Make Room

You walk into the conference room to find a long string of tables, laid out in a U-shaped formation. Or maybe there are rows of narrow tables, at each chair, a place-setting of paper and a hotel pen, a small doily rests under each designated water glass. The fluorescent overhead lights buzz, the dark, dirt-hiding carpet ties the room together in a blandly professional way.

It’s going to be one of those meetings, you think, already dreading the next few hours or days that you’ll be sequestered in this room, suffering death by talking head or Powerpoint – or both.

Which is why we try, with the objective of inciting innovation, to create a different kind of meeting experience from the moment you enter the room. The right setting will impact the productivity of a group, the originality of ideas and ultimately the quality of the output of the event.

The optimal room for an innovation workshop probably isn’t in a hotel. It’s in an art gallery, or a science museum, or a funky warehouse space or an innovation lab equipped with all the supplies necessary to induce creative thinking. We counsel our clients to consider an off-the-beaten-track kind of venue when they’re thinking about where to host a workshop; the simple act of turning up at a unique address can get people geared up for being more creative.

Simply finding an exotic setting isn’t enough. Especially with a residential event like a Sandpit or Ideas Lab, the standard hotel or conference center meeting room is often what we have to work in. In either case, the meeting room has to meet certain specifications. If the room isn’t right, the workshop won’t do what it’s set out to do.

Our wish must list includes:

A main meeting room twice the size that you’d think necessary.
If your participant count (including facilitators, mentors and visitors) is 30 people, the room ought to seat 60 people banquet style. Theatre-style rooms are fine for movie screenings, but not well suited to the work of collaborative innovation. We like to put people face-to-face at round tables, with plenty of empty space for out-of-chair activities that keep people from feeling penned in. A large room also adds meters to the available wall space.

Plenty of wall space. We mean flat, empty walls without paintings, pictures and decorative lighting. We’ll be hanging up flip chart pages and other activities on kraft-paper or butcher-block paper or whatever paper we use to track our work as we move through the process. We want to see everything we’ve done, so we need a lot of unblemished wall space to display it.

Yet windows for natural light. At least one wall has to have some windows. If the view is green and natural and inspiring, all the better.

Carpet on the floor. In ways you’d never imagine, the sound of many discussions at once without anything to absorb it can cause fatigue that’s counterproductive. Carpet is a must, even if it’s ugly. It’s important to be kind on the ears.

Round tables around which people can have dynamic small group discussions. Theatre-styled seating is fine for large congresses or a musical performance, but it’s not particularly conducive to creativity. We never seat people in rows when we want them to talk to each other, and even the big U-shaped set-up feels too formal and doesn’t facilitate the kind of intimate idea-sharing that leads to innovation.

Technology, the latest versions. Projectors that go on and off without endless warm-up periods and noisy fans. Lights that can be raised and dimmed as needed, on command. Audio speakers so we can use music to bring up the energy when it’s too low and bring it down when people are too stressed – or sometimes just for a laugh. Temperature control that’s in our own hands, not the physical plant manager in another wing of the building. And WiFi.

Yes, WiFi. Although we hope that the workshops we run are so compelling and captivating that people set their smart phones aside, we know that for some people, not checking in is more distracting to them then an occasional interruption. Besides, we often want to get information instantly, or we need to review the literature available on a subject. Not only do we allow wifi, we beg the venues we work in to make it strong and wide enough for everyone to function.

Break-out rooms rooms where people can work in small groups without being distracted, and a dining room (or designated room) for meals that’s not the main meeting room. Lounge areas for a casual, comfortable change-of-scenery. Nature nearby, for perspective-building views and incubative walks. It also helps to have a good bar for informal idea generation. Best case scenario: we’re the only event at the venue, so we can take it over every corner.

Color, warmth and toys. Even with our rearrangements, a meeting room can still feel cold. So we bring colored pens and post-its, small toys for the tables. Sometimes we’ll set up a few guitars and a drum set, or guitar-hero – among other games – ready to go on our Wii station. We have a number of electronic cars, helicopters and hovering machines to distract and delight people during breaks. The objective of these “foolish” accessories is to create an environment where people want to play. We’ve found that fiddling with toys sometimes helps put people in the mood to play with ideas and concepts.

Where you meet sets the mood for your meeting, which is why the space matters. Put people in the same old meeting room and the chances of getting the same old meeting output are pretty good. If it’s a big open room with an inviting seating plan around Arthurian round tables, with long walls of white paper ready to receive hundreds of colorful ideas, it sets an entirely different tone than immovable chairs lined tight and facing forward. If you want to make room for innovation, you have to make the room the kind of place that will invite it.

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Know Further:

Why the round tables? Research on curvilinear furniture on people’s emotions. More about innovation labs, and an inventory of research studies about play.