An engineer on an interview walked into a pristine R&D lab and quipped, “Does anyone do any work in here?”
Turns out, that when creating environments conducive to creative thinking and problem solving, messy environments are more liberating and more conducive to coming up with novel ideas. (Study in Psychological Science) It’s probably not a coincidence that in addition to Einstein, Steve Jobs, Mark Twain, and Alan Turing also had messy desks. (Great pics here)
“Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe.” – Psychological Scientist Kathleen Vohs
Messy environments are safe spaces for creativity. Or perhaps it’s easier to think of it the other way. When you walk into a room that’s pristine and perfect, shiny and new, are you willing to be the first one to mess it up? Because of this, perfectly organized clean rooms have a tendency to perpetuate their cleanliness. The expectations are that you need to exercise control and follow social norms. There is a lack of freedom present which stifles the innovative spirit. There is a sense that “I’m in someone else’s area and I need to play by their rules.”
On the other hand, walking into a disorderly area impacts everyone that’s exposed to it. It doesn’t even need to be your mess! People will tend to feel more at ease, thus more free to contribute, to create, to be unconventional!
So, the important thing is, if you want innovation to happen in your lab, it might behoove you to let things go a little bit. Let certain areas become islands of creativity where people can play and invent, where they don’t have to play by the rules.
If you do organize, and you have more than one person that uses the lab, make sure that each person cleans his/her own messes. I’ve heard horror stories of overzealous colleagues unwittingly throwing away someone else’s valuable prototypes because they didn’t know what they were and they looked liked they didn’t have any value.
So, instead of cleaning parties, I suggest that you have innovation parties. Spend a couple hours together in the lab with everyone showing everyone else what they’re working on. Let people look at and touch stuff. Ask, “What does this do?”. Cross-fertilize!!
It’s also important to keep raw materials and tools within reach. If you have to go upstairs or downstairs each time you need some component, there’s a problem in your lab organization.
Likewise, keep reminders of your current product lines in reach. You have certain core competencies, certain products that define who you are. Creating innovations that leverage your core competencies can create products that are ‘in your wheelhouse’, and thus accelerate their time to market.
So, in summary, here are the rules to keeping your innovation lab fruitful:
- Make sure there is a way for people to see what you’re working on. Don’t hide prototypes or ideas from others or yourself!
- If you must keep the lab pristine, designate certain areas as innovation zones (some design firms create ‘war rooms’) where it’s free to be…
- The only people allowed to clean work areas are those who are responsible for that work.
- Keep raw materials and prototypes close at hand in cabinets, drawers, etc. If you have to walk more than 20 feet to get something, or be reminded of something, the plan needs to be changed.
- If you have raw materials or prototypes that you must move, take pictures and post them.
- Keep your current product lines in view. Learn about what your company does well.
Do you have any other rules that help make your innovation works-spaces more fruitful?
PS. Clean areas have their place. They do promote healthy eating, conventionality and charitable giving. So, make yourself a clean area for healthier, linear thinking, crank-through work. After all, sometimes you just need to get a report written and sent.
PPS. Unlabeled containers, open flammable substances, cutting machinery, in short, things that could hurt yourself or others, should always be properly stored and/or locked to prevent accidents.
PPPS Messy is not the same as dirty. Working in a place with exposed mold, excessive dust, standing water, is not creating an environment that is healthy to function in. Stay away from these. (I hope you didn’t need me to tell you this 😉 )
PPPPS Check out this link for some great environmental creativity hacks