War rooms and Innovation
The concept of the “war room” was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century in the context of military operations. Traditionally, this was a place where important military decisions would be made on the basis of a situational analysis which often included information regarding troops, landscapes, intelligence and counter-intelligence, etc.
The term was soon adopted within the political arena, and it became associated with higher level decision making concerning how to plan and run a campaign. Ultimately, a war room is about strategic decisions, a place where leaders meet with top level advisers and decide an appropriate course of action.
In a corporate context, where strategic decisions are traditionally made within the closed doors of a boardroom, a war room is customarily associated with crisis management: when a major threat is identified, a war room is created to provide special coordination and multidisciplinary resources in order to facilitate strategic decisions.
Today, an increasing number of war rooms are being created to facilitate and deal with special projects, including issues concerning product
innovation, product marketing and business model development. Just recently, Fast Company’s design blog featured an entry on the use of war rooms by Google Ventures. In their experience, war rooms are ‘project-centric’, not meeting-centric: they accommodate different types of working methods, hence they must feature discontinuous design in order to allow for fast switching from working around a table in smaller teams to more formal presentations. Many leading design firms use the war room to promote creativity and to provide a a physical place to work together: they also rely heavily on on-line collaborative tools to share status updates, stay on top of tasks and assess deliverables. Additionally, they can meet in order to make decisions, work together on prototypes, all of which are key to enhancing a project’s buy-in as well as the decision making process behind it. In this sense, war rooms, together with on-line collaboration, help end the process of lengthy status meetings that kill the excitement of a project, and let people physically work together to co-develop new solutions.
Based on the latter, I personally think that one of the most important aspects of the war room is the intrinsic ability to promote the recall of information. With most people in a company working on multiple projects at the time, and the overload of information shared among several workers, one might need time to switch from one project to another when the objectives and the constraints are different. A war room helps to facilitate the ‘recall’ of all information, primarily because all of the information remains in the room. We can reconnect the dots subconsciously through the war room. War room walls are full of stimuli which help facilitate rapid switching between projects, ultimately ensuring that we are more productive and effective.
Furthermore, because war rooms are meeting spaces with no particular meeting agenda, and the only real objective being to collaborate, we can float ideas more easily and prototype them before deciding whether to kill them or not. Through this process, we put politics aside, become more confident, and gear all efforts towards making a decision based on real results.
This is way I believe every innovation project needs a war room.