Photo: a team at work in our IdeaFarmIt’s one thing to say innovation is important. It’s something else to invest in infrastructure solely for the purpose of getting the most creative potential out of employees.

We know that a stimulating environment plays a big role in getting people thinking, trying new things and letting minds move in new ways. In fact, we’ve built our campuses with that in mind; our open office space and art-filled, colorful walls are designed to encourage creative thinking and collaboration in our everyday work experience.

But we also know that creativity is spurred even further when people break out of their ordinary routines and work places. More ideas are generated when people can share their thoughts openly together without fear of saying the wrong thing, speaking out of turn, or sounding too “out there” for convention.

The IdeaFarm is born

We decided to create a space right on our campus that was set aside specifically for the purpose of generating and developing inspired and creative ideas.

The whole space is set apart specifically for the purpose of inspiring and developing new ideas.

A stone farmhouse was part of the original farm on which our headquarters now stand. Built in 1740 and entwined with the history of the local area, this homestead became our IdeaFarm. It had long been a landmark on campus, but had never been actively used as a workspace before.

It was carefully renovated into a unique, creative and welcoming space for employees to immerse themselves in creative processes. The physical space is only one part of the IdeaFarm. We also developed a facilitated creative process that would help individuals tap into and articulate their own ideas freely in a team setting. The whole space is set apart specifically for the purpose of inspiring and developing new ideas.

Photo: Inside our IdeaFarmAn inviting retreat encourages focus 

To use the IdeaFarm, teams walk out of their familiar workspace inside the office buildings and enter an entirely unique atmosphere. The renovated farmhouse has a retreat-like feel that lets team members open their minds to new thinking and forget all about the lure of the email, phones and laptops.  

“The IdeaFarm is a unique blend of a physical space that takes you away from the day-to-day, combined with specific processes, technologies, and tools to achieve creative problem solving and innovative thinking,” says Russ Kliman, head of strategic and innovation programs. 

“Something happens when you walk into a place that’s designed to support the kind of creativity expected of the meeting participants,” says Lisa Penn, director of coaching and a trained facilitator who helps lead team sessions in the IdeaFarm. 
Inside the house, the old stone walls enclose an inviting open space inside with some surprising details, like a wooden swing, a bench crafted from the front end of a London taxi, and glass doors that double as writable surfaces for brainstorming. Contemporary furniture on wheels contrasts with rustic farmhouse elements and allow innovators to adapt the environment to their collaborative needs. The original hardwood floors have been repurposed as shelving throughout the space, and compromised support beams have been replaced with ones from historic barns.

An array of tools encourages creativity: 

  • Cutting-edge technology, such as digital/touch-screen white boards, wireless audio, and wireless projection. 
  • Software to facilitate mind mapping, card sorting, and prototyping. 
  • Manual tools to stimulate the brain, including Play-Doh, Legos, Yo-Yos, playbooks, and Rubik’s cubes.

“It really lets you step away both mentally and physically from the day-to-day. And where we have the tools and the techniques to help solve problems creatively,” said Kliman. 

Getting creativity to flow

When teams come to the IdeaFarm, they are led through creative sessions by trained facilitators, who help direct effective engagement, collaboration, and discovery through various strategies and processes, including storyboarding and journey mapping. Some sessions run 2-3 hours, while other sessions can be multi-day design sessions, it really all depends on the challenge or opportunity that team is working with.

The facilitators — employees who have been trained and certified in these techniques — help make the creativity flow by getting everybody involved. Their processes and methods get people to open their minds to the art of the possible and solve problems in creative ways.   

Penn finds that the space and the process offer more levity — and more permission to be creative. “You’re not encumbered by typical table and chair configurations. No one’s in front of the room. People walk around more. And the ability to set up the seating any way we wanted offered an extra element of depth to our sessions.” 

“Often there are skeptics in using certain tools or techniques, which is wonderful for me as I love taking people through an experience to unleash their creative confidence,” says Kliman. 

“Ultimately the process that we go through using facilitators and process techniques, helps people uncover new ways to solve problems that they would never have achieved sitting at a desk or in a typical conference room.”

The process…helps people uncover new ways to solve problems that they never would have sitting at a desk or conference room.

A different kind of prospect meeting

Picture a session with a client prospect – perhaps to help them re-imagine their future with your company playing a central role in that vision. You’re in a typical conference room. Everyone sitting around the table, some jockeying for position to see out the window. A few laptops open on the table for, uh, “note-taking.” Some checking mobile devices periodically under the table. Expectations are clear: certain people do the talking, and certain people do the listening.

That session unfolds much differently in the IdeaFarm. 

The prospective clients enter the rustic farmhouse, met by soft music, a fire blazing in the fireplace, randomly placed, colorful, comfortable seating, and pastries and coffee warming in the kitchen. Their mindsets shift right away as they see this is a place for thinking very differently.

An unbiased third-party facilitator leads the discussion, using the farmhouse’s interactive technology to engage the group. The tone of the session is stimulating, and it’s clear that everyone will be able to participate, not just the usual talkers. It makes a strong impact on the guests, who see how important their feedback is to us – not just during the sales process, but throughout development iterations in the future. 

“Getting prospects to campus is always a productive step,” says one lead on the Private Banking sales team. “The IdeaFarm goes a long way in setting the tone for a possible future relationship with SEI.”