Colourful offices to inspire creativity and innovation, like Google?

Amongst many things, Google is also well known for its creatively designed office and work spaces. The logic behind the colourful and playful design is to create environments that can nurture creativity and innovation within the people that work in these places. Google is acknowledged as one of the most innovative companies in the past decade or so with a variety of products and services that are significantly impacting and changing our lives.

This is quite a common trait of many tech companies too. And similarly these companies also adopt conditions that are designed to encourage creativity and innovation.

Of course, such conditions are not only confined to office space design. Values, management practices, and leadership play equally big roles.

I believe that environment shapes culture, and in the case of Google and the likes, how much do you think the office and work space design (colourful and playful) contribute towards the respective organisation’s innovative culture? 

If you want innovation, you have to encourage independent thought

We live in an age where technology, customer expectations, and markets shift rapidly. Sticking with dogma and age old ideas, methods, products and services will no longer cut it.

Assuming that we believe in the above – and I would not be too far off the mark, I’d guess – then we need to be able to adapt, respond, anticipate these shifts before and as they happen. We need to be agile, and most of all we need to be innovative. We need to find even more effective solutions to old and new problems. What worked in the past will not guarantee to work in the future.

Innovation is the key to winning in the fast changing world.

But innovation is not just an activity. It is more than that. It is a mindset, a culture, a function that everyone plays – and not just some people in labs and research centres.

Like creativity, you cannot force innovation. Like creativity, innovation must be allowed to flow, naturally. The biggest enabler for innovation is allowing individuals the freedom to have independent thought.

The seed of a new idea would only come from a ground that is fertile with many different thinking. In groups of people, society and organisations – allowing people to think different allows them to explore new ideas, test new perspectives, find new solutions in ways never been thought of before. A social group that emphasises conformity over individuality will psychologically limit the collective minds. This is often the subtle tyranny of the majority.

A society or organisation that is conscious of these subtle effects will need to take steps to allow individuality and take these steps even further by bringing in people who would be expected to see things differently – given they come from different backgrounds and thus would naturally see things differently. Artists will see different solutions to problems than would engineers or accountants. People from different industries will see different ways to solve problems. This is vital in order to encourage innovation. Societies and organisations will need to infuse their own culture and groups of people with people from other backgrounds in order to create a much richer diversity of thought.

Holistic assessment of children’s progress


Are exams the best way to help children develop?

This is a big question. I find that exams based assessment of a child’s development results in a narrow focus and thus, inadequately prepares the child for the challenges they will face many years later in life.

Exams based assessment – whilst are objective – only emphasises (i) academic knowledge; (ii) enforces rote learning; (iii) creates behaviours of studying (self learning) only for the exams.

The above 3 emphasis are becoming increasingly inadequate these days.

For one, academic knowledge is no longer sufficient. What is important is that children start to explore learning outside of what is covered in text books. The world today is moving so quickly that knowledge nowadays is everywhere.

Secondly, rote learning does not help children develop the skills to learn on their own, or to learn through discovery and experimentation. Rote learning emphasises that the answer is pre-determined.

Thirdly, learning should be a constant habit – and not something only needed for the purpose of passing exams. This constant learning habit is highly prized when the individual progresses through life when things are constantly changing requiring a constant unlearning and relearning.

So what is the alternative to measuring a child’s development?

In the first place, we need to ask why we are measuring a child’s knowledge etc? The goal of measuring a child’s progress is to identify areas the child is strong at and areas the child can be further developed.

Assessment of children’s progress should not be seen as a means to “rate” or “grade” them. It is more important to develop children than to grade them.

Once we have properly adopted this mindset, then we can move forward with the alternative assessment. But before we go into that, we need to also understand what are the qualities on which we wish to develop our children?

Some initial thoughts on the qualities we seek in children, and later as adults:

  • academic (of course)
  • attitudes & behaviours
  • values & goals
  • leadership
  • communication, collaboration, interaction
  • physical health – sports, outdoor activities
  • empathy – emotional & spiritual quotient
  • intellectual capacity – thinking, critique
  • action & discipline
  • creativity, innovation & art

Of course, the above list may not be entirely appropriate and may even miss out other qualities. But what is important, it needs to encapsulate the many qualities we seek as people as they grow older and attempt to make the world better.

The even bigger question now is how do we measure the child’s progress in the above qualities.

Remember, the measures are meant to identify strengths and development areas. Not to rate or grade.

There are already many psychometric & other tools to measure these qualities. We only need to use them on a more regular basis through the child’s progress through school to understand more about their development.

These tools can be utilised by both teacher and parents alike in order to gain a more balanced view of the child’s development.

Avoid gaming the system

Since, this assessment is not for purpose of rating or grading the child – it will mitigate the effects of “gaming the system”. In order to enhance the credibility of the assessment tools, we can build in self-regulating mechanisms to prevent a deliberate high or low score.

What is most important is that the child makes as much progress in their development: a high score on an assessment may mean that the child need not undergo specific tasks to develop further. A constant high score means that the child has a low record number of development / improvement exercises – which could look less impressive as compared to a child who is consistently improving.

Conversely, a deliberately low scoring may mean that the child will have to undergo a rigourous number of development / improvement exercises. Which could be both taxing on the child and the tutor.

I know this system is not perfect, but it is a starting point in building a self-regulating mechanism to prevent the child, the tutor and the parents from gaming the system.

To add further mitigation – external parties may be called into assess the child further using these tools (or a variation of the tools). The tools need not require a constant intimacy with the child, but can be assessed on the spot like many psychometric tests.

Other forms of assessment can be done in a similar manner of how role-playing games (“RPG”) players acquire experience points (“XP”) to upgrade their RPG characters. These can be related to the child completing certain academic and non-academic tasks. Points, badges and recognition can be given to demonstration of certain activities, behaviours etc – such as teamwork, leadership etc.

To achieve the above, technology can be used to document, record, and provide an updated scoring system as the child progresses. Now with mobile technology, these form of scoring can be done on the move and at the right moment the tasks have been completed by the child.

Training the tutors & developing the infrastructure

There will naturally be major changes to the tutors and infrastructure for this to happen. Therefore this will not happen overnight. Investment will be needed, incentives can be provided to the private sector to participate in driving the change by providing some of their resources – financial as well as human capital.

The tools are perhaps the items of least concern as many of these are already available.

Training can be quite minimal, as many of the tools come with its own diagnosis. However, should training be required – there are a large number of organisations that have employees trained in these tools. They can be roped in.

Implementation and moving forward

This post was not meant to be an answer, nor would it be correct. The goal is to initiate a discussion around this important topic. After all, education is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) economic multiplier.

The key thing for all of us is to start looking at our education systems and ask ourselves the question whether it is helping us develop more leaders, thinkers, doers and creators for the fast changing 21st century connected and borderless world?

Start with the qualities of people we want in our economy now and many years ahead – and then work backwards to design an education system that meets those needs.

The Secret of BMW’s Success

Another BMW success article. source:

The Secret of BMW’s Success

BMW’s reputation for innovation can be traced to its equally innovative lateral management techniques

At 4:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, when most German workers have long departed for the weekend, the mini-cafés sprinkled throughout BMW’s sprawling R&D center in Munich are jammed with engineers, designers, and marketing managers deliberating so intently it’s hard to hear above the din. Even the cappuccino machine is running on empty. It’s an atmosphere far more Silicon Valley than Detroit.

“At lunch and breaks everyone is discussing ideas and projects all the time. It’s somewhat manic. But it makes things move faster,” says BMW chief designer Adrian van Hooydonk.

The intense employee buzz at BMW is hot management theory in action. Top consultants and academics say the kind of informal networks that flourish at BMW and the noise and borderline chaos they engender in big organizations are vital for innovation—especially in companies where knowledge sits in the brains of tens of thousands of workers and not in a computer server. Melding that brain power, they say, is essential to unleashing the best ideas.

HANDS ACROSS DIVISIONS. “Cross-functional teams look messy and inefficient, but they are more effective at problem solving,” says James M. Manyika, a partner at McKinsey & Co. in San Francisco who has studied the effectiveness of such networks. Companies such as BMW that leverage workers’ tacit knowledge through such networks “are widely ahead of their competitors,” Manyika adds.

BMW is one of a handful of global companies including Nokia (NOK ) and Raytheon (RTN) that have turned to networks to manage day-to-day operations, superseding classic hierarchies. Those pioneering companies still turn to management hierarchies to set strategic goals, but workers have the freedom to forge teams across divisions and achieve targets in the best way possible—even if that way is unconventional.

And they are encouraged to build ties across divisions to speed change. “Good companies have this lateral ability to communicate across divisions and silos, not just up and down the hierarchy. That’s what makes BMW tick,” says chief financial officer Stefan Krause.

LIGHTNING-FAST CHANGES. Speed and organizational agility is increasingly vital to the auto industry, since electronics now make up some 20% of a car’s value—and that level is rising. BMW figures some 90% of the innovations in its new models are electronics-driven. That requires once-slow-moving automakers to adapt to the lightning pace of innovation and change driving the semiconductor and software industries. Gone is the era of the 10-year model cycle.

Now automakers must ram innovation into high gear to avoid being overtaken by the competition. That’s especially true in the luxury-auto leagues, where market leaders must pulse new innovations constantly onto the market, from podcasting for cars to infrared night vision systems.

By shifting effective management of day-to-day operations to such human networks, which speed knowledge laterally through companies faster and better than old hierarchies can, BMW has become as entrepreneurial as a tech startup, consultants say. “Not many large companies take on lateral communications the way BMW does. It’s a knocking down of barriers, like Jack Welch did at General Electric (GE ) to make a boundaryless corporation,” says Jay Galbraith, a Breckenridge (Colo.)-based management consultant.

MOBILE-PHONE MESSAGES. BMW’s ability to drive innovation even pervades its marketing division. “People talk about innovation in products, but what’s underestimated is innovation in processes and organization,” says Ernst Baumann, head of personnel at BMW, which has its share of radical new ideas.

To reach a younger crowd of potential buyers for its new 1 Series launch in 2004, BMW used mobile-phone messages as the main source of buzz, directing interested people to signups on BMW’s Web site for pre-launch test drives in August that year—something unheard of in the industry at the time. The experimental tactic worked: BMW sparked responses from 150,000 potential customers—and sales of the 1 Series took off when it was launched in September, 2004.

In 2001, BMW stunned the advertising world by investing ad spending normally set aside for Super Bowl spots in short films that had nothing to do with telling consumers about its cars. The slick, professionally made films were pure entertainment, like its series of short films, The Hire, starring Clive Owens, and they cost a bundle: $25 million.

BALANCING ACT. The risky bet triggered serious consternation at BMW’s Munich headquarters. “You have to worry when your marketing team goes into the business of making films,” says Krause, who noted that Internet-driven businesses were imploding left and right in 2001. Given those conditions, “Who cares how many clicks you get.”

Few large companies are willing to embrace the lack of organizational clarity and nebulous structures that drive innovative ideas. At most companies, headquarters would have put the kibosh on the short-film idea, which has since been widely imitated. Researchers say most experiment with networks on a small scale and very few use the practice to full effect since doing so means an uncomfortable balancing act between hierarchy and discipline on one hand, and free-wheeling networks that can veer toward near-chaos.

But for innovation-driven companies, networks that enable entrepreneurial risk-taking are a silver bullet. “The ideas are richer, they implement more effectively, and there is less resistance to change,” says Rob Cross, assistant professor of management at the University of Virginia.

IDEAS FIRST. How does BMW manage discipline with creativity and keep the anarchy of networks from careening out of control? Workers at the Bavarian automaker are encouraged from their first day on the job to build a network or web of personal ties to speed problem-solving and innovation, be it in R&D, design, production, or marketing. Those ties run across divisions and up and down the chain of command.

When it comes to driving innovation, forget formal meetings, hierarchy, and stamps of approval. Each worker learns quickly that pushing fresh ideas is paramount. “It’s easier to ask forgiveness for breaking the rules than to seek permission,” says Richard Gaul, a 33-year veteran at BMW and former head of communications at the $60 billion automaker.

BMW’s complex customized production system, the polar opposite of Toyota’s (TM ) standardized lines, is easier to manage if workers feel empowered to drive change. Like Dell Computer (DELL ), BMW configures its cars to customers’ orders, so each auto moving down the production line is different.

FORGET OLD-SCHOOL RIGIDITY. Making sure the system works without a hitch requires savvy workers who continually suggest how to optimize processes. “Networks can do things that hierarchies cannot, because hierarchies lack the freedom. With a network you get the powerful ability to leverage knowledge quickly to bear on solving problems,” says Karen Stephenson, management consultant and Harvard professor. “A network is the only way to effectively manage BMW’s kind of complexity.”

By contrast, companies that don’t have lateral nimbleness are crippled in fast-moving technology-driven industries. Rigid hierarchies that stifle fresh ideas and slow reaction times are one problem facing General Motors (GM ) and Ford Motor (F ).

Once giants like GM were king, dominating the market with their huge volume and purchasing muscle. Big is no longer the ticket to success, and the slow-moving bureaucracies that big companies are saddled with are now a major handicap. “Lean is passé. What is in is lean and agile: the ability to shift and adjust as circumstances in the market change,” says David Cole, partner at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

KNOW THY CONSUMER. BMW managers, by contrast, even talk about the “physics of chaos” and how to constantly nurture innovation and creativity by operating on the very edge of chaos without getting out of control. “Discipline and creativity are not a paradox, there is a borderline case of self-controlling systems,” says Gaul. “Where you break rules you have to be very disciplined.” That’s the industry’s next kaizen—the art automakers will be forced to master in the 21st century.

The novel advertising scheme developed back in 2001 is a good example. Jim McDowell, then U.S. vice-president of marketing, was confident the project, dubbed “Big Idea,” and kept under tight security in “War Room” No. 6 at BMW USA’s Woodlake (N.J.) headquarters, would create just the kind of consumer buzz that BMW wanted—and would ultimately be more cost-effective for BMW than Super Bowl advertising. The idea was to give film directors a BMW car around which a compelling short film was to be made. Many of the tales centered on life-and-death chase scenes, but several were humorous or even melancholy.

McDowell figured if The Hire, took off and the films were downloaded from BMW’s Web site by 1 million to 2 million viewers, BMW would chalk up the same number of eyeballs as a snappy advertising campaign aired during the Super Bowl, but would reach a higher percentage of BMW-type customers, progressives with a nose for cinema, technology, and high bandwidth. “If you really understand your consumer, you can be very clever about how to communicate. You can change the whole paradigm,” says McDowell, who is now executive vice-president at Mini.

SNOWBALL EFFECT. McDowell didn’t take any half-measures. He went after talented directors such as John Frankenheimer (The French Connection) and Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and signed up stars such as Madonna, Clive Owens, and Gary Oldman—giving them complete artistic freedom, aside from the BMW model that starred in each film. No advance advertising heralded the Internet launch of the films.

The buzz started slowly with the first film but grew to avalanche proportions by the time Madonna’s short comedy film about a cranky diva was released, overwhelming BMW’s expectations and forcing the automaker to add servers as fast as it could.

But it didn’t stop there. As the short-film gambit rocketed around the blogosphere, national TV broadcasters flooded McDowell’s office with requests for interviews on CBS, Entertainment Tonight, and Fox News. The novelty of an automaker producing films fanned public interest and stoked downloads.

“EXPERIMENTAL ENVIRONMENT”. After one year, the number of viewers who had visited BMW’s Web site to download The Hire shot to over 21 million, and with three more films added in 2002, it rocketed to 100 million, sparking a Harvard Business School case study. One million enthusiasts ordered a DVD with all eight films.

McKinsey’s Manyika, who has studied networks extensively, says knowledge forced through a company top-down drives “conformity, consistency, and efficiency.” That’s better suited to companies that make a standardized widget than a complex, electronics-driven product that requires constant innovation.

Companies such as BMW have to tap into tacit knowledge to spark fresh ideas. “It’s more of a learning and experimental environment. It’s building on what people know. It’s learning instead of instruction,” says Manyike.

HOW IDEAS TRAVEL. For academics and consultants studying the phenomenon of corporate networks, the most fascinating element is the “node” or the broker individual who can join two separate clusters with different pools of knowledge. Such a broker may have once worked in purchasing but now sits in R&D. As such, he or she can bridge the two worlds by “reaching across the white space of disconnected people,” says Ronald S. Burt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, who is studying the impact corporate networks have on performance.

That linkage speeds learning throughout companies—a vital tool to industries that should continually innovate. “People exposed to a diversity of information are at higher risk of seeing a new angle, a better way to frame ideas,” says Burt. And companies that recognize and tap such social capital “have better growth rates and better patent rates. Formal structures decide who to blame. Informal structures decide how to get things done,” he says.

BMW Designworks USA – driven by design


Yet another BMW article on Business Week to add to the collection. Source:

BMW by Design

BMW’s California-based Designworks designs cars — but also cell phones, planes and coffee makers

Walk into Designworks USA’s corporate-style sprawling glass and concrete building in a nondescript office park in Newbury Park, Calif., and it’s not surprising to find a Formula One race car just off the reception area to greet visitors. After all, the design studio is part of BMW.

Wander around as far as the watchful security-minded staffers allow, and curiosity leads you to displays of cell phones, a cardiac exercise machine, bicycle helmets, a John Deere backhoe, photos of an airplane interior, and one of the HP Photosmart picture-printing kiosks found at drugstores. There’s even a Nilfisk brand carpet cleaner. What’s all this got to do with “The Ultimate Driving Machine?”

BMW bought Designworks in 1995 at the behest of chief designer Chris Bangle, who wanted a design post in California conveniently near the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (which he attended), and a full-service design studio that gets at least half of its business from clients other than the German carmaker.

FIRST CLASS. While hatching designs for BMW as important as the current 7 Series sedan, 1 Series sedan and hatchback, and X3 sport activity vehicle, it’s still the only studio of its kind in the auto industry driving innovation and cross-fertilization among products as diverse as vacuums and luxury cars. “We get to design around lifestyle changes in all these categories, and pretty much everything is being defined as a lifestyle brand these days,” says Alec Bernstein, Designworks’ director of advanced communications.

Perhaps the design generating the most excitement around Designworks this year is the interior of Embraer’s line of light corporate and personal jets. No wonder designers are giddy, as well as sentimental. BMW started out as an aviation company nearly a century ago (BMW’s familiar logo depicts a plane propeller in motion), building high-performance plane engines, before it went into autos.

It was a BMW engine, for example, that powered Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (The Red Baron) to fame and glory. And Embraer, the Brazilian aviation company, last December shelved its own design after Designworks spent about $20,000 to create a foam and plywood prototype that utilized seats from BMW’s Mini Cooper.

ALREADY A FAN. The Embraer 100 and 300 very-light-jets (VLJs) are the aviation company’s first foray into small, four-to-eight-passenger jets, a fast-growing segment of plane manufacturing (because of the rising nuisance factor of commercial air travel). Companies and well-heeled individual pilots are increasingly choosing to bypass two-hour departure procedures and other commercial hassles in favor of flying in style.

Besides liking the actual design, Embraer was attracted to Designworks’ experience in designing luxury cars. Most of the owner-operators of VLJs have one in the garage. “The cockpit and instrument cluster Designworks did is based more on automobile sensibilities than inspired by a fighter jet, and we were very attracted to that,” says Luis Carlos Alfonso, senior vice-president, corporate aviation market, for Embraer.

The irony is, since Designworks led BMW on the creation of the current 7 Series sedan, the reaction has been polarizing because of what many see as an overly complicated electronic interface in the center console, called iDrive, which controls on-board telematics, radio, climate, navigation, and more.

ARTFUL DESIGN. The interior of the Embraer Phenom 100, the less expensive of the two jets, aimed more at owner-operators than corporate fleets, has drawn great praise at aviation shows. Features singled out by customers and reviews: A bamboo floor option—the most hotly debated feature inside Embraer—more spacious passenger leg room than Embraer had engineered in-house or competitors have; a cockpit chair that slides back far enough to allow a pilot to pivot out of his chair instead of having to climb out, as is the case with most small jets; and a panoramic windshield that wraps around the pilot.

Artful design hasn’t been part of the small-plane market up to now. Even the steering yoke of the Phenom, with its triangular center, was inspired by a trip one of the Designworks designers made to Embraer’s Brazilian headquarters where he couldn’t help being struck by the abundance of bikini bottoms on the nearby beach.

Is there synergy between designing plane interiors and cars? Consider that the same designer who led on the Phenom’s interior also worked on the interiors of the Mini Cooper and Rolls Royce Phantom (Rolls is part of BMW too).

INFORMATION OVERLOAD. Verena Kloos is president of Designworks, and the German-born former Mercedes-Benz designer says she loves the profit-driven learning that benefits her studio, as well as corporate parent BMW. “We do a cell phone, or a graphic interface for a coffeemaker, or a photo-developing kiosk, and that informs how we manage in-flight entertainment systems for Embraer and that cycles back to what we do for BMW.” This way, she says: “We have to prove out our designs constantly to clients and there’s no safety net. It keeps us honest. These are not fancy design exercises, which get tiresome,” she says. Working on cars alone, she points out, can be stagnating because a designer typically only gets his or her work “proved out” every few years.

Design, says Kloos, is being driven today by making a lot of information more easily accessible to the consumer. She’s not kidding. The 7 Series iDrive system manages some 700 separate functions. The system has gone through two modifications since 2002, and BMW has developed a new system for the new 7 Series due out next year.

TACTILE TOUCHSTONE. With all that digital information needing to be designed and packaged, it’s both fitting and ironic that Kloos’s private passion is collecting paper. She has art objects sprinkled around her office made from recycled paper. “I love the idea of paper. It’s tactile. With so much of what we do today built around a digitized world, we need more tactile experiences.”

In a digital world, it’s easy to get caught up in the sheer abundance of what each new invention can do. But like each successful design, whether it be a car, plane or cell phone, she adds, paper is made one sheet at a time.