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Why Do We Struggle with White Space?

Issue 51: April 14, 2022

Here’s an existential question: How do you fill an empty/white space? Spoiler alert: First, ask yourself is it worth filling? Second, is what you’re filling it with valuable, relevant and meaningful? Lastly, don’t hold back if you’re worried whether the full space is going to be accepted by others or will we be ridiculed and sequestered to the back of the room.

Too often our default behaviors kick in and we feel anxiety and stress when we have to fill an empty space because our base level of comfort and security are upended when presented with a blank canvas. Our comfort is further threatened when we feel there is an expectation to perform, and we’re not confident we can succeed. We worry if what we are about to add to the canvas will be right, credible and accepted by others. Filling an empty space is inhibiting because we are programmed to avoid ridicule, reveal our faults or expose what we don’t know.

What Holds Us Back

We typically fall into two empty-space camps: those who love to create and fill those white spaces regardless of what others around us may think; and the rest of us who become paralytic when faced with creating something out of nothing. This space-filling challenge unlocks our deepest fears and threats of being perceived and valued differently than we want to be. In this context we’re not talking about empty/white spaces filled with art or fiction that truly represent creative expression – we’re talking about the empty/white spaces that confront us when we seek to change and transform an organization. These spaces also require us to reinvent ourselves by adapting to transitions when we must accept that our roles and careers may change. These are real threats to many people. White space, for many, is uncomfortable.

For an organization, filling empty/white spaces majorly relates to creating new products, services, processes and procedures and/or identifying new market opportunities or segments — or even conducting difficult and honest competitive analysis from scratch.

The Innovation Trap

Indeed advises “Creativity promotes critical thinking and innovation. Understanding how to increase creativity in the workplace can lead to higher levels of productivity and employee satisfaction.” Society at large believes creativity and innovation are the lifeblood of an evolving society, which allows individuals, organizations and society to advance and adapt. Adoption of emerging tech and immersion in the innovation du jour such as voice assistants and the metaverse are the result of filling empty white space. Our perceptions in a tech-worshiping world lead us to believe that these innovations are going to change society for the better. Yes, marvelous ideas have been born from filling empty/white spaces. But more often than not, entrepreneurs are known for developing bright new ideas that have little or no application in real life: solutions that are looking for problems. And these are the startups that fail and misjudge when the market is ready for their innovations.

Empty Spaces Are Not for the Faint of Heart

For most of us, we are inherently uncomfortable with empty white space; we are better at solving simple puzzles and assessing our immediate environment to determine if we are safe or if our security is being threatened. We survive by constantly gathering and processing inputs and information to determine a secure path forward. We conduct these assessments based on our knowledge, values and life experiences, each representing a filter in how we see and interpret what is around us and the world in general.

When most of us see a blank canvas, we struggle with where to start, and how to decide what should be included and what shouldn’t. When we are collaborating with others, we may struggle with our own idea of positive personal performance based on past experience. For many of us, we feel anxious about the responsibility to make choices from a long list of options to put our personal imprint on the blank canvas.

Innovation Has Become a Mandate

In our innovation-driven, fast-moving marketplace, every organization is forced to rethink its workforce and workplace culture to promote creativity and innovation. But the drive to innovate often comes without the recognition of how many of us are uncomfortable with being creative and innovative — particularly in a work setting.

The innovate-now mantra is a decidedly different approach from our legacy Industrial Age mentality. In the past, innovators and creators were viewed as a different breed, set apart from the mainstream. Workers (cogs in a wheel) had no desire or responsibility to be creative or innovative. They were simply part of a system to ensure the production line met its quotas.

What remains true in today’s fast-driven society is that some workers just want to be part of a predictable system. Not everyone wants to be innovative or creative in a workplace, nor does everyone see that the workplace is their personal venue or platform for expending the energy it takes to be creative.

We often misalign or overgeneralize that we are all in it to win it. We often make assumptions that we all want what others want, and leaders often believe that they can rally all of the “troops” to a cause simply because they want to perform, even excel in order to protect their paycheck.

Reactive, Not Proactive

Time and again, regardless of work setting or project, most individuals feel more comfortable with having something to react to than creating proactively. When people are responsible for creating something out of thin air (physical or virtual), they become paralyzed and then procrastinate and delegate. When we don’t consciously recognize our default behavior nor seek to remediate it, we limit ourselves and the organizations where we work in terms of our openness and support of innovation.

Innovators in the 21st Century

So, let’s acknowledge that most individuals do not believe they are innovative or are comfortable with filling blank spaces. But let’s also face the realities of our marketplace. We live in an evolving culture framed by the balance of art and science, with the balance tipping to highly trained science. Innovators in an organization are often viewed as mavericks, hard to control and difficult (if not impossible) to be forced to work. Their contributions usually outweigh their individual personalities and work styles, whether it is in art or science.

But here’s the wake-up call: Operating in ambiguous times, we can’t know everything in advance and rely on the past to define the future. We all face empty/white spaces in our professional lives and the organizations where we have dedicated our time. How do we nurture all our workforce to face empty spaces with the curiosity and enthusiasm to create new actionable ideas to improve our organizations and ultimately what we offer our stakeholders? As managers, how do we recognize the human need to feel safe and secure? How do we manage the roadblocks inhibiting creativity, innovation and transformation of an organization?

Give Them Permission

We’ve all heard the Google story about workers given permission to spend one-fifth of their time on the job devoted to new ideas. “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google,” founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote in their IPO letter. “This empowers them to be more creative and innovative.” Past results of that Google white space were the development of Google News, Gmail, and AdSense. Even if only a small percentage of the workforce uses 20% of their time to innovate, it is important to the organization because the 20% policy gives everyone permission to be creative.

Permission reduces personal risk and provides the opportunity to spend time that does not require anyone else to be involved. Permission and how it is internalized remove stress, anxiety, as well as any fear of poor performance or judgment by others.

Google did not dictate how an individual would be assessed, nor did they identify criteria that determined what best benefitted Google. They gave permission to the individual to make that determination. One could argue that permission was a blank canvas. But as it turns out, it was a blank canvas that expected 20% of one’s time was actually in addition to regular work projects. Therefore, the permission to stretch was less about self-realization than it was about furthering Google’s goals.

Incentivize Them

Some organizations have taken the suggestion box to a higher level. The typical anonymous suggestion box removes the fear of being judged. Any suggestion box taps into our natural instincts as game players who like to compete and win. Winning releases a dopamine reward for excelling in activity and proving our “superiority” or “agility” is outmaneuvering, outthinking and outperforming others.

Here’s what a large digital publisher and trade show producer did. Operating as an internal incubator, workers were encouraged to contribute innovations to improve the organization operationally, strategically or with new products and services. The first step in the incubation process was to have a multidisciplinary team review all the ideas. The accepted suggestions were then escalated to a mini business plan (created with the help of the financial team) for the next stage of evaluation. The “winners” received 15% of the net profits or savings as soon as 12 months after the new program launched. All new internally incubated projects were shared with the entire workforce with updates and news on progress.

Toss Out the Silos

Great ideas come from the most unlikely places. What sparks creativity is often the result of cross-disciplinary teamwork when groups leverage members’ strengths to think differently. Even workers who are uncomfortable about filling empty spaces can be empowered to contribute to the ideation process if given a safe, non-judgmental, supportive space. Creative-shy workers can also be given the plumb role of executing the new ideas to ensure they are implemented and operated to maximize their effectiveness, which also makes these workers integral parts of the creative process.

WeWork advises, “It’s important to test multiple strategies since individuals respond differently when prompted to think outside the box.” For example, client-facing employees are critical in the process of innovating new products and services for customers. They are on the front lines with observations of behaviors and feedback that are indicators of what stakeholders want and need. Yet, they are often overlooked in the creative process, instead of assigning that work to the legacy go-to team.

Using systems thinking and a holistic approach to creating new products and services is essential. We do not live in silos; therefore, organizations should not work in silos and recognize that relevant solutions result from the wide breadth of ideas contributed across departments.

Build a Better Environment

WeWork has been successful in creating work environments that promote creativity and innovation. How? A stimulating atmosphere with unexpected encounters with a diverse group of individuals/colleagues inspires creativity. Create your own collaborative atmosphere considering the design of your workplace from the color scheme to the light sources. Think of creating spaces that leave the deadly institutional conference room behind replacing it with an inviting space that encourages conversation and sharing of ideas.

We are majorly impacted by place and space. We can become more open to filling a blank canvas if we feel safe and secure. More specifically, WeWork recommends tips for improving an office space to encourage creativity by considering environmental elements of sound, color, temperature and lighting.

  • Sound: “Employees will benefit from environments with varying noise levels. Quiet environments are good for staying focused but having ambient noise at a moderate level works best for encouraging creativity. Overhearing other people’s conversations is a major distraction that can hinder the creative process.” The trend of workers wearing headsets can help them focus on individual tasks with their own musical cues if it doesn’t become intentionally isolating and alienating.
  • Color: “Humans don’t respond well to typical office colors or vast areas of white and gray, beige, tan, and brown. These colors appear sterile and oppressive, and they’re ultimately uninspiring. White walls are hard for eyes to adjust to after looking at screens, and the constant contrast of stark white with gray cubicles, dark desks, and dark carpeting fosters more eye strain than creativity. Pastel blue and green shades are easier on the eyes, and they can create feelings of relaxation. Shades of green work well in spaces where employees need to focus and complete tasks. Green makes people feel relaxed and happy because it’s the color of nature, and humans are still wired to respond to it. In spaces where you want to stimulate thinking, such as in a conference room, use a bold warm color like red or orange. This color will help wake up your employees’ brains and could lead to some lively discussions. Use red or orange anywhere that you want to create an energized atmosphere.”
  • Temperature: “Employees will be able to think better and come up with new ideas when the workplace temperature is comfortable. A temperature in the low 70s is ideal.”
  • Light: “Bright light is great for work that requires focus, while lower lighting lends itself better to creative thought processes. Natural light is ideal if it’s available. Otherwise, choose lighting that best simulates the look of natural daylight.”

Diversify Your Workforce

Out of the gate, your workforce should reflect the composition of your customers. This, by definition, requires a diverse, inclusive workforce. Indeed adds, “Diversity contributes to an atmosphere of creative thinking. It’s good for businesses to have employees from different fields, different schools, and different backgrounds. Employees with too many similarities in education and experience can often come up with ideas that start to sound repetitive after a while.” Ideas created in a biased vacuum supported by like peers may initially remove the stress and anxiety of filling in the white space with something familiar. But if the new product, approach or service does not match the aspirational performance, a new wave of stress emerges.
Indeed adds, “To increase diversity in your workplace, start looking at candidates for the differences that might benefit your business instead of choosing new staff members because they’re similar to employees you already have.”

Don’t Hold onto the Past

Arguably, many individuals who become paralytic when asked to fill an empty/white space operate with a mindset that is focused on the past. Chris Brogan adds, “They want to lead, but they want guardrails. They want to feel like they can do what they want, as long as someone gives them templates and guidance.” They also want the comfort of predictability and recognizable ideas. As a result, they resist tapping onto the creative part of their minds to literally think outside the box. It is up to leadership and management to create a forward-looking organization that respects the past but is not held back by it. Articulation and role modeling of the mission and vision of the organization are key to encouraging a workforce to look forward to filling in empty spaces with innovative ideas and practices that serve the most important stakeholder of all: the customer.

Celebrate Creativity

We all know that employees are more likely to offer their suggestions if they think their ideas will be recognized and implemented. Conversely, employees may stop providing their ideas entirely if they feel nothing is being done with them. According to WeWork, “Once you’ve determined that the idea is a success, go ahead and let the staff know how this great new idea came to be. Don’t make a public announcement about whose idea it was until you have great results to show. This will foster creativity in the workplace by increasing your employees’ motivation to contribute.” Indeed adds, “Transparency encourages employees to feel more involved with organizational decisions and performance. Companies that share information appear to care about their employees and employee involvement. It instills a sense of ownership among employees and encourages them to work harder and think more creatively to achieve goals.”

Start With Yourself

Dr. Howard Murad, the founder of his highly successful, bespoke wellness business, is an innovator and pioneer in holistic wellness. He says, “Be the best version of you. People have to risk failure and ignore the naysayers both outside and within. Great leaders are those individuals who can help people reach their goals and become their best selves. They create an environment where people are inspired and supported to achieve success. We all have potential, and we have to unlock it and become ourselves. We can never try to be someone else because we will only fail.”

That may sound like a new-age business theory, but a healthy organizational culture is created at the top. In today’s stress-laden marketplace, modeling healthy behavior has its halo effects. Murad adds, “I can’t tell you what to do, you need to tell yourself what you are going to do to make your life better.” Quite simply, he gives employees permission to be successful and happy.

On a practical level, Indeed recommends a short punch list of actions to take to foster innovation and creativity:

  • Brainstorm new ideas and don’t be afraid to ask for advice and feedback
  • Challenge yourself with new ideas
  • Keep track of your ideas and iterate
  • Be curious and search out sources of inspiration and new experiences
  • Make time to focus on creativity and innovation
  • Face any negative thinking or patterns of self-criticism that prevent filling the empty/white space
  • Take risks and reach beyond your grasp
  • Take time off to recharge mentally and regenerate creativity

Create a Matrix

Build a stepping-stone pathway to inculcating creativity within your organization. Your employees are the lynchpin to kick starting innovation and maintaining a workplace culture that fosters creativity and innovation starts with them.

  • Define your North Star: Everyone should live your organization’s mission and vision via your shared purpose. Make iterative updates to the mission and vision, reflecting changes in the marketplace and market orientation.
  • Reinforce your goals: Keep all eyes on the long-term prize. Don’t get distracted by short-term goals that may prevent innovation and creativity. Use data and analytics to measure success and share the wins and losses (without judgment) to spark creative solutions and better ideas. Use data to provide knowledge and see a blank canvas as a starting point or a viewpoint, not mission impossible.
  • Build a collaborative culture: Listen to your workforce to respond to their needs and wants. If they want to continue to work from home, take that request seriously. If they want flexible hours, create that schedule. With so many demands coming from the workforce for work/life balance and better pay, it is incumbent on organizations to rethink their legacy practices and policies.
  • Get expert help: There are domain experts with models for creativity techniques and exercises. It’s hard to solve problems if you are always talking to yourself. An experienced, objective, third party can effectively unlock new ideas by creating the environment to push through with innovative solutions.
  • Have fun: Bonding and mutual respect among the workforce cannot be underestimated. Schedule team or company perks throughout the year. We all know about pizza Fridays, but also consider group outings that the workforce suggests. Create opportunities for workers to encounter each other outside their departments. The random bounces can lead to collaborations, new solutions and a cascade of innovations.

How to Fill an Empty Space

At 2040 we have extensive experience in helping clients face up to the challenges of filling empty spaces. These collaborations range from the macro with organizational transformation to the micro in rethinking membership recruitment and retention. We know and appreciate how difficult it can be to mobilize a team to think differently and get buy-in from everyone to realize that change is needed, change is good, and to pitch in to fill the empty space with meaningful, relevant contributions. When properly managed, the exercise can be transformative for the team and game-changing for the organization. Reach out to us to help guide you on the journey.

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