Let Your Freak Flag Fly

I find you can learn a lot just by walking around and looking at the spaces that teams occupy. Sometimes, a workspace is full of personality. I used to work with a friend who would put an enormous wall hanging of a dragon over his desk. I don’t know where he got that thing, but it screamed “I’m into fantasy RPGs!” It didn’t matter where he was, that dragon hanging went with him everywhere. He was awesome, probably one of the best developers I’ve ever worked with, and that dragon was just part of the package. I could literally orient myself in the building based on where the dragon was.

I can’t criticize though, in my office at the time there was a full size head of a warthog mounted on the wall. Beneath it was a tiny little sign that read, “Mini-me.” That mount truly was the ugliest thing you had ever seen, but it made people laugh. Looking back on it, obviously we worked in a culture where we weren’t shy about expressing ourselves. I’m sure my friend still has that dragon wall hanging. I’ve still got the warthog head, but no office anymore (my wife makes me keep it in the garage).

However, if you look in some offices, there are no dragons and warthogs. In fact, there are rows of cubicles with the same monitor and keyboard in each one. There might be the occasional concession to personality with a small framed picture of the family, but that’s it aside from some pens and a notepad or two. I’ve worked in these more corporate environs as well. I have to confess that the relative sterility of the environment leaves me a bit cold. However, I did find that I could move around and “hotel” wherever I pleased. So that was good. I guess, strictly speaking, that there are benefits to each type of space. Personally, I prefer an environment where people express themselves. I guess I can’t navigate without some sort of exotic wildlife pinned up on the wall.

Don’t even get me started with those corporate motivational posters. I can feel a tiny portion of my will to live draining out of me every time I see one. It doesn’t help if the company has paid big dollars for designer furniture either. It still doesn’t feel warm to me. Frankly it’s kind of embarrassing how much money is spent on office furniture for some companies. I guess other people find it attractive.

I would look for an environment that provides the following key elements:

  • Keep it alive – bring your personality
  • Do it for real – no fake stuff like motivational posters
  • Setting – pay attention to the layout
  • First start obvious, stay obvious – don’t hide things
  • focus on flow – enough said

These are from Willem Larsen and Diana Larsen’s Quickstart Guide to the Five Rules of Accelerated Learning. If we are trying to create a learning environment, which I would argue is exactly what product development is all about, then we should be thinking about these five rules.

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