Is it possible, with the help of creativity and 24 hours, to find unique solutions to a company's most difficult and intractable problems? Read about the thinking behind the Problem Busters concept and what we learned during the experiment.
By Niels Krøjgaard and Thomas Lütken
"We must do something, now - time is short!" Most managers and key employees have had to take a decisive strategic step at short notice. The cause can be anything: a tough deadline, a quickly changing market, a sudden fall in sales, a worsened competitive situation, financial crisis or a merger/restructuring of the company.
As creativity developers, we have often opined that "time is short" situations could greatly benefit from creative input. We have noticed that many managers lack the tools and methods to meet such challenges. So, we decided, in the summer of 2006, to make a creative experiment. We gave ourselves a concrete challenge: Is it possible to use creativity - in just 24 hours - to find unique solutions to a company's most difficult and intractable problems?
We approached the respected fashion firm REDGREEN, which was in the middle of an exciting change process. They accepted our proposal to help five key employees solve their greatest current challenges in five very unusual meetings. These take place over 24 hours, with a group meeting at the start and end. During the experiment, we would "twist" all the classic corporate habits:
REDGREEN was aware and understood that this was an experiment, and that the results might be uneven. In the ar-ticle "Problem Busters - a 24-hour Creativity Trip," (on page 8 of this issue) you can read about the concrete results of this untraditional process.
This article is an explanatory reference work, and brings you behind the experiment's framework and results. We give you concrete inspiration for how you can try a new and different meeting format in your company. The article is structured after the six "twisting" points above: PROBLEMS, SOLUTIONS, MEETING ROOM, TOOLS, PARTICIPANTS, and AGENDA.
Let us first show you the model we use as a starting point for creative thinking and technique. Imagine a picture of the brain marked with three spots: A, B and C. Points A and B are in the rational "left brain". A is a problem and B is a solution proposal. We often go straight from A to B because it is easy and direct. The path is paved with habits, rigid thought patterns and our own or our company's expectations. If you want to tackle a challenge exactly as you usually do, this is the path of habit you use.
But, sometimes, it is better to push your thinking over into the creative "right brain" where anarchy and craziness rule. It is here that the "C spot" is found.
If you make goal- oriented use of the "twisted" thoughts, crazy and unusable ideas found here, you will find that they can be taken back to point B, where they can give you new, exciting solutions
That's what we have in mind each day in our work. We use the creativity highway between the two halves of the brain (in reality, a neural path called Corpus Callosum): from point A over to the C-spot to get wild ideas, then go quickly back to point B to evaluate, refine and choose a useful solution from all the ideas.
The pressures of time and work often give businesspeople no chance to prepare a sharp, well-formulated problem description before strategic meetings. Instead, we throw ourselves into solving an unclearly described problem. That means - referring to our brain picture described above -- that Point A is unclear, which makes it hard for the brain to choose the right path to the solution. Before and during our 24-hour experiment, we experimented our way to three good ways to define problems - or, more correctly, challenges.
Half of a good useful answer is a sharp question." That proverb is solid gold when developing ideas. So we asked the five key REDGREEN employees - the accounts manager, retail manager, brand manager, CFO and executive secretary - to each choose a meaningful problem and thereafter twist and turn it enough to convert it to a sharp challenge question. All but one managed to do so, and it was obvious that these questions were much easer to address than the unclear question that we all tried hard to make sharper. It isn't always easy, but it is really worth the effort to try.
For example, the challenge from the accounts department boiled down a mass of circumstantial facts to the following question: How do we get debtors (customers) to pay on time?
That question is sharp and it's easy to find ideas to answer it, but it still lacks something. The question has its basis in finance department's view of the world, and is aimed at finding ways to bring the money in for the company's own sake. That can be - and almost certainly will be - a hard fight, especially because it is about money. And, also, because the accounts department does not have the same motivation as the debtors. So we decided to make the debtors teammates instead of opponents, and rewrote the question: How do we give customers the desire and skill to pay on time?
The key words in that question are, of course, "desire" and "skill." With that question, both parties have the same goal, and we had charted ourselves on an exciting and customer-based course.
In the course of the five problem solving session, we made an interesting finding. Even though the problems looked sharp at the start, they could be made even sharper. For example, it was especially interesting to narrow the target group of the challenge - by using what marketers call segmentation. In the case of debtors, for example, customers exhibit very different behaviors. Some do no pay because they have little ready cash - we need to give them the skills to pay on time. Others do not pay because they do not find the payment period reasonable - which makes it a weapon in a power struggle.
There is nothing wrong with carrying out one idea development session for each of these two payment problems, but it is better to address them separately, because different activities will be needed to solve the problems. We also found that idea development with very tight focus magically resulted in a wealth of ideas.
When a group of managers gather to solve some serious problems, it is not often they "play" their way to a solution. Nevertheless, we played our way through 24 hours of hardcore problem solving, which produced a wide range of exciting and untraditional solutions. That is what happens when we use the "C-spot" described earlier. In the box about creative development techniques on page 42, you get a few simple techniques you can use to create many solution suggestions in a very short time. Suggestions you can later put under the closest critical scrutiny, something most of us are good at.
We agreed with REDGREEN that the evaluation phase was not included in the 24 hours. They would receive the results in physical idea catalogues. Thereafter, it would be up to them to choose the best ideas. All participants had the pleasure of ending the 24-hour experiment with a group meeting in which all could hear and enjoy what their colleagues had found for the benefit of all.
Indictment: Most Danish corporate meeting rooms are terribly boring and uninspiring. If you feel convicted, let that inspire you to consider if your company releases its most creative energy in a meeting room with a mahogany board table, shiny white porcelain cups, and classic reproductions on the wall, or in a meeting room that looks like a cross between a family kitchen and a child's bedroom. The time when "heavy" was the thing that impressed guests most is long past. Show, instead, that you dare to play and be intimate.
To choose the most inspiring places in Aarhus and surrounding areas, we went out and scouted six wholly special locations we thought worth trying in a 24-hour period. The results were:
You and your organization can advantageously move strategic meetings from the company's well-known meeting rooms to a local exotic locale. Just the feeling of doing something new and different will catalyze creative energy for the job. Think in term of sense inputs such as pictures, colors, aromas, fresh air and "not too warm." Think in hard marathon sessions combined with replete, reward breaks. See page 43 for more about using these unusual meeting rooms. Something important that we learned: Never be too proud to change the plan if you feel something is not working out underway.
When you plan a meeting, do you think about the energy level of the participants? We all have suffered through meetings that run in circles, where the energy level is zero. No matter how many pots of coffee and platters of pastries are sent in, nothing moves. During the experiment, we tried to meet that with a number of "ice breakers" we could use according to plan or spontaneously.
The goal was to maintain a high and sustainable energy level - and it worked. In addition to the creative techniques that could break us loose of our habitual thinking and function as sense "boosters," we used these "ice breakers."
Every time a new participant took a seat on the DareMobile, we played the hippie classic "Born to be Wild" on the temporarily fastened loudspeakers in the car's rear. That gave the participant an impression that now was the time to cross borders, and all quickly picked up the mood.
In small brown medicine bottles with a faux-pharma design, we served "C-Vital:" a sensory developing substance that directly connects the "left brain" to the "right brain." Or so we told the participant. He believed in its effects, even though it was just juice, and that helped him remove mental blockades and be richer in ideas. A crazy idea? Sure, but it worked.
To create a counterbalance to the streamlined "set up" we brought along a 24/7 "ice-breaker:" the Cuban exile and driver Raul. Behind the long brown hair and the extreme beard hid one of our friends - Christian Dietrichsen - who with his sonorous broken English/Spanish played his role so well that some participants never doubted he was the real thing. He came with anecdotes from a sugarcane plantation in southern Cuba. He carried props, sweated, and swore in Spanish about the bad working condition. He played drums and gave guitar serenades.
Group songs give energy. At one point, we spontaneously reached into our bag for our prepared group song and got the REDGREEN participant to sing along.
We had an ocean of cold half-liter bottles of water in the cooler. But not just ordinary water: we slapped stickers on them, so they became "Brain Refreshers."
Are you familiar with the classic problem solving meetings? Where a bunch of stressed-out managers gather, each with an agenda and a fear of appearing stupid or that others will take credit for their ideas? The top dog often decides which problems are most important and whose ideas are best. That leaves some of the middle management in the lurch, since their biggest worries are neither heard or addressed carefully.
In the REDGREEN experiment, we wanted to be sure that every key staff member had a chance to choose the problem that meant the most to him or her in daily life. So we took them on the idea development trips one at a time. That way, each received our full and undivided attention for three hours. With the creative techniques, sense boosters, and us as guides, they - not their boss or a consultant - found their way to a wealth of good ideas. Several said they didn't think of themselves as creative, but nevertheless they walked away with about 15 exciting ideas to solve their problem and, not least, emotional stakes in them. Once again, we were pleased to see that creativity resides in us all, and just needs to be brought forth under safe and life-giving conditions.
The psychological preparation was not just for the participants, but also very much for us as facilitators. Therefore, we had also designed a psychological first aid kit for ourselves. First, we had planned several 12-minute power naps. We also discussed how we would handle the stress situations that we knew would pop up along the way. No matter how professional you are, you will become less nuanced, more thin-skinned, and egotistical when you are pressured and tired. We have known each other several years, and have carried out lots of professional and private projects together; we knew arguments would arise about which direction to take, not to mention minor bickering.
Naturally, we were confirmed in our suspicions. How-ever, we had shaken hands ahead of time: the goal was the Holy Grail, and no matter how many sparks flew, we were in this together. We wanted to be just as good friends after the process as before. Do you dare discuss what would probably be more difficult situations with your colleagues, and take the consequences - even before you start an idea development process?
As idea developers, we are often perceived as flighty people living in the creative brain, unable to meet a schedule. Luckily, that is not the case. Like many others, we are, fortunately and unfortunately, saddled with the need to put things into systems. It was clear to us that these 24 hours would need to be planned carefully to achieve the desired results.
At the start of the experiment, we could therefore reveal to the participants that the 24 hours from start to finish were planned in detail. We had planned down to five-minute intervals, but did not reveal the plans details. It worked. We accomplished almost everything we should. We were hectically busy at the end, as we should have been, since our portable printer broke down two hours before we were to deliver the five idea catalogues.
If you plan an idea development process over one or more days, try to make a detailed manuscript that only you have read. Participants need only know the goal of the process and feel comfortable with you at the tiller. With small buffers, you can navigate around in your "hidden" agenda, and thereby retain the big picture.
When our experiment was over, we felt - to say the least - much richer in experience. At the end of the day, we did not carry out the experiment for fun, but in a professional context with results as our goal. We reached our goal. But did we loosen REDGREEN's ingrown challenges and move the participants mentally?
A couple of days after the experiment, we received this e-mail from REDGREEN's CFO, who was responsible for the project:
As agreed at our closing meeting, I'd like to offer written feedback about our project. After taking part in the project on problem solving in a new and very unusual way in comparison to how we usually solve problems at REDGREEN, we five participants have truly had our eyes opened to a "new world". We have all seen and learned how alternative approaches to problem solving and frameworks can shift focus from the more rational and grounded frames to more creative and freethinking approaches. We are certain that we, via these new methods, can create a more holistic view and, thereby, better solution models for problems. The project as a whole, and not least the five problem solving sessions, produced clear inspiration and solutions to concrete problems, and therefore has let us take big steps forward in the company.
Moreover, we have all had a great personal payoff from the five sessions and the whole process. In the days since, we have all felt a little high from the experience, as it really gave us inspiration that we look very much forward to sharing with our colleagues after summer holidays.
I don't know anyone who is as young in spirit as Niels. He is 39 years old, and we had been friends before I discovered he was not my age, but seven years older. Hard to discover when the man attacks every problem with youthful optimism, crazy solutions, and habit breaking. That Niels has had years of experience as a concept developer in the ad industry is obvious when you show up at one of the many creativity courses he holds as a creativity expert for the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies. In his sharp fashion, Niels enchants the participants, and shortly after, he can get the wildest ideas to pour out of anyone. P.S. If you are going to meet Niels, do so at his home office. Niels always has the energy to create 2-3 gourmet dishes in his kitchen during the meeting. www.iff.dk, email@example.com
Thomas was born 20 years too late. With his underplayed hippie style (he drives a VW van, lives in a garden shed, and gives out hugs at music festivals), he is a true flower-child leftover. But don't judge the book by its cover. Behind his psychedelic thinking and twisted fantasy lies a sharp and professional concept developer who, among other achievements, helped create one of the fastest growing Nordic ad agencies in recent times. It's not surprising that large companies such as Coca-Cola and HK/Denmark - and others - call on Thomas' wacky mind for projects. And he is fun to work with. Incredible energy and a belief that anything is possible. And anything IS possible in his company. www.vovemod.dk & www.smiling.dk, firstname.lastname@example.org
First, a big "thank you" to REDGREEN for setting aside time for the experiment, and for entering into it with great enthusiasm and courage. Thanks, too, to Christian Dietrichsen who did not just play Raul - he WAS the Cuban exile Raul. Finally, we would like to thank the following locations:
REDGREEN is an international fashion company which, with its Sophisticated Sportswear concept, appeals to the stylish and quality-conscious consumer who has an eye for detail and who appreciates exclusive qualities with sporty references and modern fits. The design is Scandinavian with Italian references, and combines comfort and sporty details with a streak of understated elegance. REDGREEN has three brands that focus on clothes to different segments and age groups: REDGREEN men and women, IMITZ (women 28-40) and a new brand GENE (women 18-30). Read more at www.redgreen.dk
REDGREEN has 80 employees at its headquarters in Stilling, near Aarhus, Denmark. In the spring, the company held a "corporate value" day for all employees. Management believes all staff should share these values, and that all should help one another if they cannot or will not support the long, hard change process.
REDGREEN's four core values are:
The association technique can be used to see your problem from a completely new angle. The technique builds on 10-25 words chosen totally at random. You try to connect these to the challenge question. Some words produce crazy, unusual thoughts, and create ideas that can be refined and made useful. The technique can be used by both individuals and groups, and consists of three phases:
Reverse Brainstorm was originally used to find the weak sides of ideas, but has shown itself to be a useful technique if idea development in a group has hit a blank wall. It creates attitude and new energy in the group, since it is a lot of fun to create negative ideas. The technique has four phases:
The Inspiration Spectacles is a technique we developed to push people into seeing their tasks or problem from a completely new perspective. The spectacles come in six versions: tolerant, impossible, exotic, truth, well known, and crazy. The idea is that each pair of spectacles is on the table, to be put on when the group's energy starts to flag. When the glasses are on, the group can ask one of the associated questions. For example, wearing the tolerant spectacles: "How would the world's most tolerant person (Santa Claus) have tackled this challenge?" Or, wearing the impossible spectacles: "How would Albert Einstein have tackled this challenge?" This special technique is described in detail in FO/future orientation #1-2006 the article: "You need spectacles….".
Imagine a closed box filled with a whole range of different objects. What the things are is irrelevant, as long as they are categorically broad. If you sit in an idea development group, ask one of your colleagues to stick their hand in the box and randomly choose an object. The technique is based on using one's senses, and seeing what random thoughts the objects prompt. These "sense thoughts" are coupled to the task or challenge you are working with.
Our Sense Box held:
Choose your objects yourself and use them in your organization with people who do not know the contents of the box. Take away objects and add exciting new ones as needed. The possibilities are endless.
Unfortunately, we did not get to use this technique with REDGREEN, but it is an inspiration tool based on email. Ahead of time, we informed our close personal network of the REDGREEN project, and had warned them that they might receive an email with a challenge. They should reply with their immediate, intuitive solution suggestion. They should not analyze, think or try to find the completely correct solution. What we needed was their first shot from the hip. We wanted to receive about 20 crazy, wild, useless and fantastic ideas that we could either refine into usefulness, or develop further. The goal was, with their help, to "twist" our thinking at a time when we were closest to being trapped in a fixed channel of thought. However, because of time pressure, and because the techniques we used in the process worked so well, we were unable to use the technique. You are naturally welcome to experiment with it yourself.
|08:00-09:00||Presentation of REDGREEN, in REDGREEN's meeting room.|
|09:00-10:00||Presentation of creativity techniques.|
|10:00-13:00||Manager 1: Joan Langberg, accounting manager. Joan is married and has three children. She is 40. She has worked for REDGREEN for 13 years, where she has functioned mainly as the accounting manager. Joan says that no two years have been alike while she has been in REDGREEN, and that she still likes being there because it is because so much has happened and is happening. Location: Aarhus Cathedral|
|13:00-16:00||Manager 2: Claus Adler, retail manager. Claus joined REDGREEN on October 15, 2005, after 11 years at the clothing firm Bestseller, where he was responsible for retail in the Exit children's clothing chain. He is married to Tina, has two children, and lives in Herning. Location: 727 airplane, Stilling.|
|16:00-17:00||Summary session for the CIFS team. Location: DareMobile|
|17:00-20:00||Manager 3: Rasmus Nielsen, brand manager. Rasmus is married and has a son aged three. He is competitive, loves sports, and thinks women's fashion is especially exciting because it changes so fast. He has been at REDGREEN since February 1 of this year, and is responsible for making the new brand Gene work. Rasmus has his finger in many pies, from concept development, to hiring of buyers and designers, to the launch itself. Gene will be first launched in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. After a couple of years, it will be extended to Finland, Belgium, and Germany. Location: Monk cellar in Idériget, Aarhus.|
|05:00-07:00||Summary session for the CIFS team. Location: Ballehage Beach, Aarhus.|
|07:00-10:00||Manager 4: Henrik Skovsby, CFO. Henrik is in his third year in the top management of REDGREEN, together with managing director Peter Henriksen. Henrik has been at REDGREEN five years, was educated at Aarhus Business School, and previously worked at DanaData/Merkantildata and Adtranz. He is married and is the father of twins. Location: Memorial Park in Aarhus|
|10:00-13:00||Manager 5: Merete Blauenfeldt, executive secretary at REDGREEN since April 1 of this year. Wants to work more with HR, because she believes the company's development is highly dependent on the employees' personal development. Merete is married and lives in Horsens with her husband. She is was educated in the shipping industry, is a commercial secretary in English, and continues to educate herself in personnel development. Location: Greenhouse, Aarhus Botanical Gardens.|
|13:00-15:00||Summary session for CIFS team. Location: DareMobile.|
|15:00-17:00||Presentation of five idea catalogues. Location: REDGREEN.|
To get from place to place quickly, we used the DareMobile: Thomas' old VW van with a built-in meeting space in the back. On the rides to and from REDGREEN, we did the more rational side of the idea development in the stylized 1970s space, with a mirror ball swaying from the ceiling. The positive effect of this was the feeling of covering a lot of ground, physically and in terms of problem solving, at once. Moreover, the creative process was split away from the more analytical part.
The endless steps took us to the bell chamber high above the roofs of the city. It was like a marathon, and so it was not because we had time to enjoy the view, architecture, or the spirit. We had to quickly start generating ideas from the challenge. Nevertheless, the free view of the city, forest and sea, the murmur of the crowds below, and the sun from a cloudless sky with a fresh breeze in the old bell chamber was an optimal cocktail. We had manifested ourselves in the C-spot, reviewed our challenge, and attacked it with surprising calm and understanding.
Advertising agency 727's airplane, standing on a lawn beside the highway south of Aarhus, is a unique place. It consists of a lounge, meeting room, and playroom, so we had every opportunity to cavort in the three hours we were together with REDGREEN's retail manager. However, we quickly learned that day that the functional comes before the funky when you need to develop ideas. The temperature was insufferably hot, and there is no air conditioning on the plane. The staff had supplied us with a mountain of delicious cakes, candy and soda, but the heat kept us from our planned division of pleasure and work. Fortunately, Niels faced up0 to it, and we decided to carry out the rest of the process under the plane with a fresh breeze from the southwest. We had navigated according to the territory instead of the map, and that cost us some time.
Idériget is a creative office cooperative for powerful young companies. In addition to sharing offices, they have the city's most wonderful cellar, where one immediately goes back to the Middle Ages. After the warm flight earlier, it was delightful to come into this cool space, where the brand manager got many new ideas.
At 5 AM on Day 2, we arrive at the beach at Marselisborg Forest. No REDGREEN participants were with us because we needed the time to summarize, write, edit, etc. Why do the most boring, practical chores in a boring place? We only get more depressed from that. Imagine a completely still morning, with no sound except that of the sea's gentle waves. Where the sun has just risen and paints the sky with beautiful colors. Right there on the beach, we set up a garden table with chairs, computer, and printer - and there, in the fresh air, we rinsed our ideas and chose the best. And even tried to tempt the journalist and the camera crew out into the waves for a bit of naturist swimming.
It was a coincidence that it was the CFO, REDGREEN's project leader, who went with us to the somber, circular space, where we could, with respect and awe, read the names of thousands of Danes killed in the First World War. It's the sort of spot that instantly makes you realize you should take get the best of being with each other while you still can. It was the perfect place for his challenge of getting both the company and its staff to head toward the same glow on the horizon. With the first word in the chain of association, we saw the classic management/employee situation as a marriage, in which both parties have different needs and strengths. We have seldom seen ideas take form so quickly. In fact, we didn't need to use more words from the chain of association. 15 minutes before our time was up, we chose to simply stop the session: we had more than enough ideas.
We arrived at the subtropical greenhouse filled with positive energy from our successful session at the Memorial Park, so it was perfect that we had the incredibly casual executive secretary with us. She geared up quickly, and soon we were stepping on each other's words in the forest of exotic green plants from the far side of the world. The idea development process drove itself, and every three minutes, we were refreshed by a shot of water spray from small sprinklers in the roof.