Cabaret unordinaire

You wait fifteen years for an open, honest and self-aware case study and one comes along at once. Delivered at Workplace Trends this week, Tony Grimes of Investec (of the zebra logo) spoke with astonishing candour and rich humour about the pilot space created at one of the bank’s buildings for around 300 people, in a bid to create a more open, agile and collaborative culture. It was entitled Out of the Ordinary but it was a brief common to most organisations. What was far from ordinary was the manner of the telling of the tale. Gone were the ‘things we would have done differently’ and ‘learnings’ and in its place a completely warts-and-all story of a journey of discovery from start to way beyond the finish.

Presented with Farrol Goldblatt of TP Bennett, the workplace designers engaged, we could have reason to believe this wasn’t actually happening at all. Normally the case study section of a conference has one reaching for a sharpened pencil to stab oneself in the thigh to stay awake, but this tale sparkled. Not for its innovative approach as it was a familiar and sound tale of the right steps in the right order and the right response to the right findings, but for the unique atmosphere created as the repeated failures of a conference genre were obliterated.

I especially enjoed Tony calling out the almost deliberate wheeze of placing of a quiet booth on the main central walkway which became a natural and self-defeating stop-off for all passing meercats. Farrol looked a bit sheepish at this point too (I would have been mortified) but dealt with it in the same lightness of spirit. They showed that it’s not difficult, at all, if you want to.

This timely honesty will surely save us from thinking that things only go wrong and the unexpected happen with our own projects. It may save us from the increasing volume of quack futurology masquerading as insight with more padding than a hockey goalkeeper’s jersey churned out by glossy sales machines. It could also save us from being pancaked in both directions from driverless bandwagons like biophilic design. I would rather listen to Tony all day than be subject to any of this stuff. It is real, human, straightforward and sincere.

Workplace is a practical discipline, and one that needs open IP and a simple lexicon if the many for whom we aspire to create fantastic workspace are to benefit. It’s fundamental that we have to be able to collectively learn. We’ll only know if this week’s session changed anything the next time someone steps up to deliver their case study. From here on, accept nothing less.


2 thoughts on “Cabaret unordinaire

  1. Good words Neil, always enjoy your posts.

    Reminds me of the time I heard Norman Foster in Melbourne many years ago.

    The Melbourne architectural community can be a bit “high brow” at times. After Norman’s slide show the audience were invited to questions.

    The microphone was handed to the editor of Transitions, published by RMIT.
    Transition was a hyper- intellectual publication with a focus on the theory of design.
    Lots of words and very few pictures.

    The Editors question went on for over five minutes and was more of an intellectual statement on the theory of regionalism, with references to the theories of Kenneth Frampton.

    Very obvious and quite painful dig at the approach that Foster has to the local context, in particular the HSBC Bank in Hong Kong.

    Most of the audience were completely lost with the complexity of the question, never mind how to answer correctly in a public forum.

    How will he answer this one, we all thought ?

    Only Norman could respond the way he did:

    “Do you know I have known Kenneth Frampton for many years and he is a close and very dear friend.

    But do you know something.

    I have never ever understood anything he has said”

    After a long pause he then proceeded to answer the question setting out how important it was to take the best and brightest thinking to the problem. Too keep things simple and have high aspirations for an improvement in the quality of people’s lives. The best ideas often come from somewhere else.

    Almost anti-theory, but always done with great skill as represented by the work, rather than the theory of the work.

    Norman cited Marco Polo transporting pasta back to Italy following his China travels, and how pasta was now sinonimous with Italy.

    And then how much the Romans did by exporting their best and brightest thinking across Europe from Italy.

    Anyway, it was more about how I admired the simplicity of taking a few good guiding principles with you on a journey.
    Keeping it simple might actually be smarter.

    I really enjoyed your piece on the things that really matter in creating a great workplace, and am sure your book will be a good read when finished.

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