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The Serious Business of Sandboxes

Constructing places where employees can collaborate, improvise, and watch one another work can spur creativity.

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind), those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” Charles Darwin, the author of this quote, was known more for his expertise on the science of evolution than the science of management. But his insight is as applicable to the dog-eat-dog competition of the business world as it is to natural selection in the Galapagos.

Improvisation and collaboration may not be the first imperatives that come to mind when thinking about the corporate world. But as digital disruption accelerates, rendering old ways of doing things obsolete, more and more corporate leaders are seeking creative ideas to solve new problems. Whether in media or design or industrial machinery, the need to foster and harness the creativity of individuals working in teams has never been more urgent.

The problem, however, is that large, complex, multinational organizations are often much better at stifling creativity than fostering it. That’s why it’s so important to heed Darwin and learn to be creative and improvise effectively.

The best place for your business to enact his advice — to create and “make tomorrow” — is in a sandbox. Think about it. Sandboxes are venues that bring together all kinds of kids in an open but finite space that encourages exploration and interaction with little threat of harm.

I’m not suggesting that CEOs build wooden frames in the corner office and fill them with sand. Rather, the idea of a sandbox provides an apt metaphor for the type of collaboration and interaction that should take place in the open, communal office spaces, virtual meetings, management retreats, and other places where we work now. When you create successful conceptual sandboxes in the workplace, you can eliminate organizational silos, allowing your workers to better understand what their colleagues do and more fully grasp what your business is trying to achieve. And by forcing team members outside their silos, sandboxes can remove personal blinders so everyone can look at issues from every possible dimension. The more your workforce collaborates, the more they can learn how to connect initiatives across the organization.

Part product development, part project management, the sandbox approach enables all parts of your workforce to visualize the journey from conception to prototype in one continuous, seamless environment. This style matches how digital natives work, comports to how they collaborate, and fosters the next generation of creativity.

Four features every sandbox needs

As any parent knows, not everyone in a sandbox collaborates in a nice or productive manner. The benefits of group play can quickly be undermined if the chemistry isn’t right. To make the most of the experience, every sandbox needs four key features.

Connectors. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point, describes connectors as individuals who know a lot of people from different professional, social, cultural, political, and economic backgrounds and have a habit of introducing them to one another. “Their ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality,” he writes.

In business, I think of connectors as having additional attributes. They are people who have a broad appreciation for diverse talent and an ability to work horizontally across teams. They are the individuals who can see the biggest picture of what the business needs and bring in people from throughout the organization to achieve its goals. Every major challenge has three critically important lenses that must be aligned in the right way in order to help usher in true innovation and industry disruption: the business, experience, and technology lenses. A successful connector can bring in specialists who can focus those lenses to forge the products, services, and experiences of the future. Put another way, they are the people in your workforce who can seamlessly connect the dots between business, tech, creative, and experience.

Framing. Real-world sandboxes need well-defined frames — otherwise the sand leaks out. In the business context, sandbox designers have to construct a virtual and conceptual frame by setting the proper context to solve for your business issue. Often, companies believe they have a single issue — only to find out after digging deeper that the actual problem lies elsewhere. For example, when one PwC client embarked on a transformation program to deploy new technology in its sales and marketing divisions, it encountered massive resistance among its employees. But it turned out the problem wasn’t the technology itself. Rather, management had neglected to consider how the new tools would actually be used in different geographic locations. They focused solely on the technology and not on the people who would be using it. After understanding the challenge more effectively, the company was able to roll out a new solution that increased usage of the technology in the field by around 40 percent.

Space. The biggest value sandboxes hold for organizations is that they enable employees throughout the workforce to see, feel, and operate in a collaborative state. When companies replace meetings and phone calls with an environment in which employees can actually participate in how their colleagues work, employees broaden their understanding and acceptance of different individuals’ skills.

Having everyone in the sandbox at the same time allowed Make-a-Wish to develop and deploy the crowdfunding platform Wishmaker in 60 days.

At PwC, for example, we’ve built malleable physical spaces that can be configured to mimic the environments in which our clients do business. For Kart, a contextualized shopping experience, we have imagined what it would be like if a store had a digital “voice” that remembered who you were, what you liked, organized your shopping list by store layout, told you what items were trending, and more. The physical space might take the form of a grocery store, big box retailer, clothing boutique, or any other retail environment where sensors can be placed to talk to shoppers’ mobile devices using data from past online visits. And now, through devices powered by artificial intelligence, such as Amazon’s Alexa devices, shoppers can talk back. In its purest form, the space becomes a manifestation of your purpose to customers and a recruitment and retention tool for your workforce. As tech continues its disruptive march across industries, these types of spaces will become more virtual and interactive. And as more young adults enter the workforce, the next generation of collaboration will take place in completely iterative, multifunctional, virtual environments. Think Minecraft or Pokemon Go but for offices.

Speed. According to PwC’s January 2016 U.S. CEO Survey, 78 percent of U.S. CEOs are somewhat or extremely concerned about the rapid pace of technological change. Although it’s true that tech waits for no one, part of their fear is rooted in simple corporate inefficiency. Too many organizations still operate under the handoff method, where different parts of the workforce are pulled into projects at different times. The beauty of the sandbox approach is that it provides a holistic vision of the product road map, allowing organizations to move at the speed of tech.

When the Make-A-Wish Foundation was seeking to connect donors with needy kids in a way that was seamless, efficient, and personal, it assembled workers from throughout the organization to iterate and optimize a crowdfunding platform in real time. That meant having people in the room who might not seem essential to developing a new technology platform, such as a tax expert who was able to resolve issues with charitable donations on the spot and an attorney who helped address legal thorns in the moment. If these people hadn’t been in the room, the team would have been forced to stop and check multiple times before moving forward, and it would have lost momentum. Having everyone in the sandbox at the same time allowed Make-a-Wish to develop and deploy the Wishmaker platform in 60 days. Afterward, the foundation’s CEO said that a project of this scale would normally have taken two years, and in that time a whole slew of other problems would have emerged from new tech advances.

In today’s mobile- and social-first world, as we adapt to fundamentally different ways of working, organizations will need to mirror the dexterity and fluidity of their workforce. The workplace of the future could very likely be a headset and a rich virtual environment. Even in that virtual space, however, there will be a direct correlation between the time people spend collaborating and the framework in which they operate. Though the sandbox is as old as play itself, its principles of interaction, collaboration, freedom, and safety are perhaps even more applicable to digitally native workers than to their predecessors. The sandbox approach has the potential to become the center for how successful companies operate, ultimately eliminating the need for innovation projects or investments and simply spreading innovation throughout the organization.

Author profile:

  • David Clarke is PwC’s global chief experience officer and leads PwC’s Experience Center. A principal with PwC US, he is based in the Florida area.
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