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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.

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  • Robin Carey's picture
    Apr 20 Posted 3 years ago Robin Carey

    Love this.  Recently, we moved Social Media Today to the collaborative work space, GrindSpaces, and it's been a real boost in our energy.  Grind is open, light, and the interior was the work of Rosemary Ryan, the wife of one of Grind's founders, Benjamin Dyett. 

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