How Daniel Kahneman Might Decorate Your Office

I’m working through Daniel Kahneman‘s latest book and I wondered: how might this apply to interior decorating? Who wouldn’t.

Consider two important concepts he discusses: priming* and cognitive strain. Priming is where you are influenced subconsciously by cues in your environment (looking at money makes you feel more individualistic, for example) and cognitive strain is simply when you have to think hard about things. We don’t like doing it.

So let’s use them to design a workplace. Most important is probably easing cognitive strain: keep the design simple and functional, almost invisible. Apple comes to mind when I think of low-cognitive strain design. No annoyances, no ugliness, nothing to distract you from your tasks. And remember that distractions can come from hideous art, to be sure, but also from beauty, from famous paintings or physically large things. Dial down the vanity displays.

Now think about priming. What thoughts or feelings does the design impress upon the mind?

In most businesses teamwork is probably the most important cultural value, as I believe it is in mine. Since starting this post I’ve tried to think about what kind of design additions might encourage teamwork. Steve Jobs designed the Pixar studio to encourage collaboration by forcing everyone to go to the same bathroom. That’s probably a good functional example.

I’m thinking maybe elements that evoke sport or martial themes are a good idea. Now, putting a giant print of the Iwo Jima flag raisers in your front hallway is perhaps going too far. You don’t want to be mocked.

To me priming is about subtlety; remember at best you’ll get a marginal effect, but aggregate it across a company and you can get impressive results. Another important point: don’t hide what you’re doing. Priming smacks of manipulation but it doesn’t need to be covert. According to Kahneman we can resist it only with deliberate effort and strong culture requires conscious buy-in anyway.

So prime carefully: maybe something as simple as images of people standing together. Or symbols of shared experience. Emphasize coordination.

How about the view from the boardroom? Think of what impressive views signal: opulence, wealth, status.

If you want your employees to feel rich and your visitors (clients?) to be in awe, it’s probably a good idea. Such conceit isn’t really my cup of tea, so I’d probably consider it a culture-sapping distraction. Others go for the shabby look to emphasize scrappy cheapness. Also, to me, a strain.

Now, there’s also an interesting tradeoff in pursuing cognitive ease: it makes you less analytical. From Kahneman:

[There is a] growing evidence that good mood, intuition, creativity [and] gullbility form a cluster. At the other pole, sadness, vigilance, suspicion, an analytic approach, and increased effort also go together… Cognitive ease is both a cause of an a consequence of a pleasant feeling.

In my business, brokering complex financial deals between insurance companies, we must balance a sales culture with analytical rigor. Kahneman suggests that environmental stimulus cannot boost these two mental faculties at once. Sales is a creative activity, analysis is not.

Why have just one place to do both then? Here I imagine an ‘analytics room’. Distraction-free and austere, cold surroundings. A bit uncomfortable. Perfect for a critical eye.

Being in this room is not the norm, even for analysts; your home is in the collaborative, creative zone. The reason is that pure analysis is probably never going to be any company’s competitive advantage. To paraphrase a business prof of mine: MBAs teach you a thousand reasons to say “no”, learn instead how to say “yes”. In opportunity lies success.

The next most important value after teamwork for us is having a strong sales culture. As I said above, this is creative work: advocating for a client, identifying new opportunities and relentlessly pursuing them. What design elements might help here?

The state of mind I most associate with successful sales is enthusiasm and excitement: a feeling that anything can be done. Perhaps symbols of extraordinary achievement? I’m not sure.

Of course, nothing can replace the hard part of building a strong culture: team member selection, training and tireless policing from leaders. Most of all, time.

But Kahneman teaches us that oft overlooked details can influence our minds in surprising ways. We should be mindful of this.

*Now, priming is a bit controversial. See this article and this earlier post. I think that the general point Kahneman is trying to make is a valid one, at least as I’m applying it.

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One Response to How Daniel Kahneman Might Decorate Your Office

  1. Rowan's Nana says:

    Obviously Jobs was spending way too much time in the bathroom. As for building teamwork it’s sex segregated. And perhaps age segregated if we start to ponder. What was he thinking?

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