A good friend once told me about a successful Texas banking executive who made billions by starting and selling a series of southern banks. In spite of his financial success, he was feared as a businessman rather than respected. He was a shrewd person who held grudges and never forgot an enemy. Although I could discuss a number of his personal quirks – like hiring a driver to shuttle him around a 5-mile wide Texas community – I am more interested in the way he structured his organizations. This individual was clearly good at building banks that made his investors hundreds of millions of dollars, but he did it in a very unique way. He tried to create a complete barrier between himself and the rest of his employees even when many of his bank’s slogans were about being a “family asset” and “community steward.” He wanted to be a mystery to his employees rather than a father figure, community leader, or even respected boss. When remodeling the executive floor for one of his banks, he had a “secret” bathroom installed in his personal office that only he could use. This was such a sacred toilet that even the other executives couldn’t use it.
I understand that many executives have their own level and bathrooms, but this individual went out of his way to isolate himself from his employees. This sort of logic is antiquated and oppositional to what many successful contemporary organizations are doing with their organizational and architectural structuring. Businesses are now thinking more critically about how space can contribute to the organization’s financial and interactional bottom line. The Texas banker came from a very traditional approach to management, one where the managers know everything and the workers are lazy fools that are easily replaceable. He didn’t think about creating organizational environments that lead to enlightened interactions between the employees. The good ideas can only come from top-down.
If you understand that the way organizations are physically structured can either increase or prohibit useful communication (which research clearly shows it does), then I suggest giving your workers more AMMO: Accidental Milestone Meeting Opportunities. Many of our good ideas pop into our heads when we least expect it, when we are least stressed, and when we aren’t thinking about work. There is a ton of social and cognitive psychology scholarship explaining why our brains work this way, but all I am arguing is that managers should look for simple ways to let their employees interact in unique settings. People bring big ideas to meetings, they don’t come up with them in meetings. I am NOT talking about having more happy hours, company-sponsored events, and team brainstorming sessions. You should instead ask yourself who your employees talk to during the day. Where do they do this talking? What do they talk about? Could it be done more effectively somewhere else? Do employees from different departments interact? If not, why not?
These simple questions can help a forward-thinking manager begin to arm her employees with AMMO. The most creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial organizations literally give their employees time to de-stress, play around, and think about something other than work. If you’ve heard of Apple, 3M, and Google, then you know who I’m talking about. Now they don’t simply let their employees “play” without expecting results, as these are some of the most results-based companies on the planet. But they understand the productive potential of unstructured employee interactions and have learned to harness that potential. So instead of providing employees with ammo to defend themselves against an outdated management style, give them the type of ammo that leads to great ideas and rich interactions. These spaces for spontaneous creativity will take your company in surprisingly fresh directions.