On creating a business plan for a firm-wide, culture-changing initiative

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” Winston Churchill said. He was talking about architecture but the same could be said about developing a firm of architects and designers. Leadership sets a firm’s culture in motion; thereafter the culture shapes those of us who work within it.

It is the programs that leadership chooses to support that are the prime movers of culture. In 2008, a small group of Perkins+Will colleagues and I were participating in the inaugural class of our firm’s Leadership Institute. We had been given a daunting challenge: present a business plan for a firm-wide, culture-changing initiative. Perkins+Will’s Innovation Incubator program emerged from the effort. “The Innovation Incubator will foster, through micro-grants of money and time, a culture of innovation, creativity and experimentation by supporting small research projects proposed by individuals,” our mission statement read.

Participation

The first Innovation Incubator call-for-submissions resulted in 89 entries from Perkins+Will professionals competing for micro-grants of 40 hours of company-paid time over a six-month period, plus modest travel and materials expense budgets. Nineteen were chosen from across our global offices, and each successfully completed projects, presentations or publications. Since then, the firm has awarded two cohorts of Innovation Incubator participants annually — in Spring and Fall of each year — funding at least ten projects per class.

Participant selection is done in collaboration between our Innovation Incubator selection committee and our director of research. We evaluate each submission on its degree of innovation, relevance and scope.

Innovation

  • How innovative is it?
  • Is it completely new or an incremental refinement?
  • Does it have the potential to position us as thought leaders?

Relevance

  • Is the project related to a discipline, practice area or initiative?
  • Does the outcome have potential value to Perkins+Will?
  • Might the exploration contribute to the “broader goals of society”?

Scope

  • Is the project defined in terms of scope, process and outcome?
  • Are the deliverables achievable within the given timeframe?

Passion

Perhaps of equal importance, though, is the personal and professional passion that participants have for the topics they submit for consideration. Nearly 100 projects have successfully passed the selection gauntlet to-date, and the subject matter of those initiatives has proven to be extraordinarily broad. The topics pursued — from therapeutic healing gardens and behavioral health solutions, to sustainable “deep lighting” systems and urban wetland interventions — highlight our diversity of interests. The methodologies explored — from developing apps for tracking office-users’ traffic patterns to employing 3-D digital design tools — reflect our varied ways of working.

We have found that the quality of the final Innovation Incubator project submissions far exceed the firm’s investment and should be viewed as a testament to the passion that fuels many of our professional endeavors. In fact, while participants are given a budget of 40 “free” hours from the firm, 50 percent of Innovation Incubator professionals end up devoting at least twice that amount of their own spare time to further their investigations.

Passion for the Innovation Incubator program remains long after one’s participation in it. “The innovation Incubator is a manifestation of the firm’s interest in bold exploration, and as such, is the most exciting program that Perkins+Will offers. It has become an inspiring and educating forum for a wide range of creative thinking, uniting playfulness and analytical rigor in research,” says Tinka Rogic, Perkins+Will Architect and former Incubator awardee.

Partnerships

A core belief at Perkins+Will is that an interdisciplinary approach to design produces superior client solutions. So, it is not a coincidence that so many Innovation Incubator projects take on a noticeably collaborative, interdisciplinary flavor. Nearly 28 percent of Innovation Incubator projects are pursued by groups of colleagues rather than individual participants.

Sometimes these project teams extend beyond the firm — incorporating a professional or partner organization with a vested interest in the outcome. Matt Finn is an Atlanta-based architect with Perkins+Will whose recent Innovation Incubator examined how design and healing spaces can facilitate therapy for veterans suffering from PTSD. To get a better understanding of how a veteran perceives and reacts to their surroundings, Matt partnered with Corporal Clinton McMahan, U.S. Marine Corps veteran, and Dr. Edward Vega, a psychotherapist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Perkins+Will participants also represent a diverse mix of practice areas and geographies. Experts from each of our seven service lines have contributed to the Innovation Incubator program: from Architecture and Interiors, to Branded Environments and Urban Design. Sixteen of our 23 global offices have yielded Innovation Incubator participants so far: from Dallas to Dundas; from Los Angeles to London.

Synergy

Several other leadership-sponsored activities at our firm support Innovation Incubator research projects before, during and after their grant timeframe.

For example, Perkins+Will’s annual Design Competition is often a stimulant for rising talent and fresh ideas that are later developed through the Innovation Incubator system. Patrick Cunningham, a project designer and senior associate in Perkins+Will’s Boston office, had been with the firm only eighteen months before entering and winning the Design Competition. He later went on to be a three-time Innovation Incubator grantee.

Launched twelve years ago by Pat Bosch, design director of Perkins+Will’s Miami office, the internal design competition is open only to the firm’s staff below the associate principal level. Over the course of one Fall weekend without any prior program or site information provided, upwards of eighty self‐selected teams of one to three members tackle a common design brief. An external jury of designers and subject matter experts — which has included the likes of Architectural Record editors and New York Times architecture critics — reviews the submittals and winners are awarded cash prizes and a traveling road show of their single-board presentation.

Evidence-based design is another key tenet of Perkins+Will and, as a result, the firm has a stream of research activities that supplement the Innovation Incubator program. AREA Research, for instance, is a non-profit affiliate of the firm that connects design professions, academia, and research institutions into a community of practice and research to improve the built environment and the lives of its inhabitants. AREA’s capabilities, along with the firm’s dedicated research staff, add scientific rigor to Innovation Incubator investigations.

At the same time, the firm has crafted its own office spaces to serve as “Living Labs” — physical arenas for experimentation in culture, building technology, and sustainability. In the firm’s Atlanta office, a wireless monitoring system — an innovation sprung from the incubator program — can track the movements of Perkins+Will professionals in order to assess how and where impromptu meetings and collaboration are occurring. Fine-tuned, such technology might inform design decisions leading to enhanced intra-office communication.

Once an Innovation Incubator participant has completed their grant period and presented findings, Perkins+Will’s bi-annual research journals and Ideas+Buildings blog provide ready-made platforms for thought leadership distribution. Beyond publication, the firm is building bridges with entrepreneurship accelerators to help participants prototype and “product-ize” viable business ideas which emerge from their projects. In Atlanta, for example, the firm has begun a relationship with the Center for Civic Innovation — an organization that nurtures enterprises focused on solving social challenges — which can provide our professionals with the networks, resources, mentors, and unique access to capital they need to succeed.

Outcomes

The Innovation Incubator micro-grant program motivates proactive idea exploration, technical development, evidence-based process-improvement, and design collaboration among our colleagues — and produces better results for our clients. However, there are three additional positive outcomes that I believe have been the unanticipated, but perhaps the most valuable, benefits of the program.

1. Develop our staff:

The Innovation Incubator initiative is creating a community of lifelong learners amongst our professionals. It emphasizes our positive, entrepreneurial culture and encourages creative competition. It also provides a safe haven for talented professionals to experiment, fail, succeed, flex their mental muscle, stretch their skills and more quickly develop into strong leaders. “We make the world better with a working environment and culture that promotes creativity and invention, a key hallmark of the Innovation Incubator is attracting thinkers and creators to our Firm,” said Meg Brown, Principal and Director of Human Resources.

2. Create and tell our stories:

Elizabeth Ward, an urban designer and LEED Green Associate with Perkins+Will in Atlanta, pursued an Innovation Incubator project that allowed her to share a very personal passion for coastal wetland environments and address the imminent threats to their survival in developed areas. “The Innovation Incubator let me explore this issue that I had been interested in for a long time: how climate change is impacting urban environments and how to mitigate that risk,” she said. Elizabeth produced a book — as one outcome of this project — that raises public awareness of the issue and identifies real, hard and certain solutions that can make coastal urban areas more resilient. “The Innovation Incubator program provides the opportunity for unique passions and perspectives to emerge within the firm through an unfettered process of idea exploration. Allowing the voices of individuals to be supported and heard translates directly into the culture and work environment of Perkins+Will. This is a program that inspires and cultivates innovation, fosters connections between people and projects across the firm, and ultimately enhances our expertise and experience in all of the work that we do,” Elizabeth said.

3. Honor society’s broader goals:

Our firm’s tagline is “Ideas + Buildings That Honor the Broader Goals of Society” and our job is to bring that to life every day. I am especially proud that so many of our Innovation Incubator participants are framed for significant social impact on education, environment and the health and well-being of our families, friends and neighbors. One of my colleagues, Ryan Gravel, wrote a master’s thesis in 1999 articulating the original vision for the Atlanta Beltline, a 22-mile transit greenway that transforms a loop of old railroads with transit, parks, and trails to generate economic growth and protect quality-of-life in the central city. At Perkins+Will, Ryan has helped lead early design work on the Atlanta Beltline itself and, through the Innovation Incubator program, he has continued research on the adaptive reuse of urban infrastructure. “My Innovation Incubator grant gave me the time to illustrate how my ideas about infrastructure might apply to the roadways of Detroit, and how that might help shape the future of the city. It laid the groundwork for a full length book on the role of infrastructure in our lives — how it can be reimagined as a brighter path forward for cities,” Ryan said.

Along with several synchronous Perkins+Will programs like our Design Competition and AREA Research, the Innovation Incubator has fostered a vibrant culture of research and thought leadership that shapes our careers and our clients’ experiences and outcomes. Our innovation culture, in turn, equips us to compete continuously and successfully for the world’s best clients and colleagues.

Diana Davis is a senior project architect with the healthcare practice at Perkins+Will. Diana joined Perkins+Will in 1998, is one of the cofounders of the firm’s Innovation Incubator and continues to serve on the program’s selection committee. She is based in the Atlanta office.