Creating a “culture of innovation” is easy to say, but hard to do.  Although many executives start off with well intentioned aspirations, the hard reality of culture change often reveals itself quickly.

This is particularly true in large organizations where the majority of resources are devoted to executing and defending the existing business.  Buzzwords like “experimentation” and “collaboration” make great talking points, but the actual incentives and reward structure are usually aligned towards maintaining the existing status quo.

So how do you do it? There are thousands of articles and hundreds of research publications on the subject.  A search in just the archives of the Harvard Business Review produce 8,259 results!  It’s clear that you need to create space for discovery and experimentation, and fuel it with true collaboration, if you want to drive innovation. But, where to do you start?

In my opinion, it starts with space.  A space to think, to network, to actually experiment.  A place that doesn’t feel like a stifled office environment, or where the looming deadline drives a competitive focus that leaves you exhausted and purposeless.  Rather than talk theoretically about a culture of innovation, I’d like to give you an example of how we created space at NASA over the past six years for innovation.  It’s a story that starts with the day I created the @NASA Twitter account.

We had just left a gathering of some great minds in Silicon Valley where we brainstormed new ways to engage the world in the NASA exploration mission.  The idea was centered on the idea of “participatory exploration” and we were just starting to brainstorm ideas about how we could use technology to scale the participation of people who were not currently part of the NASA ecosystem.  Our conversations streamed late into the evening and we eventually ended up talking about a future state where Astronauts would tweet from the Space Station and give the world a first hand account of their spaceflight experience.  It seemed far fetched, if not impossible, at the time, but we were dreamers – and implementing our dreams started with setting up a social media account for NASA.

Now, this might not seem like a big deal today, but just a couple of years ago the use of social media in government was not only frowned upon, but would likely cost you your job.  We knew that our future depending on positioning NASA as a leader in the social media space, and we actually had a fundamental mandate to do that based on the federal statute that created NASA in 1958.  Shortly thereafter the @NASA twitter account took off and we quickly worked our way to over 50,000 followers.  JPL was also leading the way with the @MarsPhoenix account and soon everyone started to notice, including astronauts, who recognized the power of the platform.  Mike Massimino was the first astronaut to truly embrace it, ultimately launching NASA front and center on the social media stage.

Yet, back at the ranch in Houston, regret started to set in.  What seemed like an obviously great idea in California was overshadowed when I stepped back in the office in Texas.  Judging from the number of emails I started to receive from senior leaders who didn’t quite understand why NASA needed to be online and why a group of young starry-eyed employees were best positioned to make that happen, I figured my days working at NASA were numbered and didn’t want to make the process more difficult than it had to be, so I packed my office up neatly in a large cardboard box and set it on my desk.  Thankfully, I had just been issued a laptop and cell phone, so I set off across campus to find a new place to work from, ultimately making an open space in the cafeteria my temporary home.  Truly being an innovator, especially in large organizations, can be a really lonely adventure.  Fortunately, the Office of Communications at NASA started to get excited about social media and I was never ushered away by security.  We started to embrace the idea of new digital spaces where our community could convene and participate in the NASA mission.

Ironically, it wasn’t only the digital space which would become an important part of our innovation strategy.  While I was remotely working in the cafeteria at NASA that summer, I met a visionary executive that understood what it took to truly create a culture of innovation.  It really hinged on one main ingredient – permission – and the easiest way that day to give permission, was to make space.  In this case, it was physical space.

The way we used physical spaces in government unnecessarily separated our own workforce into silos, each with its own unique culture and approach to problem-solving, by assigning them different buildings across the center.  This made sharing ideas and developing solutions difficult.

We started to ask ourselves questions like “what if we could design a working space that encouraged creative thinking and serendipitous interactions?”, “what if flight controllers could introduce a fresh perspective when engineers are stuck on a problem (or vice versa)”, or “what if executives found the solution for a tough challenge when they coincidentally ran into a young engineer in the office kitchen or a computer scientist near the water cooler.”  We knew that innovation happens when talented people from diverse backgrounds come together so together we dreamed about how we might remodel an unused space in the corner of our campus into a coworking space.

Unlike a traditional office, coworking spaces are simply workspaces that are intentionally designed to convene a diverse community and equip them to do their work, in a modern and innovative way.  Coworking spaces are relatively common today and many organizations are just starting to embrace them as alternative spaces to the more traditional workspace.  A report by CBRE, the US commercial property company, predicts that the sharing economy — a system built around sharing human and physical resources, reflecting changing attitudes about ownership — will transform the property industry as well as workplaces. The report is bold. “In 2030, the traditional workplaces will be in the minority.”

I had no experience in office management, coworking space design, or how to make any of it a reality within government.  But it turns out that nobody else did either, and we set out to figure it out together.  Our coworking space, which we call “1958” after the year NASA was founded, had very humble beginnings – but ours started simply as a large control room overlooking an avionics bay.  Many modern coworking spaces come with the perks that younger employees expect — pool tables, bowls of sweets, quirky furniture.  1958 is a bit different and very tailored to our own community.  It provides multi-purpose, reconfigurable rooms to support innovative conversation, quiet work, team meetings, small retreats, and free flowing ideas.  We have experimented with office layouts, furniture design, and everything in between to try to find the perfect recipe to encourage innovation in our context.  This has led us to understand that we need a space that allows for large open work areas, executive style meeting rooms, small private spaces and all the appropriate amenities and resources you’d expect to find if you are a top innovator working at NASA solving some of the toughest challenges of our time.

Coworking Space

Coworking Space

No matter where you are today, all you really need at the beginning is permission.  In fact, we still don’t officially have a budget for our coworking space, but we don’t need one because we have permission.  Over the years, we have accumulated modern office furniture, attracted open-minded colleagues, transformed numerous office spaces, and ultimately started a movement at NASA.  Our space today is created for and managed by an ad hoc community of visionary innovators. Scientists, engineers, technologists and everyone in between are regular users of the 1958 Coworking Space and it’s become a major tool in our innovation strategy to attract, retain and inspire our top employees so that they can pursue their dreams at NASA. People come and go as they need; they decide whether to put in a long day or take a break in the middle of the day to go to the nearby gym. They can choose whether they want to work in a quiet space so they can focus on the task at hand, or in a more collaborative space with whiteboard tables where collaboration is encouraged.  Along the way, what we have learned is codified in the posters and signage around our space inspired by VitaminStartups:

  • Ideas are more important than titles
  • Done is better than perfect
  • Less meetings, more doing
  • Ideas are worthless until you get them out of your head to see what they can do
  • Whatever the problem be part of the solution
  • The riskiest thing is to take no risks

Coworking spaces will undoubtedly become more common as organizations re-imagine what “work” looks like. Just as it’s important to encourage flexibility and support for a workforce that can work from anywhere connected together through technology, there is an equally important reality of creating the right kind of work environment inside your own walls.  Being an innovator in a large organization is hard.  It takes courage to come up with a new idea and it’s very easy to be shut down. So as you consider how to give your workforce permission, I challenge you to make some space for innovation.