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4 innovation lessons from the world of architecture

drawing board
Credit: Pixabay

Architects and business innovators couldn’t be further apart, right? Actually, they’re more alike than you think. Terms like blueprint, wireframe, and build can all apply to entrepreneurial endeavors just as much as the design of a towering skyscraper.

Entrepreneurs may build with ones and zeros instead of bricks, but the end goal is the same: to influence human behavior through planning. For architects, they may be guiding pedestrians off the grass and onto a cement path. For entrepreneurs, they’re guiding consumers toward purchasing a product or service.

In fact, leaders can learn quite a bit by approaching innovation through these architectural practices:

1. Prototype.

No architect would start building without a proper plan. After all, millions of dollars would be wasted if the resulting skyscraper were an eyesore -- or worse yet, toppled with the first light breeze. Before dedicating resources, architects will create models with a 3D printer to test the viability of a plan before committing full-tilt to an idea. It may seem obvious, but few innovators perform similar prototyping for a new idea.

It’s important to test out technology ideas before committing serious resources. My company, Prehype, begins each new venture by creating a “product plan,” visualizing what a minimum viable product would look like within 100 days. If we can prove, through landing pages and Facebook banner ads, that our audience would be interested, we continue our build. If not, the project gets scrapped.

2. Prioritize design.

An architectural plan is far more than designing something pretty. Every element, from the shape of the hallways to the shrubs on the lawn, has a precise function. Steve Jobs, for example, built collaboration into the blueprints of Pixar's headquarters. He kindled spontaneous interactions, including in the design of paths to the bathroom so that employees would run into each other.

Companies should never innovate for innovation’s sake. Stepping back and asking what these innovations are meant to achieve will help generate new and unexpected approaches. And these don’t have to just be about physical changes to an office: Everything from scheduling and meetings to the very design of a product can be retooled with this approach.

3. Craft a solid foundation.

The best architects don’t design structures that will need gutting and replacing every six months — these towers are built to last. The internal furnishings may change with the times, but the foundational form of a building should last decades.

With technology evolving at such a rapid pace, it’s rare for modern companies to design with longevity in mind. But if the foundational concept behind a product is sound, companies can continually tweak the ones and zeros while leveraging the recognition of a long-standing and trusted brand. Adobe Illustrator has existed for three decades, but its foundational principles have allowed the product to continually thrive throughout its many iterations.

4. Keep learning.

Architects stay competitive by drawing inspiration and new techniques from observing the new work of their peers, and it’s no different for today’s tech sphere. Titles such as the Harvard Business Review’s “Innovation as Usual” provide many examples cases for innovation architecture.

For today’s businesses, architecture is a natural model for growth. These principles can help innovators lay the groundwork that allows new ideas to tower above the competition.


Henrik Werdelin is the founding partner of Prehype, a New York-based venture development firm. Prehype co-creates new ventures and incubation programs with VCs and corporations and launches successful venture-backed startups, such as BarkBox, AND CO, and Managed by Q. Connect with Prehype on Twitter.

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