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Workplace: Innovation Thrives on Fearless Reinvention

Collaborative workspaces can actually help drive innovation, which has now been determined to be a process that can be learned.

Emily Watkins, SVP of Innovation and Product Development, Corporate Solutions, Jones Lang LaSalle (Directory 2013)
May you live in interesting times.

That double-edged Chinese proverb certainly could describe the current state of affairs for today’s corporate real estate and facility managers. And there may never be a more exhilarating, challenging, and potentially rewarding time in our industry than now, as a wave of change re-shapes our business virtually every day. Fearless reinvention — of technology, of service, of energy use — is now the critical success factor for corporate real estate and facility managers, in addition to constant improvement. The best facility managers already are distinguishing themselves through innovations that simultaneously drive both worker productivity and internal customer satisfaction. Spearheading multiple innovation initiatives for our corporate clients, I have spent much of this past year engaging industry thought leaders, facility planners, and end-users from across the United States and around the world. I’ve had the opportunity to really use the Corporate Real Estate 2020, the visionary “Future of Work” study released last spring by CoreNet Global, the international association of corporate real estate executives, service providers, and economic developers, as a catalyst to drive creative thinking. CRE 2020 was officially unveiled last May at the CoreNet Global 2012 Spring Summit in San Diego, Calif.

C-Suites Warm to BYOT
According to the CRE 2020 research, the future of our industry will be radically different from today, thanks in part to advancing technology that seems to enable new practices on a daily basis that only a few years ago were thought to be impossible. One of these trends is the concept of Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT), which empowers employees to become portable work stations with their own personal computers, smart phones, and other digital devices that today are as secure as their physical offices and integrated into their workflow.

The growing global popularity of BYOT already is transforming the size and design of corporate offices, as fewer square feet per employee are required, and individual cubicles give way to more collaborative workspaces that encourage brainstorming and allow employees to feed off each other creatively.


Innovation is an important concept for corporate real estate executives today, but what does it really mean? Emily Watkins discusses how executives are looking for new ways to prove their function’s relevance to the C-suite at CoreNet Global in Orlando.

Ideally, productivity also rises along with the satisfaction of both customers and employees. And that should be music to the ears of any C-suite occupants, who are always striving to find facility innovations as cost-effective as they are strategically and competitively advantageous.

In this new paradigm, personal choice allows professionals to leverage collaborative workspaces to work with and around others who bring different perspectives and spark creative solutions that might not have otherwise surfaced. By allowing employees to choose alternatives that empower and improve their own decision-making, the C-Suite ends up with a more productive, collaborative, and innovative work force that just happens to use less space.

Innovation Can Be Learned
For those of you thinking, “Well, creativity is nice, but are cost savings really achieved in this way? I’m a good manager, but I’ve never really been known for thinking outside the box,” don’t despair. Believe it or not, creativity and innovation can actually be learned via disciplined exercise and practice. At least that’s the conclusion of The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, published last summer. At CoreNet Global’s October summit in Orlando, Fla., I was honored to chair the “Innovation Laboratory” seminar that focused on The Innovator’s DNA, and saw how certain practices can generate new ideas.

Co-authored by three business school professors from Harvard University, Brigham Young University, and Singapore-based INSEAD, The Innovator’s DNA argues persuasively that creative thinking and being innovative are not necessarily genetic characteristics. On the contrary, based on interviews with nearly 100 entrepreneurs and other highly successful executives, the authors found that creativity can actually be learned by leveraging four specific behaviors: questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.

The fifth skill is what’s called “associational thinking,” which is really the wild card in the mix. Associational thinking is where you take an idea from one particular area and force a connection to another particular area. The book shows that, when you do that, you can come up with some very interesting, innovative solutions that you might not otherwise have considered. At CoreNet Global in Orlando, we applied this thinking to CRE 2020 themes as business issues on which to practice innovative thinking, specifically, workplace issues. The results at our DNA session were really terrific because attendees brainstormed on how to get employees to be more comfortable taking less space in the office, going from a really large area to a small cubicle. Oftentimes, this is a difficult transition. To brainstorm solutions, I led a fun exercise called “What would Twitter do?”

What Would Twitter Do?

After much energetic back and forth among groups in the breakout sessions, we concluded that Twitter would manage such change by doing what it does best — communicating incredibly effectively and often. So, toward that end, it was recommended that there be some sort of Twitter feed that generates buzz around what information is effective and helpful for people who have to go from taking a much bigger footprint to a smaller one.

When the exercise ended, the group also realized that many of the most popular suggestions had not even surfaced at the beginning of the session. Associational thinking, however, had forced all of us to make connections across seemingly unrelated fields and concepts to develop a more creative solution. In a reversal of the usual patterns, it was the process itself that spurred the innovation, not the other way around.
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