The Power of ‘Third Places’

Creativity is unleashed not only through the mindset we engage, but the environments we create.

Creativity is not always an individual sport. It is often the result of collaborative clashes and conversational hit-and-runs. Our ongoing flow of ideas and creativity is often as much an accidental occurrence as it is from our focused efforts. Consider how many chance encounters and run-ins which have led to powerful conversations that spurred new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new ways of seeing and doing.

But for this to happen, we have to create and design an environment where these creative clashes and conversational hit-and-runs can occur. Settings that author Ray Oldenburg refer to as our ‘Third Places’.

In his work Imagine, Jonah Lehrer describes Oldenburg’s vision of these ‘third places’ as, “any interactive environment that is neither the home (first place) nor the office (the second place). The virtue of these third places is that they bring together a diversity of talent, allowing people to freely interact…”

And no one understood that power of these ‘third places’ any more than Steve Jobs, which he determinedly designed into the very fabric of Pixar. As Jonah Lehrer shares in his work Imagine”Pixar realized that its creativity emerged from its culture of collaboration, its ability to get talented people from diverse backgrounds to work together.”

Which does not happen without intentional design. Creating collaborative opportunities requires both an intent and a design. You have to create the circumstances that don’t just allow it to happen, but drive it forward. It is this thinking that may have pushed Jobs to intentionally design Pixar to force these creative clashes and conversational run-ins to occur, on a frequent and ongoing basis. As Lehrer shares from Jobs in Imagine”Everybody has to run into each other. He really believed that the best meetings happened by accident, in the hallway or parking lot.”

Which is what Steve Jobs created at Pixar. He created and intentionally designed a ‘third place’ within Pixar’s ‘second place’. He created an environment that not only allowed, but drove a flow of ideas and creativity within the environment and organization. As Lehrer imparts, ”What makes Pixar studios so unique is that these spaces have become part of the office itself. The end result is a workplace filled with the clutter of human voices, the soundtrack of an effective third place.”

Lehrer goes on to illustrate why Pixar sees such importance in ‘third places’ where many other organizations might see these spaces as a negative proposition, ”While such interactions might seem incidental and inefficient – the kind of casual encounters that detract from productivity – Pixar takes them seriously. The studio knows that the small talk of employees isn’t a waste of time, and that those random conversations are a constant source of good ideas. This is because Pixar has internalized one of the most important lessons of group creativity, which is that the most innovative teams are a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected.”

And while Oldenburg and Steve Jobs saw these ‘third places’ as actual environments, these spaces no longer have to be limited to our physical environment. Our ‘third places’ can now be virtual and still achieve the same goal, an ongoing flow of ideas and creativity.

Whether physical or virtual, it is the work of today’s organizational leaders to create ‘third places’ that engage an ongoing flow of ideas and creativity, within their people, and within their organization.

So we have to ask ourselves, where is our ‘third place’? How are we designing and creating these spaces in our organizations, either physically or virtually?

References and quotes from…

Lehrer, Jonah. Imagine: How Creativity Works. 2012. Canongate Books, Ltd.


1 thought on “The Power of ‘Third Places’

  1. Hi David, A phenomenal piece on Third Places! As I continue to strengthen my teaching skills in kindergarten at Werner one of my activities that I have elaborated on is casual talk. We spend 30 minutes of our day collaborating and sharing our thinking and strategies to defend our common core standards. The students LOVE it. Their voices are heard. Their thinking to defend their answer (whatever it may be, right, wrong, weak or strong) is shared with their peers and me. You have your lesson plan, but with keen ears a thought that one or several students have is shared and developed that can take the lesson in a variety of directions. With an IMMENSE amount of constant affirmation that everyone’s voice can be heard and appreciated these 5 year old COMMAND the learning. I want to video tape these daily sessions. For the mere sake of analyzing my responses and noting who is saying what, so even those like EL students in their hushed tones do not get overlooked. I do take lots of pictures to help me strengthen our time together. It is powerful and many times we adults don’t pull out the information the same way as these littles one do. Actually hearing what the little ones are thinking and doing with the new information being taught is awe inspiring. Just as you noted about Pixar, listening to the employee’s small talk and group creativity comes from a group of the familiar AND the unexpected. Thank you, David. Your words help me to reaffirm some of my practicing beliefs!

    Happy Easter to you and your family! Monica Pawlowski

    Sent from my iPad


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s