ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

December 1999


Back To The Future In 2000

Purpose, Planning And Preparing

Get In Touch With Your Emotions

No Gimmicks. No Frills. Just The Facts

Ritz-Carlton Again


What A Difference A Space
by Peter Block


Brief Cases

Diary of a Shutdown

Views for a Change



What A Difference A Space Makes
by Peter Block

This is part two of a three part series about the importance of how to bring people together in a way that creates an accountable and committed culture. The previous column discussed how casual we are in the way we engage people when we bring them together. The focus was on the use of questions that confront people with their freedom and personalize their dialogue with each other. Now let’s talk about the importance of the room.

We meet all the time and rarely in a room that fits the purpose of our coming together. I assume that we usually meet to learn from each other, to speak and listen to each other and to create something that did not exist before we came together. If we are not meeting for these reasons, then we are wasting our time and let electronics have its day.

Lifeless Rooms
If our intent is to learn and build support and commitment, we need to start paying attention to the physical place. Right now, we don’t. We think the rooms are fine. We go where there are no windows, where the tables and screens are the figure and people are the ground. The chairs are lined up in classroom style, frozen without wheels.
If it is a large group meeting, the chairs are often locked together, industrial style, indicating that no movement is allowed, no circles are permitted. This answers the wrong question of, “How do you get the maximum number of people into the smallest amount of space?”

The rooms themselves were designed for a kind of architectural anesthesia. The walls of our meeting places are dead. They are blank, industrial, cold tones of gray and blue or colorless in white with few pictures. There is nothing to remind us that art, the aesthetic, the images and imagination of who we are have been for centuries a means of shifting our consciousness. If there are pictures, they were bought at a Howard Johnson going-out-of-business sale. A blank wall reflects the institutionalization of the human spirit and this reminder is most often at odds with why we are coming together.

The rooms also lack a view of the outside world, usually with no windows which allow us to be connected to nature or to see that there is a larger world out there. Are we afraid that if we are distracted by a view of the outside world that it might remind us that what we are doing in here may not be so important? Or if there are windows, they don’t open. So much for fresh air, wind, sounds. When did nature become the enemy of productivity?
These rooms were clearly designed for efficiency and presentation. If we meet in a hotel ballroom, the rooms are created for the presentation of food. The hotels now call these spaces convention centers so they can rent the rooms between meals. Maybe that is where the phrase “food for thought” came from—us attending conferences in rooms designed for eating.

The cost of these spaces is that they create a tension within us. We are living, breathing souls trying to work with other human beings. The rooms deny our humanity and make civility difficult in an uncivil space. The only meeting rooms really designed for human occupancy are the ones for top management. They have art, windows, wet bars, wood walls and carpet you can sleep on. The top also does not go offsite to mere hotels, they go to royal retreat centers, but enough about them. Let’s get back to the working class.

What to Do
Here are some thoughts about how to overcome the limitations of the space we have been given.

Get Rid of Tables.
If you must use tables, round ones are better than rectangular ones—though not by much. It is better to just cancel the tables. Even a round table keeps us apart, rigidly structuring the distance between us and making rearrangement a labor intensive art. People will whine that they have no place for their water bottles, their notebooks and nothing to lean on. Put a sheet on the wall entitled “Whining” so they can document their complaints and then bag the tables.

Chairs on Wheels.
Chairs with wheels carry the expectation that change is possible. There is no one right way to be in relation to each other. In the course of an hour, or a day or a lifetime, our relationship to each other is going to change. Use chairs that want to move rather than want to be locked together.

Bright Lights.
If nature is not going to provide the light, make sure the house does. Low lighting is depressing, and in larger meetings, it focuses all the attention on the front of the room, where the electronics preside. Stop organizing the space around overheads, PowerPoint and videos. The most valuable “power points” will come from the audience. Shine the lights on the participants, since this is generally whom the meeting is for. Low lit rooms make us feel like we are meeting at sunset, as if the day is slipping away from us. These are not good conditions for optimism.

Amplify Every Voice.
The typical way is for the leader to have a permanent mike and the audience to share one mike. This sends the wrong message. Instead, make sure all voices are equally amplified. Equally amplified means that each person is constantly amplified. Chuck Lewis, Colorado Wildlife Commissioner, convenes volatile hearings among ranchers, farmers, hunters, fishing enthusiasts and environmentalists. He decided to invest in amplification equipment in order to make everyone’s voice equally heard. He reports that once he did that, the differences in the hearing remained, but the contentiousness dropped. Either let all share the one mike or better yet, find the technology that allows all to be heard.

Use a Graphic Recorder.
If you cannot hang pictures on the wall, create them. There are people who can create a visual and enlivening picture of a meeting as it progresses. They are graphic recorders and they create images from our words on large paper which gets taped around the room as the meeting progresses. Mae Kim, who works for the National Education Association, is the best in the world. Her email is She can help you find someone.
The graphic images not only bring life into the room, but they retain the history, offer a memory and give insight when the words being spoken fail. If you cannot use a graphic recorder, ask participants to draw symbols and images. They can be of anything: their present state, their cultural history, their wish for the future or even their worst doubts and concerns. This takes a little courage on our part, but try it. When people say they can not draw, tell them that is exactly why you want their images. Naïve, primitive art tells a much more powerful story than the sophistication of academic talent.

The Point
The point is to raise our consciousness about the presumably “small” dimensions of life that are in fact much more decisive than we imagine. The room and its life supporting capacity is a much needed balance for all of our attention to rational thinking, presentation, getting the story straight and being persuasive. It is the depth and quality of our experience that is, in the end, compelling. Despite the conventional wisdom, it is our relationship to our peers, and not our leaders, that finally drives commitment and makes us act like owners of the place. The physical space can make all of this easy or difficult.

Maybe if we remember this the next time we construct space for coming together, we will design rooms that we want to inhabit.

December '99 News for a Change | E-mail Editor
  • Print this page
  • Save this page

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this item

View comments
Add comments
Comments FAQ

ASQ News