• Chris Thierfelder

All the Devils are Here

(with apologies to Bethany McLean)

Open office layout
Looks great, but it might not be for your business

An article from Inc.com has been circulating since July about the relative stupidity of "open office" work spaces. The author makes the startlingly broad statement that Open-office floor plans are the "dumbest management idea of all time" and sets up the comparison to other "dumb" management ideas like:

1. Six-sigma

2. Stack Ranking

3. Consensus Management

A recent addition to this list has been "Design Thinking," another management process that started as one thing and has been stretched and morphed to be another thing altogether.

I am not going to defend any of these processes. I am, however, going to try to explain--briefly--why we find ourselves with a glut of "dumb" management ideas, and who is to blame. And no, it's not McKinsey.

Ok, it's sort of McKinsey.

"Open-office" spaces started out a specific solution to a specific problem with a specific group of companies. Namely, large companies with corporate offices in New York City in the 80's. The NYC real-estate boom that was taking place after depressed property values in the 70's was putting the squeeze on major firms that had located to (or always were in) Manhattan, and they as they expanded, they wanted to avoid increasing their overhead as much as possible.

Sound familiar?

Right, we all want to figure out a way to expand the value creating parts of our business while compressing our fixed costs. In NYC in the 80's this became a matter of geometry. Enter Herman Miller. Miller was charged by several large companies' CEOs to figure out how to redesign the office so that it would be easier to add workspace without adding significant cost, and the solution was in the furniture configuration. Remember, no telecommuting at the time--everyone needed to be under one roof to work. So he came up with a modular office space solution that addressed the problem. That's it. It only addressed the problem of number of people per square foot, because that's all it was supposed to address.

Fast forward to the 90's when "collaboration" and "innovation" moved in to the lexicon as vital--and linked--concepts. Based on observing radically creative companies in the up-and-coming Silicon Valley, all of whom had open office configurations, management theorists concluded that one could "force" collaboration and thus create innovation in a crucible. This was a variant of the Fundamental Attribution Error--managers thought that the environment could be used to drive behavior, regardless of the individuals themselves or the specific work they were doing.

I am grossly oversimplifying here. Smart academicians in management theory took a more nuanced approach. But tell me: the last time you hired a consultant to help with your innovation program: was it a group of polished consultants from an established firm with a logo and a slick Powerpoint, or was a group of disheveled researchers with armfuls of data and analysis? That's what I thought.

So. In a (massive) nutshell--Open Office Theory was born from combining a practical solution with a leap, based on observation. What no one bothered to consider--because to do so would have stunted rolling out solutions that could be sold to companies--was why these companies in Silicon Valley had open offices, and what work they were doing. These companies were founded in a crucible of innovation that stemmed from the university community; these engineers were used to working shoulder to shoulder with one another without the benefit of private offices. Further, they believed in what they were doing, and had a stake in its success. Finally, the work itself was predominantly creative work. They didn't have rows and rows of engineers or accountants engaged in sustaining the machine. There was no machine to sustain. The kind of work that 90% of those firms engaged in was innovative work and the tools they had did not include MS Outlook.

Open Office Design, along with those other "dumb" ideas were entirely valid solutions for specific problems. The problem comes when companies acquire these management tools and then feel compelled to apply them across every nook and cranny of the business. Open offices do not work well in, say, legal departments. Six sigma tools are anathema to front-end innovation efforts. And consensus management is a tough way to run a sales region or a strategy office. It's not to say that those ideas are bad, they are just tools with a purpose and trying to apply them everywhere in an effort to "get your money's worth" is a great way to detract value from them. When working with a consultant, maybe ask them what the medium- and long-term impact of their "process" is in the same departments in similar-sized companies as yours. If they can't show you that the tool was designed and has a history in those environments, consider looking for solutions that were and do.

And besides, if we focus on these ideas as the "dumbest" ideas in business, we lose sight of the REAL dumbest idea in business, but that's for another time.

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