If you’ve ever been to the Winchester Mansion in San Jose, California, you know what unplanned building looks like. If you haven’t been there, you need to search for pictures – or maybe plan a visit and experience a house that spreads out over 4 ½ acres, features 160 rooms, 40 staircases and 47 fireplaces, has chandeliers and windows that sport thirteen lights or lead-lines, and that has doors that lead onto multi-story drops into space – or into blank walls -- AND took 38 years of non-stop building to construct. Note that I didn’t say “finish.” It’s one of those places that you never forget after you tour it. Unplanned building is expensive, exhausting, and very, very memorable.
When we completed the acquisition of Dell Services last year, we had a lot of work to do to put the two companies together. Some was drudgery (internal systems, job codes, budgets) and some was really fun. One of the coolest tasks was building a new space where we could explore digital business possibilities, problems, technologies and processes with our customers. We call it the Collaboration Center. I thought I’d spend a few minutes discussing how we brainstormed, planned and built that space. Perhaps those going down a similar path — building innovation space — might find it useful.
The first plan was going to be to build a nice new space at our new HQ and just transfer one of our existing design studio’s equipment and processes there. So our first step was:
1. Yell “Stop!” if you’re not rethinking everything.
Quite frankly, digital time is to real time like dog years are to human years. For every month that goes by in real time, that’s at least a year in the digital world. So duplicating an old design — even one only a year old — wouldn’t work for us. Once we got the original plan stopped, we proceeded to step two:
2. Find out what’s not working. Find out what is working.
We dug into our existing centers. Since we had both companies to draw on, we found out what ideas hadn’t worked well. As an example, in one center we had three different collaboration technologies. None of which would talk to the others. It’s kind of hard to create a new digital design flow when the underlying technologies wouldn’t integrate, so we decided to pick only one collaboration tech in our new space. That’s one example, but we had a LOT of things we stopped doing.
Another example was a “cube” where we projected images around a user. It was a good concept (and pricey to build), but there were several issues. The number of lumens in the displayed images was so low that we had to turn out the lights in the rest of the lab in order to see them at all. That was kind of a creepy feeling to visiting customers. The cube also only held one person comfortably. Two people in the cube was even creepier. Lastly, the images were of such low quality that the response to them was a resounding “Meh.” So we liked the intent of the idea, but not its implementation.
Instead, in our new Collaboration Center, we built what we call the X Room. Like, as in ‘X Marks The Spot.’ Or ‘X-pand’ or ‘X-perience.’ It’s a room with 16 by 9-foot walls that surround you with touchscreen technology and high-definition projections — so that we can put you in a grocery store, in one of our data centers, or in an IndyCar.
In essence, we stole the best ideas from both companies (and avoided the worst mistakes) in this part of our process.
3. Brainstorm with annoying people. (People different from you).
Because we didn’t just want to pick from good existing ideas, we then needed to brainstorm completely new ones. And if you are having far-reaching, futuristic discussions with people who think like you do, you desperately need to broaden your team. What you’re looking for are people that have different ideas about how to use a tool — or opportunity or space — and then have a really good argument with them.
In our case, we didn’t just involve the best brains from our team, we invited in groups that designed, sold and delivered completely different services and products than we did. It took a lot of cajoling, listening, interrupting, re-thinking, persuading, objecting, convincing, experimenting and head-shaking, but it paid off in the end. It produced a much more flexible space than we could have designed by ourselves — and it kept us from locking ourselves into a metaphor and constraints that would have severely limited the Center’s use by a broader range of our customers.
Frankly, some of the ideas I hated most at the first became some of the best ideas we had. Some of the ideas that I thought were terrific were gutted by clear-eyed criticism — and well they should have been. The best advice I could give here on the process is to date your ideas — never marry them.
4. Design for re-design.
One of the foundational principles that we had for designing our new Collaboration Center was that no matter how inclusive, far-thinking, futuristic, innovative or insightful our design ideas were, in a maximum of six months there would be some that would be out-of-date. With that in mind, we worked with our construction team to create what we think of as the Technology Stage design that is the backbone of the Collaboration Center. In short, we used raised floors, open ceilings and few fixed walls to achieve this approach.
Between the raised floors below and a grid structure above, we have the capability of installing, removing or replacing most of our technologies in less than four hours. Our minimal approach to fixed walls drove us to the idea of using mobile walls, each eight feet tall and four feet wide, to allow us to customize and partition our space for each new task or collaboration session. We could create spaces that fit two to six different groups for distributed solutioning. And then we could reconfigure the space for one big group when we needed to. But the whole approach led toward creating a physical framework where everything technology-related can be changed.
5. Stealing and Supporting.
We were also unafraid to repurpose great ideas that other teams had used in other places and other times. One good example of this is the way Disney supports their amusement parks. Each park is designed to minimize how much visitors see people taking out trash, cleaning things up, doing maintenance, etc. We stole that idea and created our support team’s workroom next to the Collaboration Center. It features a separate entrance and viewing of sessions in progress so that the support team can jump in and help when needed — without being intrusive.
I’ve only touched on part of our process. In closing, I should mention that most of the Winchester Mansion still survives today. It’s basically unchanged from when Sarah Winchester passed away in 1922. It went from non-stop, unplanned construction for 38 years to a complete stop for the last 95. With our new Collaboration Center, we want to be continuously building, modifying and adapting. But we always want to do that with planning and with one purpose: to serve our customers with the best innovation they’ve ever had from a partner. With no creepy chandeliers.
Post Date: 15/11/2017