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Foresight "Group Genius" Weekend

Leaping the Abyss:

Putting Group Genius to Work

Chapter One

Slaying Monsters, Saving Kingdoms


How often do you operate at your personal best during the business day? Are there times when you really hit your stride? You can resolve challenges with ease and power. A "problem" no longer strikes you as problematic. Instead, it's swept away in the solution that you are creating.

Sometimes you've been part of a group or a team that had that same kind of magic-call it "group genius." You might have to search your memory back to college, high school, or even beyond to remember when everything came together and your team delivered a first-rate performance on the sports field, in a school play, in an outdoor adventure.

Why isn't it like that more of the time in the business world-both for you as an individual and for your organization? Instead, too often you find that groups won't change as needed. People are intractable. Problems are insurmountable. You find yourself fighting against creativity blocks, against oppressive work environments that wear you down, or against coworkers' or management's resistance to change. Sometimes, after massive effort, you reach the conclusion that the structure of the organization just won't budge and you walk away thinking "you can't fight City Hall."

This book is an invitation to try a different way of working that enhances your individual and group productivity and creativity. This way of working brings environment, processes, and tools into concert to produce some amazing results. This is more than just a powerful new tool to add to your managerial toolkit. It's a process used to tackle big challenges, and it works for all kinds of organizations. You can also use it to change how you work and live day to day.

Would you consider testing a process that routinely gets your group or company to reach agreement on key issues-and produces a detailed, written operating plan-in days rather than the current three months...six months...or more?

You can try it out in condensed form, a three-day experience from which there is a high probability you will emerge with spectacular results. It's not a seminar that teaches you how to accomplish things. It's a process that actually accomplishes an astonishing result in three days.

Our goal here is to take you on a tour of one of these events and survey the achievements of many others. And, if you like it, you can incorporate this way of doing things into your daily working environment.

It's different enough to merit a special name: the DesignShop process.

This technique for change and creativity began as a method to enable individuals to enhance their creativity and solve difficult problems. It then expanded to address the dilemmas and opportunities faced by groups. Since the mid-1980s, it has evolved in the marketplace, being tested by companies working to improve bottom lines. Use of this process has spread almost exclusively by word of mouth, as one manager or CEO tells a friend, "You've got to try this process. It's unusual, but it works for us."

Groups of all sorts, ranging from large to small, military to counter-culture, manufacturing to entertainment industry, have used it to design successful solutions to challenging, complex, seemingly intractable problems in every area of business. Many have used the DesignShop process for solving single problems. Others have implemented the DesignShop environment and processes back at the office to create an ongoing change in their ways of working.

The improvements come about not by changing the people, but by changing their environment. Intelligence-suppressing factors and creativity-suppressing factors have been removed. People are given an enhanced set of knowledge tools and processes that let them be more effective-they are using power saws and drills instead of rocks. People operate closer to their maximum capacities.


Overcoming Barriers

Many barriers-time, embedded beliefs, and the physical environment-have been around so long that you no longer recognize their costs to your productivity and creativity. You are trapped by a set of assumptions, barriers, and concepts that systematically produce results you don't want. Many of these barriers are deeply enmeshed with current norms of work. "Getting rid of distractions and barriers is probably the foundation level for all the rest of the work," is how one senior manager describes it.

It's not that our current patterns aren't productive-they just aren't productive enough-and we know it. We still have problems in our organizations for which current techniques aren't providing solutions. The market demand for TQM, leadership courses, time management courses, and so on serves as direct feedback saying-"still not good enough, we need more." Current workplace habits keep us trapped in areas of local maxima, unable to move to higher levels of productivity. In the process of evaluation, we need the honesty to recognize that one of the barriers to change is fear of loss of control-or, more accurately, the illusion of control.

Here are some examples of real-world results from the DesignShop process:

  • Carl's Jr. hamburger chain used the process to create their redesign plan for the next decade. Instead of spending two years and $1 million designing, they achieved spectacular results through a three-day Design Shop at a fraction of the cost. Their plan generated even more benefits, including innovations that cut implementation time by 50%-to six months instead of a year.
  • A contract dispute had labor and management hostility raging on-long after the new contract had been signed. They needed to bury the hatchet, not keep sinking it into the other side's car tires. A DesignShop session resolved the emotions, built trust, and forged warring parties into a productive team. It was so successful that the management and labor involved took this problem-solving process on tour throughout the U.S. and as far as South Africa.
  • Colorado counter-culture types with a dream, but with little business experience and tight funding, used it to design a rapid implementation plan to open a natural foods store. In three months, the first store was up and running, and became the basis of their multi-million dollar grocery chain-which is so successful that they now have to fight off hostile takeover attempts.
  • Using the process intensively over 22 months, a technical test center completely revamped their vision, their business, and their profitability. Arnold Engineering Development Center turned a 30% reduction in government funding into a 30% increase in commercial business, locked in $750 million in new business, entered strategic alliances that brought tens of millions of dollars worth of donated capital structure improvements by partners, and transformed a financially-crippled entity into a creative, dynamic, profitable center of technical excellence.
  • An opera company used the DesignShop process as a last ditch effort to prevent bankruptcy. Instead of the usual agonizing over how to raise funds, the process revealed a corporate taboo that had prevented the team from realizing that they were already sitting on a pot of gold. They discovered untapped financial resources, reconceived proper use of their assets, and became consistently viable again.
  • Pan Am, United Airlines, American Airlines, TWA, and other U.S. air carriers were losing and frustrating customers due to delays, and losing lots of money in the process. U.S. air traffic control procedures were causing the delays, but the roots of the problem between the airlines and the FAA-and between the rival airlines themselves-were so fundamental that everyone knew no win-win situation was possible. A DesignShop event, hosted with trepidation by the FAA, produced previously-unimaginable cooperation and sharing of information between airlines, and an unprecedented win-win solution that decreased delays by 50% in less than 120 days.
  • High school principals-competitors for the same scarce funding-met as adversaries. During a one-day event, they restructured their relationships and moved into a pattern of profitable cooperation with no legal barriers. Years later, they continue to share resources and have made their resource pie even bigger.
  • Avis Rent-A-Car went into this process hoping to smooth the relocation of a large percentage of their reservations work force to a soon-to-be-built second reservation center. They left the DesignShop event having reconsidered the traditional solution of building a second reservation center and replaced it with a completely new approach that saved millions in land and construction cost, lowered operating costs, reduced employee turnover, boosted productivity, and smoothly handled Avis's growing reservation load.
  • National Car Rental used the process to develop a powerful and prescient Total Asset Management System for automobiles. In the six years since, as more of the major car rental companies and auto manufacturers implement components of the plan, it is clear that the National Car Rental event accurately identified the future of these industries.
  • In Colorado, the Boulder County Development Office found that a one-time use of the process provided their organization with enough vision and energy to drive them strongly for over seven years.
  • Inspired by the DesignShop process, employees of an insurance and financial services conglomerate were able to overcome their fear and redesign the organization without their department. By doing so, they transformed their attitudes from those of potentially-obsolete functionaries to flexible "gold-collar" workers-valuable in any organization.
  • The Air Force's F-15 team had a complex problem-one for which no one wanted to step up and claim ownership. Ongoing evolution of their software and hardware platforms was causing enough problems to seriously inhibit communication between members of this global organization. Using the process, they revamped their old ways of organizing which had gotten them into the mess. They invented new ways to organize their people into a virtual team that solved the problems.

How can dramatic improvements happen so quickly?

Imagine that a team of Disneyland or Industrial Light & Magic engineers had gone to the site of your upcoming vacation and custom-made a ride just for you. They orchestrated an active journey to let you have peak experiences-a river rafting trip paddling through wild Class V rapids. As the ride progressed, the engineers modified the journey to suit your immediate needs-maybe they added a stretch of quiet beauty and calm water for a needed rest after your team successfully carried the rafts through a difficult, boulder-strewn portage. Imagine that they constructed a journey that became a venture of discovery and achievement. In literature and cinema, journeys of this sort become the tales of heroes from Odysseus to the Three Musketeers to Indiana Jones, and the achievements are slaying the monster, saving the kingdom, and finding the treasure.

The DesignShop experience can be likened to taking your mind, and your coworkers' minds, on a custom-tailored, problem-solving adventure voyage using the whole world of ideas as your theme park. The journey is crafted to the needs of your organization and its business challenges. The design rules for creating a good voyage are used by the engineers, but never brought to the riders' attention. The technical mechanisms are hidden underneath and not allowed to intrude on the travelers' experience. The quality of the results comes from engaging fully in the unique experience of the journey.

The DesignShop process is full of turbulence. Ambiguity and complexity are added before the process moves to a manageable elegance. It requires a different criteria set than the ones normally used to judge whether or not a meeting is "going well." It is deliberately a high-variety environment that is vastly more demanding than the standard business setting.

As you take the DesignShop ride, you are placing yourself in a state of ambiguity and risk as you move toward the future state that you desire. You are fully engaged in a physical process surrounded with the appropriate metaphors-you have stepped onto the boat and cast off from the shore. This is much more than a mere exchange of information.

Placing yourself in this state of ambiguity is stressful. Creative people are accustomed to doing it, but still experience the stress. Most of modern civilization has focused on how to run away from risk. The average person or organization is habitually working to reduce variety, ambiguity, and risk-not embrace it. The usual solution is to ignore it, not experience it.

DesignShops manage the risk, and allow you to focus on creating solutions. The reason DesignShops achieve success is that participants are being carried forward by the entire structure of the whole experience, like passengers in a boat traveling down a river. Instead of focusing on their individual, day-to-day concerns-including internal politics, egos, and jostling for career advancement-team members are caught up by an intense group effort in problem-solving.

Often when a group needs to find a new solution, they try a brainstorming session. Sometimes this works; often it doesn't. The DesignShop techniques can be thought of as a way to take such a session and multiply its effectiveness by an order of magnitude. It uses a combination of practical exercises and a few simple tricks, along with an environment optimized for problem-solving, to greatly increase the odds of success.

We will give you the sensation of the experience, and we will also show you the behind-the-scenes mechanism of a DesignShop event so you can begin to recreate the environment and processes for your organization.

In retrospect, we were convinced that we would have reaped significant benefits from using DesignShop techniques in complex business situations in our own past-with software companies from Autodesk to Lotus, with military contractors, and troubled nonprofits. It's a case of "I wish I knew then what I know now." Now that we've experienced the DesignShop, these new insights, tools, and processes will be part of our future tool kit.

We attended our first DesignShop activity in Philadelphia. We arrived early to see the staff set up the physical environment and design the sequence of exercises. Sponsored by the Center for Advanced Studies in Management at the Wharton Graduate School of Business, this was one of many uses of the process. Multiple organizations attended instead of just one organization and its stakeholders.

The attending organizations came to work on two issues:

  • The question posed by the sponsor, the Wharton Graduate School of Business: What is the structure of the 21st century organization?, and
  • An organization-specific challenge that each group needed to address.

This event turned out to be well-suited for our task of analyzing the process' effectiveness. The multiple organizations in attendance gave us the opportunity to speak with a large and diverse set of people who routinely use the process to work on problems specific to their businesses and technologies. We talked with experienced participants and extracted from them their past results from the process. We watched the first-time attendees' reactions, noted how similar they were to our own "first-timer" reactions, and how they changed as the event progressed. We also saw the behind-the-scenes staff action that made this journey possible.

Over three days, we saw over forty business executives, engineers, management consultants, military officers, and university professors get frustrated, angry, annoyed-well, the first-timers did-then excited, enthusiastic, engaged, cooperative, productive, and above allcreative.

We saw business groups generate solutions-often dazzling solutions-to problems that had plagued them for up to four years. If they had brought a proposal with them from home-fine, respectable proposals that had been labored over for months or years-they replaced them with solutions that were vastly better.

Business acumen, inventiveness, ability to recognize opportunities, and tactics for capturing opportunities kept improving throughout the event. We saw these patterns consistently, in group after group, whether they were military personnel, management consultants, fast-food restaurant franchisees, or purveyors of education.

On our return home, we made some immediate changes in our personal work environments and processes. Even without holding a DesignShop and getting the full benefits, we could still quickly adapt many insights to give productivity gains day-to-day.

Without having attended the event-and discovered for ourselves both the costs imposed by some of our traditional procedures and the benefits that are possible within 72 hours-we would have remained curious, but not moved to action. By sharing enough of this experience and analysis with you, we hope you'll be moved to include these new techniques and insights in your tool kit for working on tough problems. Better yet, we hope you'll choose to restructure your environment so that it is supportive of you and your work in these fast and complex times.



Beginning with this chapter, and continuing with every chapter in the book, readers are invited to participate in a "Take-a-Page" exercise. We'll provide the blank pages and some guiding questions. You provide the creative energy and responses.

One further note before beginning: most of these challenges will be more difficult to solve if you're doing them alone. They're not impossible to do alone, but some collaboration will increase the creativity. If you can find a friend to work with, all the better.

Let's begin.

1. You've just finished Chapter 1. Without referring back to it, simply record your impressions. Don't necessarily analyze or debate what you've read, merely record impressions. You may do so through a drawing, a few words, a mind map, whatever method you choose. What puzzled you? What resonated with your previous experiences?

2. Now that you've recorded your impressions, if there are items of curiosity or question, refer back to the text for clarification and record any new observations on this page.

3. How do you currently approach working with others, and designing and building with others? What stages do you and your fellow collaborators tend to cycle through on your way to creating a problem and subsequently solving it? What strategies do you employ in working with other people, not necessarily to get something out of them, but to collectively leverage each other's abilities? What are your assumptions about creativity? What are your assumptions and beliefs about collaboration; about people working together to create incredible value? You may need to think about these questions over a series of days, watching your life through a different lens.

4. What is possible to accomplish in three days? What factors keep it from being more?

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