Worklife Live! Staples + Fast Company: How to foster innovation in your workplace

Here are proven thought starters to create a business culture that nurtures disruptive change.

The ability to innovate is the difference between driving change and following a competitor’s disruption. But there’s no blueprint for building an innovative team. Both industry-wide and in your business, skillsets and the mix of talent are always evolving.


At the inaugural Worklife Live! event hosted by Staples and Fast Company, experts, visionaries and business leaders discussed how best to maximize a team’s creativity—especially when new ideas and innovations are needed to propel your business.


Here are five things a company should consider to build and lead teams in an era of disruption.




Hasier Larrea, founder and CEO of Ori, a high-tech furniture company based in Boston, said that supporting a culture of innovation means being willing to look in unexpected places and to challenge conventional wisdom.


Larrea aimed to build a cross-disciplinary team at Ori—which employs robotics in its line of modular furniture that can reconfigure and transform a living space at the touch of a button—in part because of his experience at MIT’s Media Lab, where he experienced the dramatic impact diverse perspectives can have on creative problem solving. He recalled a Media Lab project that started with sensors to augment cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s playing—and that eventually led to technology that detects passengers in car seats to control airbag deployment.


“The moment you get engineers, architects, designers—even magicians—working together and thinking about a problem from very different angles, that’s how you usually get the best ideas,” Larrea said. “Almost by accident in some sense—you know, accidentally on purpose.”




No matter how talented your team, you may not be able to keep everything in-house—and that’s okay. Katherine Petrecca, general manager of studio innovation at shoe and apparel maker New Balance, said strategic partnerships could be a smart way to increase a team’s creative reach. For example, New Balance not only must create new products but also manufacture and deliver them cost effectively. Petrecca’s team has partnered with 3-D printing company Formlabs to design and develop both new materials and a more efficient manufacturing process. “I think our team is inspired and works best when we’re collaborating with people outside of the company,” she explained.


Knowing when to partner and when to do something in-house requires intimate knowledge of your team’s strengths and weaknesses. Larrea noted that at Ori they often seek out partners, but only on the design side of the business: “My opinion is that your secret sauce should always be in-house. In our case, that was the robotics side of things.”




Both Larrea and Petrecca see the value in brainstorming but adopt a modern twist on the practice. Larrea prefers to have team members think through a problem individually first, then come together and advocate for their solution. “I think the best ideas happen in that collision of points of view,” he said.


Petrecca also noted the importance of making sure everyone’s voice is heard. In some cases, some team members may have a tough time diving into the back-and-forth of an active brainstorming session. In that case, a targeted follow-up session helps to tease out the perspectives of these quieter team members. “Let’s go one more round and let everybody get those secondary ideas out,” she said. “With some individuals, once you get to know them, it’s really just [having] a direct conversation.”




Larrea said that leaders shouldn’t be afraid of a crisis. In fact, confronting a thorny problem head-on can be inspiring. Dealing with such challenges has led Ori to more breakthroughs than setbacks, he said. In the company’s early days, critics asked why robotics offered a better architectural solution than simply moving furniture around manually. For instance, why would a consumer want a robotic bed designed to drop down from the ceiling instead of buying a good old-fashioned Murphy bed? “Instead of saying, ‘No, robotics is better because it’s better, because it’s cool,’ let’s actually go deep and understand why it’s better.” 


The research inspired by that demonstrated that people rearranged their spaces much more regularly with robotic solutions. For instance, users of Ori’s robotic Cloud Bed might tap the button to move the bed into the ceiling (and reveal a living space where the bed used to be) a couple of times a day. By comparison, someone using a Murphy bed might be more inclined to simply leave it down rather than heft the mattress back into a vertical position. But the exercise forced Larrea and his team to stress test Ori’s entire thesis of robotic architecture. “Let’s embrace this idea of every once in a while, thinking, What if my idea is actually really bad?” Larrea suggested. “Get into that habit. I think that’s super healthy—that keeps you on top.”




Sometimes the best way to spark a creative idea is to stop trying. Petrecca said that simply getting out of the office can help. New Balance sponsors a full slate of running events each year, from major marathons to regional races, providing Petrecca and her team plenty of time away from their desks. “I do find that running is a great way for me to open up my brain. I tend to do some really good thinking when I’m out on a long run.”


The challenge, however, is actually taking advantage of those opportunities. When you feel like you simply can’t afford to take time away from your desk, that’s when it’s time to stand up and take a breath. “It’s easy to forget that some of those great ideas come when you get a bit of distance,” Larrea said. “It’s important to force it a little bit because that’s when you open your eyes. Go watch a few TED Talks or go to the museum. That’s where things start happening.”