An interview with Diana Davis, co-founder of Perkins + Will’s Innovation Incubator

In 2015, Fast Company ranked Perkins + Will #4 among the world’s top 10 most innovative companies in architecture “For recognizing that designing for better health isn’t just about hospitals. Perkins+Will is one of the nation’s leading firms in health care design, but its work has moved beyond the standard definition of health care. It’s working in several cities to plan ‘health districts,’ combining urban planning with health care architecture to foster healthier outcomes for patients while they’re in the hospital and after they leave.” In an interview with DesignIntelligence, Diana Davis — co-founder of the firm’s Innovation Incubator — shares insights on the value of creating a culture of innovation.

How do you define innovation at Perkins+Will?

The term “innovation” has become such a buzzword lately that I fear it is being overused and therefore has started to mean many things to many people. It is important not to conflate the term with “creativity,” which can be the temptation in creative organizations. Creativity implies a facility in producing novel ideas or approaches, whether or not they are relevant or implementable. Innovation means applied creativity that creates a defined value for our business.

What are the advantages of having a formal innovation program?

The primary value, and the reason we formalized our Innovation Incubator program in the first place, is to provide a vehicle for celebrating innovative thinking, and thus making innovation an integral part of our culture. Because the only requirement of the program is for the recipient of an innovation grant to document and present the results of their study, it necessarily gets shared and discussed. The fact that it is a competitive, award based grant, creates a sense of urgency and motivates our people to get their ideas on paper. A secondary advantage is that the program has been a unique recruitment and retention tool. There aren’t a lot of places where a recent graduate and a seasoned principal have the same opportunity to pursue an innovative idea through a mini-sabbatical.

How can leaders create a culture of innovation?

Because innovation is seen as having a serendipitous aspect, leaders can often shy away from systematizing a means of achieving it. It often gets spoken about as a necessary goal, but without an implementable plan backing it up. To succeed requires planning, training, and resource management like any other initiative. Culture is what gets expressed in the things people say and do when no one is watching. Innovation can only happen when all elements of a culture are supportive of innovative behaviors: for instance, you can’t say you want innovation and then be risk-intolerant as an organization. It also requires follow-through: the culture must not only support innovative thinking, but have the discipline to implement the best ideas.

What are the “must haves” for innovation?

An innovation program must be provided with resources and be aligned with the organization’s strategic plan, or it won’t succeed. Unharnessed creativity and personal empowerment can be just as dangerous to an organization as too much rule-based thinking. There needs to be a system in place for bringing the innovative ideas that are truly a value add forward to implementation while not discouraging explorations that may seem to be “wild hairs.” We felt it was important to create a program that allowed people to explore their ideas without the pressure that a failure would be personally or organizationally catastrophic. But we’ve also tried to encourage proposals that are focused enough to achieve their aim without burnout or fatigue. If we see an idea come through that feels too big for an “incubator,” we encourage the applicant to focus their proposal or phase their approach.

What are the chief barriers to innovation you see in firms?

It is all too common in our industry, where the structure of our contracts generally incentivizes more profit through less labor cost, to only focus on the adoption of new processes that are related to production efficiency. This leaves a whole world of investigation languishing that could prove beneficial to our positions as knowledge leaders, client advocates, building technology specialists, etc. While I’ve already stressed the value of being sure that innovation is encouraged with an eye to business value, it also fails when it is too prescribed. Innovation thrives on diversity — of thought and of people. It can’t succeed in a culture that doesn’t appreciate and encourage cross-pollination. It is also not reasonable to expect that busy and stressed human beings will innovate on demand without some space in which to do so. That is why we felt it was so important to not only give people financial resources, but also unstructured company time.

Which firms, universities, businesses, and individuals do you feel are leaders in the field of innovation (and why)?

We started our program by looking at the organizations we felt had interesting, formalized, and advanced approaches to innovation that we could apply. We were most interested in the implementation of company allocated time, like at Google, but we knew we couldn’t match that scale. We were also intrigued by the idea of a focused development initiative, such as Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks, but we also knew we didn’t want to separate our staff working on “innovation” from our daily work activities — we wanted a more permeable program. We’ve taken lessons from the MIT Media Lab and the Harvard Innovation Lab, which are both academic leaders applying an interdisciplinary approach to design and entrepreneurship, respectively. What makes them great, I believe, is their “fail fast” approach, which means testing their innovations through rapid prototyping or against real world constraints before a huge investment is made. Atlanta’s Center for Civic Innovation pairs social entrepreneurs with public institutions to focus on outcome-driven solutions to community issues. Its model is more proactive in terms of bringing diverse groups together to brainstorm on solutions to social issues and not stopping until an implementable and measurable impact can be found that benefits all stakeholders.

Diana Davis has over 17 years of experience in the design, planning, and delivery of healthcare projects. She brings a special interest in lean planning and evidence-based design to her work, paired with a commitment to improving the healthcare environment for caregivers, patients, and families. She has planned projects for all sectors of the healthcare market including academic medical centers, community hospitals, and regional health delivery systems. Davis is one of the co-founders of the firm’s Innovation Incubator and continues to serve on the program’s selection committee.