Working magic

How do you promote creativity in the workplace? The architects at Snøhetta use magic. This is something more companies should aim for, says anthropologist Aina Landsverk Hagen.

Participant observation at Snøhetta's New York office: Anthropologist Aina Landsverk Hagen has made ​​her first model. Photo: Samuel Brissette

When she first opened the door to the Oslo office one autumn day in 2008 the anthropologist learned right away that Søhetta is no ordinary company.

The office landscape was full of Ikea shelves that people were mounting wheels on.

- The wheels under the furniture , they explained, are necessary for the flexibility they need when they work together. They are a tool for collective creativity, she says.

Over a period of four years Aina Landsverk Hagen studied how ideas occur in a collective. She has done fieldwork in the open landscape offices of the world-renowned Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, whose designs include Oslo Opera House and the The Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Friday 31 January , she will defend her doctoral thesis Fear and Magic in Architects ' Utopia : The Power of Creativity among the Snøhetta of Oslo and New York.

Collective creativity

Collective creativity is an issue that we still know too little about.

Research has for a long time regarded creativity as something individual and not as something that comes about (or withers) in the encounter between people and their environment.

- It can improve the workday for many of us, if we understand what it takes to get every individual to bring out their creative potential, says the anthropologist .

- And this applies to all occupations. It is not only in the so-called "creative professions" that one works creatively, she says .

In the open landscapes of the Oslo and New York offices there are neither departments nor permanent places. The idea is to encourage the free flow of ideas across discipline, age, experience and nationality.

The roof of the Opera House in Oslo as an open public space: The architects at Snøhetta work by a philosophy of expanding the public space. Photo: Khazaleh


In many ways Snøhetta works differently from many companies and architecture firms. Even the administrative staff are expected to come with suggestions, and therefore they sit scattered among the architects .

- Everyone's input and ideas are just as important , according to the staff . They were therefore always curious about what I too thought about their creations .

Creative nonsense

Another important principle is that there are no bad ideas.

- They are concerned that it is allowed - and even expected - to say stupid things. The transition from sitting and messing about with something to actually coming up with a new idea is in fact often very short . The fear of saying what you think is the single factor most likely to hinder creativity , says the anthropologist .

Humour is deliberately an integral part of the working day, also to ease the pressure to succeed.

- The purely professional discussions have a large element of foolishness . I have seen how humour and laughter are an important and integral part of the creative process. It coheres the project group and creates trust internally , making it easier for people to say what they mean.

No to streamlining

While streamlining is a fine word for many companies, Snøhetta goes in the opposite direction. Despite the fact that customers are looking for the unique "Snøhetta design ", there exists no special "Snøhetta method".

- They have, as they say, a "tradition of not having a tradition." They have been careful to start each new project and each new competition with a clean slate, without a fixed method. Every time, they use a lot of time to arrive at a collective concept.

Here, no one scores the employees’ work and no one counts how many models they have built. “The Snow Hoods” (Snøhettene),  as they call themselves,  are encouraged to be autonomous and to make their own choices. "One cannot say to a Snow Hood what she or he should do," the researcher has heard said.

Creativity and magic

To really understand what creativity means for Snow Hoods, Aina Landsverk Hagen entered the magic kingdom. She shows how anthropological theories of magic can bring something new to our understanding of how we work creatively.

There is a close relationship between creativity and magic - not only in the anthropologist 's head.

- The architects themselves are using the concept of magic about their creativity and often in contexts where they are reluctant to be analyzed. I interpreted it as a fear of making their creativity routine, so that the magic of their profession disappears , she adds while assuring me that they are of course not occultists:

- What they call "magic " is something that one cannot touch, but which nevertheless is a real fact for them. The magic is inherent in the technology they use, in their activities with the other Snow Hoods and the atmosphere they create in the office. To experience magic is something they constantly work hard for, especially collective " eureka moment s", spiritual experiences where everyone knows in their gut that they are on the right track, she explains.

Here "ritual leaders" play a major role. Along with the "spiritual leaders" in the company they manage to stimulate the employees to unimagined feats.

The stories of how the big competitions were won, like the library of Alexandria (pictured ) , are constantly retold to new employees. This origin myth plays an important role. Photo: Khazaleh

Must believe in the impossible

To win competitions and get new contracts the architects must believe in the impossible, the transcendance of what is already known.

- It is essential that the Snow Hoods themselves think that they are good. It makes them more courageous and able to challenge the status quo.

Magic becomes a tool to surpass limitations, to make the impossible possible and to control the uncontrollable .

- So that their canoes did not sink in the sea Trobrianders in the Pacific would perform certain magical formulas and rituals. For us today there are other things we cannot control that we use other magical practices in an attempt to handle, explains the researcher, and mentions new advanced technology as an example.

She found three types of magic among the Snow Hoods : Magic through the senses (collective eureka moments) , magic through speech and magic through technology:

The stories of how the big competitions were won, like the library of Alexandria , are told constantly to new employees. This origin myth plays an important role:

- At that time they were not even a company, but a group of friends without much experience . Yet they managed to win against the world's largest architectural bureaus . This story shows that for Snow Hoods anything is possible.

Technology shapes the creative process.

An example of seductive magical technology is new 3D software.

- A building they designed in my fieldwork period, Tverrfjellhytta, Norwegian Wild Reindeer Pavilion, overlooking Snøhetta Mountain. Snøhetta's Oslo office had just purchased a very advanced robot. Using the robot they could work in a completely different way : They did not start with the facade as architects usually do, but designed the structure from the inside out .

 The result was a very creative solution that they have received plenty of attention and recognition, explains the anthropologist . But the idea came from the technology: Is it the robot that is creative or the architects who are inspired by the robot ?

Creative design made ​​possible by a robot : Reindeer pavilion at Hjerkinn overlooking Snøhetta Mountain. Photo: thefuturistics, flickr

- It is interesting to see how much technology shapes the creative process - and seduces even the architect, she says .

- Magic ?

- Yes, they talk about it. They are seduced by the 3D technology , for example - and sometimes a bit too much.

- This, you have said, reminds you somewhat of elements of New Public Management, when suddenly all universities claim to be world leaders and small municipalities describe themselves as powerhouses?

- Yes, it is possible. Based on my observations of Snøhetta's two offices, I find it interesting who the magic is supposed to work on. If a large public agency is going to introduce New Public Management, but none of the employees are seduced by the ideology, will it then have the desired effect?

- The magician must be credible?

- Yes it's very easy to expose a "seducer " in which one does not believe. What they say and do must be true for those concerned. As my supervisor said: Trobriandrers do not believe in magic, they know that it's true.

All professions are creative

- Can these lessons be transferred to other businesses?

- Definitely.

- And not just for the so-called creative professions. You say all professions are creative. How did you come by that conclusion?

- The doctorate was part of the project Idea Work for which the goal has been to understand how companies that are leaders in their field work creatively. Very different organizations, such as Statoil, Snøhetta, Thommessen, Sparebank 1 and Point Carbon, participated in this project.

- We noticed quickly that there were many things in common, things which were typical of creative work in all companies. Even among employees in occupations that do not regard themselves as creative, such as economists and geologists. At Statoil geologists work very much by wondering, by imagining something they don’t know at the time - where is the oil. Therefore I think that many businesses, including the public sector, would benefit from looking at some of their practices anew and try to induce magic at work.

Smaller departments = less flow of ideas

The nearly 400 page dissertation is also about the differences between the offices in Oslo and New York, about how difficult it can be to challenge traditional gender roles and power constellations. Towards the end of the work Aina Landsverk Hagen discusses how democratic ideals clash with reality in hard economic times .

She mentions a restructuring of the Oslo office that Snøhetta even thought was counterproductive for their creative work.

- The company was divided into smaller entities to minimize the risk. The architects who usually move around freely in the open landscape in Oslo to share ideas were suddenly forced to think about whether they should charge each other for the time they spent in different departments, she said. Office furniture mounted on wheels is not always enough to ensure the flow of ideas.

Aina Landsverk Hagen is now looking forward to her next project. As a researcher at the Work Research Institute in Oslo, she will study innovation in the media industry.

- The aim of the project is that journalists will be able to do more of what they're really good at - producing solid journalism. It will be important pioneering work. I cannot wait to get started.

By Lorenz Khazaleh. Translated by Matthew Rix Whiting
Published Jan. 30, 2014 7:42 AM - Last modified Mar. 25, 2014 8:32 AM