Foresight "Group Genius" Weekend
Leaping the Abyss:
Putting Group Genius to Work
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
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
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
- 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
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
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.
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?