Workplace as Fuel for Team Effectiveness and Innovation

This post is the second in a series exploring topics discussed in Perspectives 2015, PDR’s workplace strategy leader-to-leader forum.

This post is the second in a series exploring topics discussed in Perspectives 2015, PDR’s workplace strategy leader-to-leader forum.

By Jill Duncan

Teamwork, the cooperative effort by members of a group to achieve a common goal, is paramount for organizations to innovate and create new methods, ideas, and products. The importance of team effectiveness and innovation is not a new conversation in business, as these ideas have been on leadership priority lists for decades. New are the links that bring scientific proof to emotional intelligence (EQ) perceptions and the definitive evidence that physical environments make a difference in both.

Science is beginning to align in core team competencies as recognition of the importance of team effectiveness increases. Google’s three year Project Aristotle identified that high social sensitivity and equality in conversational turn-taking are underlying predictors of success, regardless of other factors. Teams with these essential elements consistently outperformed, no matter the makeup or goal. Jeff Colvin’s book Humans are Underrated, highlights what organizations will value most in the new economy, including the human elements that machines will never “own” because of our nature. Interpersonal abilities of empathy, social sensitivity, collaboration, and relationship building lead the list. Does your workplace enable your teams to do their best work? When done right, physical environments can be designed to foster culture and help your teams achieve flow.

The Conference Board’s 2014-2015 Global Leadership Forecast reports that innovation is the third highest business challenge for leaders, yet only 26% say their organizations are good at it. Unsurprisingly, the findings associated with innovative organizations are similar to those of effective teams. Research suggests that those who innovate and have good ideas do so because they have more ideas or “at bats” to choose from and they vet dead-ends quickly. High trust teams that maintain equity in conversational turn-taking naturally generate more ideas. The 2007 Wall Street Journal article “Together We Innovate” highlights three problems that stifle innovation in networks:  Under communication, bad gatekeepers, and insularity. Proposed solutions include: getting the right people talking and rapidly testing and refining ideas that matter. Creating a culture of innovation is deliberate. Phil Gilbert, General Manager of IBM Design, is leading the effort to infuse design thinking methodologies into the everyday to improve innovation at IBM. Key goals are increased speed, improved marketplace success, and a push beyond incremental innovation. This deliberate effort should include assessment of your organization’s workplace design. What business drivers are pushing you to innovate, and are they uniquely supported by your workplace? 

Physical workplace plays a vital role in enabling or hindering collaboration, building trust, representing equality, and supporting an organization’s cultural norms. Ed Catmull, now Disney Animation Studio President, utilized workplace as one key lever to “fix” Disney Animation after Disney’s acquisition of Pixar. He created a workplace environment where employees felt safe to fail, worked confidently in trusting relationships, and altered their perspective on work and creativity. Catmull speaks to his experience in his book Creativity, Inc., stating, “a big part of creativity is about teaching people to see” and “creating transparency through accessibility.” Those that ignore their workplace or maintain a business as usual approach will be chasing others who proactively leverage it and change. The key is to create the right environment for the right reasons for the right entity. One answer does not fit all, and it is rarely obvious what’s best.

As a lead in PDR’s Workplace Performance practice, I often come across team effectiveness issues with clients across industries as they strive to lay the groundwork for innovation. Environments that foster design thinking are very different than the traditional workplaces that exist in many organizations today. Done right to support distinct organizational goals, they enable cross-functional co-creation and sharing. The Stanford supports this user-centered approach with the advice to form a coherent vision out of messy problems. In PDR’s experience, we have measured employees in new spaces ramping up in half the time of those in traditional environments. Multiplied across an organization, this can easily have a seven figure impact.

Are you a leader in your organization’s strategy for team effectiveness and innovation? Perspectives is a workplace strategy leader-to-leader forum, designed to spark a valuable exchange of ideas about the future of workplace strategy. Perspectives 2016 is set for August 31st and September 1st. The topic focus is Collegiate to Corporate: Workplace Insights from Learning Environments, and how we enable the next generation of problem solvers. 

I invite a deeper discussion with your organization. If you are interested in Perspectives, please contact

Jill Duncan

Jill has been a Workplace Strategist for most of her 30-year career and the PDR practice lead for 4 years. Jill is a connector and collaborator, helping organizations leverage workplace as a strategic business tool, aligning leadership to a common goal, and understanding cultural impacts on the bottom line. As a trusted advisor, she works with leaders across the globe influencing working, learning, and healing environments.