Most spaces serve as shelter; they keep us safe, warm, and dry. That’s the baseline. But some spaces go beyond that: They also help us think better. One such space is the war room.

A war room is a space that allows the team to focus on a project or initiative. It allows team members to see the latest developments in the project, but also trace its history; to see where critical decisions were made (and why.) The war room extends the cognitive abilities of its inhabitants. It creates a shared context that allows them to have intelligent discussions about the project.

Walking into such a room focuses your mind on that project. You and your teammates are (literally) surrounded by the information you need to make decisions about the direction of the project. The room functions as a substrate for working towards a shared goal. It’s an inhabitable shared notebook that allows for real-time collaboration.

You quickly take such an environment for granted. Effective collaboration “just happens.” You only rediscover the room’s power and usefulness when you must induct someone into the team. You walk the person through the space, pointing to the walls as you tell the story of the project. By the time you finish the tour, you’ve established a shared frame of reference. Your new collaborator has been granted access to a place that holds special meaning and power. He or she becomes part of the tribe.

An effective war room requires transparency; its content must be comprehensive, accurate, and timely. What kinds of content? War rooms can include:

  • Project plans: milestones, goals and objectives, schedules, etc.

  • Relevant context: research on competitors, the overall market, users, trends, etc.

  • The team’s creative output: design directions, conceptual models, mood boards, etc.

  • Explorations: “parking spots” for uncategorized ideas, room for impromptu brainstorming sessions, etc.

Thus, content plus metadata. Lots of it, and up-to-date. It’s best to think of the war room as a living space — one that needs constant tending. This calls for stewardship; one or more team members must be charged with organizing and refreshing the walls. Organizing how? By keeping distinctions clear. Is an artifact a sketch for a proposed feature, or is it something the team observed in a competitor’s website? Absent clear labeling, the sketch’s position in the room conveys meaning; someone needs to look after this meaning.

That said, anyone can (and should be able to) contribute. It’s useful to keep lots of sticky notes around for on-the-fly annotation. Color-coding these notes is essential to keeping the room from becoming an incoherent mess. Clarity calls for a balance between flexibility and discipline in the use of the space.

As useful as they are, war rooms also have downsides. Physical space is limited; walls get crowded after a while. Is a particular artifact no longer relevant? Then it must go. But before it does, it must be photographed. Maintaining order requires ongoing curation. This takes work.

But the war room’s biggest downside is related to its primary upside: because it’s a physical space, it doesn’t lend itself to remote collaboration. While there are remote tools that attempt to replicate the functionalities of a war room (Basecamp comes to mind), they usually suffer too much upfront structure.

As with many other contemporary information environments, these systems also don’t do accommodate multiple simultaneous inhabitants effectively; individual users peruse them on their own. A true online war room would allow for multiple people to collaborate on its content, meta-content, and structure, without devolving into chaos.

Whether it’s physical or in an information environment, a war room can be central to effective collaboration. As with all environments, setting one up is just the beginning: you must also enable structures and processes that change over time. A good war room supports — but doesn’t dictate — project activities and needs as they evolve; it enables shared exploration and emergence.