Caddell, or John Winsor or others who’ve struggled to reinvent ad agencies can tell you, it’s hard work. Even in cases of companies determined to change it can take a move to a new location, multiple alterations to physical space, and the painful integration of different skills into departments that aren’t always waiting with open arms.

So maybe we should all start with something a little easier. Like changing the table.  Or better yet, getting rid of it entirely.

Got ideas, approaches, inspiration? Feel free to share.

5 comments
sixtiesarenotdead
sixtiesarenotdead

I see you wear your hair long. Do you think that makes you more creative, or is thatt just the non-conformist in you. I started growing my hair simply as a response to all the buzzcuts I am seeing on the millennial males thses days (did the Sixties really happen!!!???) But the great side effect is I feel more creative! (sure it's a placebo, but still...) How about brightly colored socks? I'm going to try them and I'll let you know!

Aysegul Insel
Aysegul Insel

@sixtiesarenotdead  I like the idea of a pony tail, it works. This is the voice of experience from a MD used to of Grey Worlwide Advertising Inc. İstanbul and 22 years in advertising. Yet I must admit that the best creative idea (s) I enjoyed from three regular guy looking, familiy men.

Well I believe we are all entitled to our placebos.

Aysegul Insel
Aysegul Insel

@edwardboches   Coincidentally I got paid for haircare brands (one of them was Pantene from the very lunch and long time afterwards) but not my severely cut or short (chic by the way) hair. I envy you. As the account I used to look a bore in navy or grey two piece suits. However they were my placebos, I named those outfits as power, it worked for me 22 years. I am sometimes trying this old trick at the university. It works here too. Can somebody explain?