Group Creativity Room

I recently had the opportunity to visit some offices of other organizations. What struck me was that some companies have rooms dedicated to creative work. Often it’s not much, some unusual seating arrangements here, a colorful wall there, large whiteboards everywhere.

But I think that the idea of dedicating rooms to creativity and problem solving is a good idea. And while I’m not sure how it should look like, I think that it is not the room itself but the usage of the room that will make a difference.

Usually what I do when I need to be creative, because no idea I had previously fits the situation, is to lock myself into my office in the evening, use Magic Charts to transform one of my walls into a huge Whiteboard, and start making sense of the problem. When the night is over I usually have made some progress to solving the issue and a few good ideas to follow.

What makes this technique work is not the room itself, nor colorful walls or unusual seating arrangements. It’s more the dedication to solve the problem, the work prior in learning about it, the long hours of completely distraction free work (I usually switch off my cellphone and nobody calls my office after 8 p.m.), and the possibility to explore ideas with an unlimited working memory that the Magic Charts on the wall provide. So, it’s not the room itself but the whole combination of individual and organizational aspects.

Transferred on group work, I guess a suitable “room” for creative work in groups would look like this:

Idea for a creative room.

Secretary outside of the room: Collects all cellphones and smartphones, as well as access to the eMail accounts of the participants (if they agree) to inform them in case the one, really, really critical and more important call comes. There are no telephones in the room itself. The secretary also stops all those people who really, really have to speak with someone in the room, if it is not that important. Being in the room is like being in an old airplane — no contact to the outside world.

Clear Rules:
Entrance Rule: You are allowed in only if you know about the problem, i.e., you have read the background material on the problem to solve, and you leave your cellphone outside (see previous point). This prevents the usual “I skimmed the document but let’s talk through it first” show stopper when people attend and want to “brainstorm” without knowing the issue. Preparation is crucial, ignorance only leads to “new” but “not-implementable” solutions.
Time Rule: You agree to spend at least x hours (set by the moderator) working on the problem. This means that your staff/suprior/family knows that you are unavailable in that time and that you will not work on other projects during that time. You get kicked out no matter your status in the organization if you break that rule. Being called in an important meeting like this one is not a sign that you have to do with stuff way more important than this already highly important meeting, but a sign that you are an arrogant, inconsiderate wannabe.
Break Rules: No general breaks (bring the project to a full stop and are never needed by all participants at the same time), no breaks to check email or make a phone call (rip you out of the work and — worse — into other problems). The only allowed breaks are toilet breaks. A toilet break might give you some distance and a moment of quiet if you need it but nothing more — especially no quick stop in your own office.
One moderator: One person leads and moderates the session. He makes sure that the team moves on and results are captured, either by himself or others.
Team credit: While individuals contribute, the solution is a team effort. However, if a person wants to do it, he or she can make his contribution clear in the feedback session. Given that everything is recorded nobody must fear that his or her ideas are stolen.

Suitable Room:
Good ventilation system/air conditioning: You’ll need it and you’ll probably also need the wall space more than windows.
Good (bright) lighting: Given that the room has no windows good lighting is needed.
Soundproofing: The focus should be on the work, not on the office sounds in the background, or the sound of the city.
Chairs on rolls: Can be moved freely and are meant to be moved.

One wall with space for a whiteboard for a problem description, an agenda and space for a possible solution: It’s easy to get off course during the work. If there are time restrictions for phases the secretary (or a computer program) makes the announcements when the time for a phase is up.

Empty walls to share ideas with Magic Charts: While the walls should be Whiteboards (completely from floor to ceiling), Magic Charts are in ample supply to put them on the Whiteboards. I like Magic Charts better than fixed Whiteboards because they are flexible. You can develop an idea on a Magic Chart, rearrange the page, remove it from the wall, store it, put it up again. If you want to keep it, you can simply photograph them to have them available digitally. If you make a break for a few days you can photograph all walls, enumerate the White boards and put them down. You can then use the room for something else and put everything back when the session continues after a few days. While Smartboards seem like a nice idea, the resolution and the accuracy is still too low and the heat and buzzing from the projector throws me off. Digital may have its advantages, but here these advantages are not needed and the disadvantages provide a serious incapacitating distraction.
Note: No tables because on a horizontal table paper is hard to see unless it’s very large or you are standing directly in front of it. Taping it to the wall is usually better.

Tables near the entrance with power outlets and Ethernet jacks (with active mail/IM filters) and a B/W and Color Printer: Although the information should be available in the heads of the participants or brought into the session on paper, some times you need to check information. However, the Internet connection does not allow to receive new mail or to send it, nor does it allow Instant Messengers, because both seriously distract from the work at hand. You can still go to your eMail account to retrieve an information you know is there, but you cannot receive new mails. The printer is useful to print out and scotch tape a graphic to the wall, e.g., a photographed Magic Chart that you now need smaller.

Office supplies (in drawer, ordered): Pens for the Magic Charts in all colors and in ample supply, scotch tape, notepads, pens, etc.
Water/Soda/Energy Drinks/Tea/Coffee: Important to keep a group working. The toilet should be outside of the room, not directly connected to it. A toilet break of a participant should be a break for this participant.
Snacks: Only the kinds of snacks that doesn’t leave your fingers sticky.
Note: The supply cabinets have smooth surfaces and the doors are wide, i.e., Magic Charts can be put on the surfaces and they can still be used.

Personal recording devices and ceiling cameras: Given that good ideas often fall between the cracks of a conversation or people utter solutions that they cannot repeat a few seconds later, personal recording devices are used. Everyone wears a microphone to a recorder that records every word in a separate channel. Information can quickly be accessed and replayed (which will also be recorded). The recording cannot be stopped but the information remains in the room. It can be used for later reflection. Also, ceiling cameras record what happens in the room and on the walls — they help to reconstruct the session for later reflection.

Reflection Session: After the session the records (audio/video) are used to have a look at the session and to improve future sessions.

But given that it’s not something I have experience with, I am especially interested in comments. How do you work creatively in groups? And does a dedicated room help?