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Godrej’s cabin is spacious, with floor-to-ceiling whiteboards. Photo: Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Godrej’s cabin is spacious, with floor-to-ceiling whiteboards. Photo: Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

The design thinker

Why Navroze Godrej, the executive director of strategy and innovation at Godrej & Boyce, believes design thinking is really the future of any organization

This month we take a detour, away from a headquarters to an innovation centre. This is the office of Navroze Godrej in Vikhroli, north-eastern Mumbai. The 33-year-old is the executive director of strategy and innovation at Godrej & Boyce, a century-old manufacturer of diversified products for home and work, including an iconic selection of locks and furniture.

Godrej’s cabin is spacious, and has all the hallmarks of an innovation space: floor-to-ceiling whiteboards on facing walls for brainstorming, and two discussion spaces—a formal discussion table and an informal seating space. The room is spare, with white floors and a grey wall, and little in the way of decorative objects. The only dramatic element is the custom-made desk, made from Corian, a high-end surface material popular in residential or hospitality interiors that enables furniture to appear fluid and seamless without losing its solidity.

The furniture layout is intended to support both individual and group work. “Traditional desk arrangements create a barrier and prevent openness and collaboration, so mine is up against the wall," says Godrej.

“When I’m in my office, which is not very much, I use my desk to focus on a particular, individual task like writing an email or putting together a presentation, but otherwise I sit at a round table in the centre of my office," he says. “A lot of my meetings take place outside of my office. I prefer to work with teams in their project spaces. It keeps me moving, which is very important," he adds.

The innovation centre

My purpose, on this visit, is to understand more about the person through the workspaces he’s created, not just the one he occupies. Two of these workspaces are on the company’s Vikhroli campus itself.

First, the innovation centre—a 25,000 sq. ft research and development space which comprises both open and enclosed spaces for collaborative, group work. “The space is designed around this open platform, that we use a lot because it’s totally configurable. Right now, it’s set up for lectures," says Godrej, pointing to a central area which can double up as a display area or meeting space. Elsewhere, there are private project rooms, where teams can meet, a workshop for prototyping, a materials library, space for informal interaction, and workstations for full-time staff.

The rooms are similar to Godrej’s cabin. Each has floor-to-ceiling whiteboards. There is no fixed furniture, “which allows us to reorganize them as per the needs of the project," says Godrej.

He established the innovation centre in 2011 to drive growth across business units in Godrej & Boyce, which range from security solutions to appliances and furniture. “It’s really a challenge for organizations like us to understand which are those products, what are those businesses, that are going to have a real impact on people’s lives? We are encouraging our businesses to think much more holistically, and much more long term about the businesses and categories that we are in today. What we are doing here is much more system-level innovation, business model-level innovation, which looks beyond product," he says.

At the innovation centre, Godrej and his colleagues incubate new projects, in collaboration with teams from the individual business units. Projects range from “the future of security, from all aspects of security, including emotional security, for our security business", to understanding what it means “to grow up digital" or “working with the real estate business to conceptualize what the future Indian home interior could look like", says Godrej.

“The innovation centre does a lot of explorative research in six areas, which we refer to as our ‘purpose pillars’—security, lifestyle, well-being, energy, productivity and connectivity. This research leads to insights and new concepts which our existing businesses can adopt, and it also leads to the creation of new businesses," he adds.

At the heart of this approach is design thinking, or an innovation approach based on user empathy, an understanding of the user’s context, creative problem-solving and a willingness to prototype and experiment with potential solutions. For Godrej, who holds a master’s degree in design from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design in Chicago, US, “design thinking is really the future of the organization".

He cites the example of a short-term furniture and appliance rental service that the company is currently piloting in Pune for “transient consumers"—research suggests such consumers that may be unwilling to make purchases because they are unlikely to live in a particular city for very long. Design thinking could potentially lead to a new business model for unserved customers.

Although Godrej is not willing to share details of project budgets or revenue targets, he emphasizes, “Our goal is to have 30% of our revenue come from new products and new businesses in three years’ time. And I am very confident that we will see a very different basket of businesses in the next three years."

The Hubble

“We asked our furniture designers to conceptualize the future of work and design a workspace that can stand for what the future of Godrej is all about," explains Godrej. Chairs and tables—in a range of edgy, contemporary designs—are placed strategically across the facility to encourage different types of interactions—from bar stools and restaurant-style seating to armchairs for solo work.

Although all large campuses have cafeterias, very few companies have sought to create an alternative workspace for their employees—the Hubble concept can be adapted to smaller spaces too. “We are using space as a transformation tool. The Hubble is open to the entire company, for anyone to come and work alongside people from their businesses, and also make new connections with people from outside their business," says Godrej. “The number of meetings at Hubble is steadily going up since it first opened. I think people realize that when the physical environment supports creative thinking, people are much more open, people are more accepting, they are more transparent and they are more audacious," he adds.

The office, the innovation centre and the Hubble reflect Godrej’s belief that innovative spaces are essential to foster creativity and productivity. “I see it as our organization’s responsibility to create an operating system that enables our smartest, most passionate people to succeed. And the enabling environment has some direct impact on the way people carry themselves, and on the quality of discussions that take place within a space.

“I think it has a more indirect impact on financial results and how it leads to a better performing business. That only happens when the entire system transforms," he says.

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles.

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