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Obsessing about furniture!

I seem to spend a lot of my time, whilst designing workshops or group sessions, thinking about furniture. In fact, the room, the environment, the chairs and the windows are the only things I really overly-worry about. As long as I am clear on the context, the objectives and the time available to do the work I’m quite happy to show up with an idea of what we might do together but I don’t get overly concerned about any other missing detail or structure. However, if I don’t have a feel for the room I will be working in I hold a rather large amount of worry and tension!

On the surface this may seem like a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but it is actually due to my belief that the environment has an effect on the outcome of any intervention. I believe that the space, the furniture, the light, the heat, the colours and the shape all play a part in the meaning we make in any moment and how we are altered by our experience.

I was lucky enough to meet Ed Schien a couple of years back and something he said about his work still resonates with me: “The first thing we do is to move the furniture!” I think Ed meant this both metaphorically and literally. However it isn’t Ed’s words alone that fuel my belief but past experiences of getting the room wrong. I’ve many memories of trying to do group work in rooms that were too small, too large or where a huge table swallowed up every inch of space or where the walls were too ornate to stick things on or where there was a distinct lack of natural daylight or where sterile, drab room design and layout made creativity incredibly difficult. (Imagine how different an infant’s nursery school class would feel if it were held in a fluorescently lit, grey corporate meeting room?)

The thing is, the impact of environment on personal state and therefore the work at hand appears to be largely unknown or unappreciated in most workplaces and its importance is often ignored by those who design and facilitate such interventions. I think this is why I often get odd looks when asking detailed questions about room layout months in advancement of events!

Hotels are my least favourite places to do this work. I’ve had many a disagreement with Corporate Liason Managers over the way in which they have lain out my workshops. I remember one time at a Hotel on the south coast of England, despite saying many times that I simply wanted an empty room with a circle of 12 chairs and a flip chart, that I arrived to find the room dominated by a large table and 12 very ornately laid out identical place settings comprising a leather binder, some paper, a branded pen and a glass of water with two refreshing mints! I distinctly remember speaking to the conferencing supervisor and asking for it all to be removed and him retorting “But this is how business meetings are typically laid out sir!” almost insinuating the question “do you actually know what you are doing sir?” I appreciate he was trying to do his job – my frustration arises from the way the default hotel ‘business layout’ is the antithesis for the type of work that a lot of groups want and need to do. Don’t get me started on how brochure descriptions of ‘can seat 120 delegates’ doesn’t necessarily mean there is enough space for 120 delegates to move about and do meaningful work!

As I write this, a fantasy experiment comes to mind that I would love to try out one day when those memory erasers from Men In Black are a standard part of my facilitator’s accessory belt! The experiment would be to round-up a group of 10 business folk, get them to identify a subject or problem that was incredibly important to the future success of their business and hold an hour long meeting in a wide variety of different settings to see the impact of the environment on their conversation. To eliminate the ‘cognitive contamination’ of the previous meeting the Men In Black memory eraser would have to be used to *ZZZZAP!* any recollection of what had occurred previously.

Until these gadgets are available and considered an ethically sound way of doing OD work, my experiment is confined to the realms of the imagination so I invite you to have a go. Pick a subject and some people you know and play out how the business meeting might unfold at the following locations:

1) In a meeting room with a table and chairs
*ZZZZAP!*
2) In a meeting room with just a circle of chairs
*ZZZZAP!*
3) In a coffee bar sitting at a table
*ZZZZAP!*
4) In pub on bar stools
*ZZZZAP!*
5) Standing up in a room with absolutely nothing in it
*ZZZZAP!*
6) Talking whilst walking around corporate offices
*ZZZZAP!*
7) Talking whilst walking down the street
*ZZZZAP!*
8) Sat around a campfire
*ZZZZAP!*
9) Whilst jogging
*ZZZZAP!*
10) Walking through a dense forest
*ZZZZAP!*
11) In a meeting room where there are half as many chairs as people
*ZZZZAP!*
12) In a room with fixed theatre style seating and everyone facing forward
*ZZZZAP!*
13) Across a massive banqueting table designed for 100 people to sit around
*ZZZZAP!*
14) In the dark
*ZZZZAP!*
15) In a swimming pool
*ZZZZAP!*
16) In somebody’s living room
*ZZZZAP!*
17) Sitting cross-legged on bean bags
*ZZZZAP!*
18) In the offices of another unfamiliar corporation
*ZZZZAP!*
19) In a primary school classroom
*ZZZZAP!*
20) On a boat in the middle of the sea
*ZZZZAP!*
21) At a stunning natural viewpoint
*ZZZZAP!*
22) Tucked into individual beds in a youth hostel
*ZZZZAP!*
23) On stage at the Albert Hall with a capacity crowd watching
*ZZZZAP!*
(etc…)

What happened in your imaginary experiment? How was the conversation and the people’s meaning making process altered by the environment? If they weren’t altered, how much effort did they have to put in to block the potential effect of the location? What other locations can you add to the experiment? Do you have a Men In Black memory eraser to try the experiment for real?

This blog entry has no intent other than to provide me with a way of making more meaning about waking in the middle of the night worrying about chairs and tables! Hopefully it also provokes something in the reader as to the importance of furniture and environment in change and creativity work. Remember, as the title of Misha Glouberman’s book suggests, “The chairs are where the people go!”

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