• John Bowie

Turn 'em Loose! #4: Place

Several years ago, I conducted a series of workshops on design thinking throughout the USA. I promised participants that we would work through a process – a series of questions – that would guide them to discover a multi-million-dollar solution to a hard design problem that they had been struggling with. It worked every time.

I rented conference rooms in hotels for these workshops. Invariably, they were sterile, windowless rooms with white walls in nondescript locations – hardly the kind of places that inspire innovative thinking. You know the kind of rooms I’m talking about; you’ve been in these venues whenever you’ve gone to a national conference in a large urban conference center.

By the time I got to Seattle, I had had enough. The workshops had become automatic, routine. I had lost all the passion I used to bring to my earlier sessions.

So, without thinking about it too much, about one hour into the presentation I moved all the participants outside to the grounds of the hotel where we could see the sky, feel the breeze, smell the grass, and hear the birds. Of course, this meant I wouldn’t have my PowerPoint slides to use as a crutch, but I knew what I wanted to say and didn’t need any supports to say it. I wanted to connect with the people in attendance, have a conversation, not a lecture. I wanted my participants to interact, share their stories, and work with me through the series of questions that would guide all of us toward an “Ah-ha” moment.

I wanted inspiration. I needed inspiration.

Evidently my participants needed it, too, because that session resulted in several requests to deliver on-site versions of my workshop, including two with a major software company in the area. Thankfully, these sessions were conducted as offsites in inspirational places surrounded by pine trees and waterfalls, not in corporate conference rooms.

Your creative teams are charged with solving wicked-hard design problems. They are the right people to invent fresh solutions to customer pain points and to find unforeseen ways to satisfy customers’ big unmet needs. Yet to support these people, to optimize the conditions under which these solutions can be envisioned, tested, iterated upon, and designed, you confine them to work in a place for 40 hours per week that looks like this…?


Is this a place that inspires innovation?

Or is this?


As leaders of creative teams, you need to care – not about how much time your team spends at their desks – but about giving them the latitude to go to places where inspiration – and therefore innovation – can flow. Such places require more than a whiteboard and a stack of Post-it® Notes. For some this may be a cabin in the mountains. For others an art museum. For others a sailboat on a lake. For others, the living room in their home or their deck. Places of inspiration are as diverse as the individuals on your team, and you should not expect them to think big thoughts in one-size-fits-all cube farms and sterile conference rooms. Giving your team the opportunity to work offsite is an investment in your company’s future. It’s not coddling your employees. It’s not a boondoggle. You should care about your team’s results – not where those results are achieved.


This is why – when Colorado Design Labs begins conducting workshops in the summer of 2021 – they will be offered only in the Colorado mountains, inside in rooms with views and natural light, with breakout sessions outside amid the trees and sky and sun and fragrant air of the Rocky Mountains.

In such a place, innovation will spring effortlessly from your creative team, but only if you, as leaders, are willing to abandon conventional corporate policies and turn ‘em loose.

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