When leading a series of innovation workshops in our home town for the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team with division leaders at Memphis’ City Hall, our task was steep: change long-standing behavior patterns. Turn doers into innovators. Have proven professionals who are deeply embedded in their roles get out of their current paradigm and empathize with the community and citizens they serve. Break the cognitive lock created by doing the same thing every day and see the city with fresh eyes.
While we created several fast-paced and role-playing exercises to accomplish this goal, we wanted to evoke the sense that this was not business as usual from the outset.
We arrived early to plan for the session. The space itself was set up for parliamentary-style debates. On the wall were daunting signs that read, “DO NOT MOVE THE FURNITURE.” There was no choice but to break the mandate of City Hall.
To shift the roles, we had to shift the rules, respectfully and playfully. To change the space is to change the poetics of space. By altering the configuration of the room, we alter the expectations of the participants. Everything shifts.
When the division leaders entered and saw a space that once was set up for debate and competition now set up for playful collaboration and exploration, it was a clear sign that this would be not only a meeting, but an experience—and it was. Even the mayor stopped by and reveled in the workshop’s findings and the animated level of potential in the room. The participants were energized, engaged, and an active, crucial part of the creative problem solving process.
The lesson: shift things around. Move people into new roles for a day or just a meeting. Move furniture. Change desks for a day. Experiment with breaking set patterns, for a limited time. Not only is it re-energizing for the participants, but it also yields beneficial insights that might grow a business or make the world a better place.
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Michael Graber is the cofounder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis.