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Innovation Adoption as Unlearning with Janet Pogue

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InnovationadoptionKey Questions/Themes: What behaviors currently inhibit innovations that need to be ‘unlearned’ and what new behaviors need to be supported or encouraged? How can ‘triggers’ and/or the physical environment be leveraged to reinforce behavioral change? How can we engage early adopters in making the innovation their own? And then, foster to go viral?

Summary of Session Content

Janet Pogue is a Principal in Gensler’s Washington D.C. office. She co-leads the firm’s Workplace Practice and is a frequent writer and speaker on the critical issues affecting the design of high performing work environments. In this session, she shared on her views about how the design of new physical work environments can be a disruptor that catalyzes organizational or cultural change. Starting off with a sharing on Gensler’s 2013 U.S. workplace survey findings, she highlighted that when focus is compromised in pursuit of collaboration, neither works well. Successful workplaces are those designed to enable collaboration without sacrificing employee’s ability to focus. Hence, employers who provide a spectrum of choices for when and where to work are seen as more innovative and have higher performing employees.

Using the company General Service Administration (GSA) as an example, Janet highlighted that the re-design of space is just one part of the process. Another critical portion is how we convey the need for change to the employees. Often, the way we talk about this change management process becomes a grief cycle. Employees have to go through denial, shock and a whole host of negative emotions, before finally coming to acceptance. She challenged the group to change their perception and find a different way. Instead of talking about what employees are giving up, it is what they are getting. So instead of change management, it should be termed innovation adoption. If we can get the first set of early adopters to buy-in that much quicker, so that they can use their social network to influence others and get them on-board that much faster, then we get a much steeper innovation adoption curve and a much shorter emotional transition curve (see poster below).









Janet emphasized that if we can find out from people during the design process itself what they really want, then this participatory approach would garner more buy-in. Hence, we should look at how we can leverage on the first set of early adopters to figure out the story, find out what is their biggest fear and how do we reframe the story and then test that reframing before getting it out into the organization.

Synthesis of Small Group Conversation

Janet facilitated a discussion of the group members’ sharing of personal experiences with positive disruptions to surface key traits. Positive disruptions with space were common amongst the sharing, as space was so tangible and touches people in significant ways. It turns out that when the spatial disruptions have the attributes of being functional and relevant, it helped improve the performance of the employees. Sometimes, when the spatial disruptions were not easily accepted, letting it settle before coming back to it facilitated the process. Janet shared her experiences working with law firms, re-designing to a more open workplace by making glass offices, with an option to add a layer of film to the glass after 3 months. They found that people adapt, get used to it and often they don’t want to go back. A lot of the law firms did not want the layer of privacy film after the 3-month period.

Similarly, another example shared in the group was the re-design of the front office from a formal presentation to a more open and communal area that helped change the way the members of an organization interact. While the transition to the open space met with resistance, pretty soon people got used to it, enjoyed the increased interaction and were responsible in the use of that space.


Another trait of successful positive disruptions was that identifying the right early adopters who were willing to take risks and start small experiments was key. Such small pilots allow the organization to learn and adapt before scaling up. Often, if the disruption were presented as a cool, new, fun and cutting-edge affair, it would attract people to participate.


Janet highlighted that in order to effectively introduce positive disruptions to an organization, it was important to identify that key lever which speaks uniquely of the organization. Quoting an example from the book “The power of habit” by Charles Duhigg, she shared how the CEO of Alcoa identified safety as something that all stakeholders could agree on, and it became the lever that allowed the CEO to change everything. At its core, this was about the ability to understand how organizational habits work, and identifying the key lever that supported the cues and rewards that would change habits.

Conclusion | Key Take-Aways & Lingering Puzzles

In conclusion, some of the take-aways from the session were:

  1. Understanding people’s triggers would facilitate unlearning and change.
  2. Sometimes we should make the elephant in the room visible, dialogue about the issue and make the concerns and questions visible.
  3. Change the mentality that if it is not broken, don’t change it.





Harvard Graduate School of Education