Collaborative Workgroups

Over the past five years or so I’ve had the dubious honour of working on various projects in an area that property professionals call “workplace.”

Workplace is associated with architects and design or with communication and what is often called change management, but put simply just seems to be a vehicle for moving people from one desk type, space or building to another. Amongst other things, Change Champions are recruited and inevitably exposed to the scourge known as Activity Based Working or ABW for short.

ABW appears to be touted as the be all and end all of “compressing” – read: improving – the workplace, creating efficiencies through sharing desks and providing people with lockers. Compressing here means doing more with less and where much of what I have observed ends in tears when the workplace doesn’t end up functioning at all, because ABW in itself is flawed.  

I presume that the geniuses who are attempting to implement it forget that ABW is simply a catalyst for rearranging furniture, not a catalyst for measurable change and improvement.

Real change and actual improvement come from assessing how people work together, how workgroups are formed and how people team up to achieve results.

Eventually those results are measured and the workgroups prove themselves to be worthy of a label like ROI (forgive me if you are not devotee of ABW and actually already know that ROI is the acronym for Return on Investment) or they end up being reconfigured to actually achieve ROI.

What astounds me about ABW is that it masquerades as a method for compressing or realising efficiencies with how a workplace is used, thereby improving the workforce somehow by association. What this means in practice is that companies spend millions on implementing an ABW designs only to realise at some point that compression and results relate to what amounts to about 25% of a company’s costs. 

That’s right the workplace – the buildings where people work – amount to up to 25% of the cost of doing business, whereas the people and what they are doing amounts to up to 75% of a company’s costs. ABW does not cater for people, knowledge or behaviour it was “dreamed up” by an Architectural firm to “WOW” potential clients into thinking they could have workplace nirvana.

So what is valid, relevant and measurable? Good question!

Enter Collaborative Workgroups (CWG yes we had to have an acronym to combat the ABW BS) which CSI has used successfully all over the world for the last 10 years to demonstrate actual improvement in a workforce and where, “workplace” is one of twelve things that a company needs to do to get to real and measurable results and ROI. An actual process and methodology that uses real collaboration and innovation as a foundation not as buzz words.

First let’s look at why we want people to collaborate. We want people to collaborate because in our technology disrupted world we’ve learned that the right kinds of collaboration result in innovation. So what’s innovation? According to management guru Peter Drucker:

“Innovation is change that creates a new dimension of performance. The ultimate test of performance is whether it does a better job for a customer.”

When I speak in front of audiences globally we end up agreeing on this as an unambiguous definition, and through our interactive discussion the audience and I move onto why it’s so important to eliminate ambiguity when we talk about creativity, innovation, and collaboration.  

So, the next obvious topic for my curious audiences is: how do we know when innovation is happening — and better still, how do we know if we’re on track to forming collaborative workgroups that end up as an innovation capability within a workforce?


We start this part of the discussion with one of my favourite Steve Jobs quotes:

“I discovered that the best innovation is sometimes the company, the way you organise a company. The whole notion of how you build a company is fascinating.”

I agree emphatically! It’s one thing to create something innovative – a product or service – and it’s quite another to create an enduring innovation capability that makes products and services “stick.”

As a University Professor I invented the 12-point Plan for Effective Collaboration, which we commercialised in CSI and have used to assess the innovation readiness of more than 1000 companies worldwide.

In order to truly innovate, we need the collective mind. One of the challenges of innovation, workspaces, and the workplace is how, when, and where we balance the need for creativity and innovation and how we maintain relationships face-to-face and in the virtual world.


As I mentioned earlier one of the 12 points is Workplace and another is Collaborative Workgroups. The reason we emphasise Collaborative Workgroups in our discussions with property professionals is that it is Point Number 9 and thereby represents the sum total of things a company needs to do to be competitive. The three points after Collaborative Work Groups represent how and where they are measured for proving results and ROI.

Let me be clear. What I am saying is that Collaborative Workgroups determine a company’s competitive advantage; the ways people work together and team up to achieve results determine how their work will result in financial success and how they do a “better” job for a customer which results in them being a better employee.

So you might ask what does this have to do with workplace and ABW. Well, first off forget about ABW it has had its 15 minutes of fame. Second, if you have insight into what a company thinks its competitive advantage might be then you will be better at determining how the workplace should be designed and configured. To achieve this you use CSIs 12 points to understand how workers assimilate strategy through guidelines, how they plan and establish market position, and how knowledge, competencies, recruitment and available experts get used to create workgroups.

This works for all types of companies because it forces you to look at a company from the available knowledge base – its people – and how they can be steered toward achieving objectives and key results. It provides insight into behaviour and how people actually work not simply the activities they might engage in periodically day-by-day. Collaborative Workgroup analysis also identifies gaps in capability and helps to define how to fill them. It clarifies how the workplace should be configured with technology, how to configure existing systems and process, and when to intervene with a guiding hand in an environment of collaboration and trust.

It also forces us to look at how we might have to disconnect periodically because unplugging occasionally improves mental health by discouraging certain behaviours (stop scrolling, texting and clicking) and encouraging others (convey thoughtful, nuanced ideas and creativity). The reason this is true is that innovation is fundamentally about people and how they work together in Collaborative Workgroups which need to be face-to-face at least some of the time. The 12-points address this issue explicitly.

One of the other ways companies often attempt to understand how to implement innovation is through various design thinking methods like personas, journey mapping and cultural probes. They are referred to as user-experience (UX) design methods.

All of them, and others, are an incredibly useful exercise for understanding stakeholders and improving the employee experience of a workplace for instance. But at the end of the day, they are maps and abstractions. To truly impact an employee’s experience, action must be taken, in the form of physical and behavioural change that can be monitored and measured.

I’ve seen companies hire designers to rehash their personas and journey maps over and over again only to find, eventually, they are really just having a conversation with themselves. The big four accounting firms are becoming very good at formulating really expensive projects to help you with your UX designs. What we really want is to create smart, relevant designs that can be tailored to the individual level and shown to have ROI impact measures, no amount of “talk” can achieve that no matter how clever your new buzz words might be.

I’m not saying don’t do UX design for the workplace; what I am saying is you also need to bring systems thinking methods into the mix to make sure your designs have an implementation angle as well as a smart, feel-good, intelligent design angle, that is actually relevant.

The design angle is clearly important. As we begin to get better at integrating technology into the workplace we need to be able to tell stories about how the future will be different, so that we can communicate lessons learned and work out “what next.”

Enter the 12 point plan. Each of CSIs 12 points leads up to collaborative workgroups and will eventually get you to an understanding of how to impact every individual in a way that has a positive impact on your company’s bottom line. The 12 points refer to the actions and steps that need to be taken so that what gets done creates measurable improvement from collaboration. The 12 points translates UX design stories into something that can be implemented and measured to make sure an imaged future can become an established reality.

Using the CSI systems thinking process embedded in the 12 points ensures that UX designs and personas aren’t just isolated stories, it ensures that individuals either have choice about where to work and how as well as being engaged in something meaningful that will have an impact on objectives and key results.

Doing something relevant and interesting that contributes to a greater whole and being recognised for it also contributes to Emotional Intelligence and Wellness in a workplace.

One of the key issues the 12-points emphasises is that to be innovative, it’s not practical to have a full workforce of telecommuters. To mitigate the risks of not being innovative, we need face-to-face work, bespoke workspaces, and new work methods.

Therefore, the workplace becomes not only where people work, but where people innovate and collaborate.

I’m not saying that the traditional workplace is where we need to go back to; rather, we need to think more clearly about the function of workplaces as vehicles through which we engage with the wider world and deliver on innovative products and services.

A real issue here is that the virtual world – where we work when we’re not in an office – is a complete mess. We are all so over-connected to each other through so many devices, technology platforms and social media that we risk bringing productivity to a grinding halt – unless we get our virtual spaces just as neat, tidy, and well-designed as our offices and workspaces.

In order to truly innovate, we need the collective mind.

One of the challenges of innovation, workspaces, and the workplace is how, when, and where we balance the need for creativity and innovation and how we maintain relationships face-to-face and in the virtual world.

Interestingly, within three of the world’s most successful companies – Apple, Google and Facebook – employees are not allowed to telecommute, as a general rule. This emphasises that the ways people work together to innovate and create competitive advantage needs to be place-based to get measurable results.

By applying our 12 points framework we can create deliberate and measurable work practices that show where it is appropriate to work in the virtual world, and where and when we need to be in the same workplace at the same time.

The dominance of the virtual world – and the fact that machines have entered the social realm – is going to force us to define, measure, and monitor how people work in physical and virtual workspaces. Social media will force new governance models that require the diminishing of direct supervision, plus the emergence of collaboration and trust over command and control. Finally, Collaborative Workgroups addresses better planning, new performance metrics, and the creation of the unambiguous commitment that are paramount to forming a successful innovation capability.

The whole notion of work will be defined around a collective social intelligence that effectively combines our physical existence, with a cleaner virtual world all tethered to technology. Ideas and creativity will then become ubiquitous sparks that fly until a collective workforce is created in fit-for-purpose, socio-technical workplace.

I am not in any way suggesting that we get rid of technology, that would be silly, unproductive AND impossible, but the truth is our existing ‘social’ platforms are engineering our brains to simply be good little social-media users. What CSI and Collaborative Workgroups is about is engineering our brains to be who you can be by making sure your work activities are valuable and valued by the people you work with.

In this near-future world, socio-technical workplaces will enable people to embrace innovation not by the pseudo-analysis of activity bases, but by implementing Collaborative Workgroups.