Foresight "Group Genius" Weekend
Leaping the Abyss:
Putting Group Genius to Work
Freeing Time & Attention
A key element of the DesignShop process is
to eliminate blocks-identify and clear away the overhead that displaces
An environment that gives your mind and body
what it needs most is likely not what you get under daily circumstances.
Instead, your brain is required to pay attention to time management issues,
social norms, home worries, recordkeeping, and burdens from the physical
environment-at the same instant you are demanding that it be insightful,
creative, decisive, communicative, or otherwise productive. All of us underestimate
how strongly results are shaped by the structure or the boundaries of our
surrounding environment, or how our structures and boundaries shape the
results we seek.
Executives need to increase their creativity-their
problem-solving, solution-generating ability-and judgment. But their way
of working ties them firmly to a mode that undermines their ability to do
so. Observe the effects of typically "structured" use of time
and attention on executives:
- Their usual mode becomes one of rushing, very short meetings-averaging
nineteen minutes-with condensed information transfer.
- They are expected to be "in command at all times,"
including running the meeting.
- They are expected to have the answers and make the decision,
because "the buck stops here."
- They are expected to balance all competing interests, inside
and outside the organization, at all times.
- While doing all of the above, they are supposed to be creative.
Because all of us have learned to bend our
brains to the benefit of time, we no longer recognize time as a strong boundary
condition impeding our ability to think nor as a major source of mental
overhead. We have all been trained to save time, to make things happen on
time, to schedule time, calendar events, and build tight time structures.
We don't ask ourselves what happens when decisions
on how to use time are instead prioritized for the benefit of your brain.
DesignShops construct a complete environment
for the benefit of your mind, including the full scope of time issues. The
DesignShop process answers the question: "How do you work with time
to benefit your brain?" Consider what can be done with the many time-related
variables to make you more productive:
- Manipulating hours, minutes, and number of days dedicated
to each task,
- Changing the length of the days, including starting time and
- Giving participants a schedule, or keeping it hidden,
- Altering who is paying attention to time issues,
- Taking into account the role of sleep time, and the rising
and falling of attention spans throughout the day,
- Experimenting with different rhythms and paces for all of
The brain and body respond strongly to the
time called out by music-the tempo. "Sound," points out Stanford
University professor of music Leonard Ratner, "touches us physically,
as vibrations in the air. Physical and emotional responses to the movement
of music are touched off by its pace, its regularity, its force, and its
flow." Tempo enforces a mood. Timing and intensity communicate arrival
According to Dr. Georgi Lozanov's research
into accelerated learning techniques, Baroque music's tempo and patterns
help the brain stay focused on work while allowing the body to relax-an
ideal state for long, intense learning periods. Depending on the nature
of the task at hand, we must ask ourselves what music, tempo, and timing
should be provided.
These issues have been woven into the structure
and details of a DesignShop event.
We'll start by highlighting the biggest and
most dramatic of the time-use techniques. We saw a three-day event, each
day starting at 7:30 AM for breakfast, and ending at 8:00 PM, except for
the 6:00 PM ending on the final day. Every day, for three days, the people
in the room got smarter. By the end of those three days, when the teams
pulled together to work on solutions to their specific problems, they were
sizzling. Repeatedly, people reported having accomplished the equivalent
of a year's worth of decision, design, and planning work during the course
of an afternoon. It took them two days of concentrated preparation to put
them in good enough mental form, with enough new tools and enough new information,
to deliver a dazzling performance.
There's a jocular saying among psychologists
that all the important stuff happens in the last fifteen minutes of the
session. If so, it seems reasonable to ask-why not just hold fifteen-minute
Similarly, at DesignShop events, the actual
tactical solution to the problem gets done right at the end. So it seems
reasonable to ask: why not hold fifteen-minute DesignShops? Why not expect
breakthrough creativity in the same length of time as the average management
This is why: There seems to be a certain amount
of concentrated time-hours or days-which must be available to focus on a
problem. A sizable chunk of that is spent in preparation for designing a
solution, in the same way that an athlete spends more time warming-up, stretching,
training and preparing than actually running the race. How much time does
a brain need to be in peak form?
By the end of three days, you've dropped the
extraneous mental baggage you carried in the door, you've loaded up your
head with the complexity of the situation, you've got more tools to work
with, you've got more solutions to choose from, you're in top shape mentally.
The DesignShop requires the long hours and
the multiple days precisely so that participants can stay focused on the
present and the issues involved, rather than continually shift context to
deal with the rules and demands of the standard office environment. Time
issues affect intensity, immersion, concentration, attention, and rhythm.
Time issues are a sore spot for a lot of people.
Matt Taylor observes:
We have rarely had a client argue with us
on a major process issue, but they will argue like hell about time.
Sponsors will say in all seriousness, "Solving
this problem is critical to our company-it is our top priority and you
can do anything you want. But here are your boundaries: the DesignShop
is going to last two days, and we'll meet each day from 8 AM to 6 PM."
They argue whether it should be an eight or a ten or twelve-hour day. They
get upset about whether or not a schedule is posted-all time-related issues.
When the focus is placed on time, competing
demands for attention immediately come to the fore. "What! Do you
mean I am going to get home late?" Family demands are challenging
bids for time. For individuals, the complaint might stem from not wishing
to forgo the home environment. For single parents, going even an extra
hour is really difficult. Or managers often say, "I want to get on
an airplane and go someplace else tomorrow, so let's keep the last day's
Looked at objectively, if solving this problem
really is top priority, aren't the other concerns secondary problems to
be facilitated, and not allowed to block major achievements that the company
The manager who wants to pare down the hours
on the last day of the DesignShop, the day when everyone is finally working
in peak form, is thinking of time as a constant. Although 'time" in
the abstract is a sliceable, segmentable, uniform entity, time isn't all
the same for us humans. We are biological creatures. The manager seems
to be thinking two hours off of a three-day DesignShop is trivial and couldn't
Cutting down to ten hours on the last day
means we lose 20% of the result of that one day. No-you lose 80% of the
total result. He's not seeing the effect on the brain, the nonlinearity
of the situation, the discontinuity of the result. What you can achieve
in a one-day event is not one-third of what you can achieve over three days-it
is more like one-tenth.
Bryan Coffman, who has facilitated DesignShop
events for over ten years for organizations ranging from the Commissioner
of the IRS to components of Walt Disney World, agrees:
Only a small percentage of people will break
through to enhanced creativity during a one-day session. They have not
had the benefit of sleeping on the problem two nights, not been forced
to work hard on it from different vantage points. They have had time to
come in, listen politely, and go home.
"Sleeping on the problem" is a
deliberate use of time as a problem-solving technique. You've spent the
day in "accelerated learning" or "immersion learning,"
loading up your head with complexity, new information, new paradigms, and
vast new sets of tools to apply to your problem. That night's sleep will
shift the learning into long-term memory. When you are handed a creative
challenge at 8 AM, your mind comes to work with a different integrated
.i.ol kit;tool kit, and perhaps with a restructured view of the world and
the problem than you had the day before.
The only way you totally immerse in working
with a challenge is when you have an opportunity to get away from the mundane;
to step away from the habits, thought patterns, and tools we use during
our standard days; to see a wide variety of viewpoints.
The long hours give you enough time to try
out, use up, exhaust, and discard habits and standard ways of doing things
that haven't been capable of solving the problem. The long hours give you
the time to move into trying out new, experimental forms of problem-solving.
You can even use the long hours as a way to relax self-imposed rules that
are holding you back-you can try out an idea without being so nervous about
the listener's response. You can break taboos with excuse of fatigue, relax
with fatigue, become more open to information, including information from
Dissolving old structures and reformulating
new ones is part of the creative process. It is, quite literally, the chemistry
of a solution.
From an interpersonal perspective, the long
hours give the time needed to get comfortable with the people around you-get
to know the new ones, and get to know the familiar ones in a deeper way.
Christopher Fuller, an artist providing visual
interpretations and graphic support for DesignShop participants, says, "I
first thought, Why the long hours? Then I realized that with human conflict,
this is how you reach agreement. With short hours, people can leave mad
and come back refreshed to fight again tomorrow. Long hours make you stay
until you find a solution. You can keep working to a resolution if you have
to find an answer."
In a time when managers are trying to increase
their productivity by making meetings shorter, DesignShops are getting longer,
stretching into more days rather than fewer. Two key factors driving the
trend to longer DesignShops are increasing numbers of participants and increasing
environmental complexity. The greater external complexity means you have
to take more time to gather relevant data-there are more resources to be
considered, more complexity regarding competitors and markets. To capture
the complexity of the environment, managers include more and more stakeholders
in the meeting. DesignShop sessions now routinely run with fifty to eighty
participants, and the process therefore takes longer.
Frances Gillard, former Center Master for
a AEDC's Gossick Leadership Center which offers an ongoing DesignShop capability
for the organization, notes: "When people have had several DesignShops,
they can productively do a one-day follow-up design session to work on smaller
problems or follow-up problems. By then the participants know how to use
the new tools, move quickly into the mental warm-up processes, don't waste
time and energy fighting to revive an exhausted solution or use an inappropriate
tool. Instead they buckle down to the creativity of generating new options,
and get a lot out of a short session."
Why would anyone spend a lot of time and energy
fighting to hang on to a particular management tool? It doesn't seem reasonable
when your company's life is on the line, but people do. We saw it-especially
with time management tools like schedules and agendas.
Schedules and agendas are standard, useful
ways of moving efficiently through the business of a meeting or a seminar.
They seem to be merely time-structuring devices, and yet have major consequences
on brain function and creativity. They are also a major emotional hot button.
We watched the buttons go off for every person
for whom a DesignShop was a new experience. It started with Lynn Galida
from the Wharton Graduate School of Business, attending a DesignShop for
the first time. She is here on behalf of her boss-who, although a sponsor,
will also be attending a DesignShop for the first time.
The day before the DesignShop activity starts,
the entire facilitation team and the sponsors are deep in fine tuning and
crafting the proposed schedule for the event. Lynn says very matter-of-factly
that her people will, of course, want copies of the schedules and agendas,
and could they have them in advance? The equally matter-of-fact reply comes
back-don't worry about the "in advance" part, because we don't
hand out schedules or agendas for a DesignShop session.
The explanation: The schedule now being crafted
by the sponsors and the DesignShop staffers lays out a proposed route through
different information exercises, in order to bring the participant group
to the goal of a productive problem solution. As in theater, where actors,
musicians, lighting technicians, and property managers must all coordinate
their activities, the staff lays out action tracks for furniture and space
preparation, toys, props, music, and video recording equipment needed for
each planned exercise. Just as the audience concentrates on the play, DesignShop
participants concentrate on the work-not on the schedule. The schedule is
hidden. It is not displayed to participants.
The job of clock watching is handled by the
staff, but even their monitoring is hidden. Break-out spaces may have been
made smaller, made larger, set with table, chairs, and utensils for lunch
or books updated with transcripts of the last module's work, but these events
will have happened quietly, invisibly, without taking participants' attention
from the current work, without letting them wonder what the title of the
next exercise means.
As the hours pass, the schedule will be modified
to tailor the future steps to the progress of the group. The facilitation
team will make the judgment call to prolong a session if the group is working
well and productively, or to redirect an exercise if, in their judgment,
circumstances warrant. If, as the work goes along, the participants need
something radically different than what has been planned in order to reach
their goals, then the plan is tossed out wholesale and the entire event
is redesigned at that moment. Think of it as being similar to improvisational
theatre. A very experienced sponsor of DesignShops said he had seen it often:
"With other consultants it's all done by the book, from A to B to C
until you reach Z. Here, the book goes in the trash. The theme is never
lost, the goal is never lost, but the plan undergoes continual and sweeping
The explanation to Lynn about the schedule
is given, and people turn back to the business of preparation.
But Lynn is frozen in place. It's as if she
has "no schedules or agendas" going through Instant Replay mode
and still can't believe what she heard. So she gives it another try. "Excuse
me, but my people expect schedules." Her voice gets louder, "They
want schedules!" Then with real passion and a little bit of panic,
"They need schedules! I have to give them schedules!"
At this point, Lynn looks a wee bit high-strung.
She's talking as if these professional adults are going to stress out or
suffer major trauma if they don't get a sheet of paper with times and topics
written on it. And guess what-she's right. When these people show up for
the DesignShop, it's clear that they want those schedules. They need those
schedules. They even get a little testy. "No schedules! Where's my
schedule!" "What do you mean 'participants in the DesignShop aren't
given a schedule'!" Some reactions aren't much different than a dedicated
heroin addict being told he was going "cold turkey," eyes probing
left and right, searching for a hidden stash of schedules.
What must be going through their minds?
- What kind of place is this, that doesn't have a schedule?
- How do I know if I want to be here or somewhere else if I don't have
- How can I figure out what to pay attention to without a schedule?
- If something even more interesting is coming up later in the day, I
need to prepare my comments for it instead of paying attention now.
- How can I coordinate the talks with my own schedule, so I can zip out
and make phone calls?
- Where is the agenda? I need to know where we are going. I need to monitor
my time and my content so that I do not bring up a big issue for debate
when we have only a minute left for this topic.
We are so accustomed to certain ways of operating
in the business world that we cannot properly evaluate their true costs,
their subtle consequences, or their inappropriateness to certain situations.
Over time, after our first DesignShop event,
the impact of an openly-announced schedule or the lack of it became clear
to us. The openly-announced schedule creates a series of paradoxes. It lets
one person tune out on the present conversation because the official topic
"isn't my responsibility, and I don't need to pay attention until Item
4." Conversely, for others it places a tremendous intellectual burden
of self-monitoring and self-suppression. Instead of paying attention to
dealing with the problem, we are now paying attention to meeting a time
budget. The one way you can have the freedom to engage fully at the present
moment and not worry about the clock is if someone else is monitoring the
clock and making the judgments about moving on or continuing to closure.
The purpose of a schedule or agenda is not lost, but the burden or cost
of handling it has been delegated away from people who should be doing other
work. The DesignShop facilitation team provides this as part of logistical
support to the intellectual process.
Other supports to the intellectual process
include creative time techniques, called Time Compression and Time Travel,
to help participants jettison other restrictive rules that have been encumbering
their insight and creativity. The DesignShop starts with a quote from the
poet Rilke: "Unless you've got a thousand year perspective backwards
and forwards, you are trapped in the present."
With Time Compression, participants have a
brief time-one or two hours-to come back and report a solution on a really
complex problem. This is most useful for groups that have found themselves
stalled back home. "Stalled" may be taking the form of arguing
or endless thrashing as they search unsuccessfully for a "safe"
or an obviously successful solution. Somehow, there needs to be a way to
get these people off the starting block, to get them to stop the profitless
worrying and start doing some designing and creating.
To take the pressure up further and to remind
the group that the rest of the world isn't standing still, the time scale
may be changed so that each minute of the time allotted for the exercise
represents a week or a month passing. The next step in Time Compression
is to announce that time is going by as they sit and stew. Suddenly, the
group is handed a simulated headline from the Wall Street Journal, and someone
notices, "Hey! This date is a year in the future and we haven't made
a decision yet!" This often still isn't enough to prompt leaving the
safety zone of thrashing mode. The next Wall Street Journal headline shows
up, and it has your company's name blazoned across it with the comment:
"Investors Becoming Shy. No Decisions Made in Eighteen Months."
Now the reaction is "Oh, no! The market is reacting. We'd better start
People respond to the information in the feedback
loop. Under the challenge and stimulation of this high-compression, information-saturated,
intense, demanding environment, people start to remember talent sets that
they often haven't used since college. Their natural competitiveness drives
them to do well rather than worrying about following the rules-the rules
that won't work.
Time Travel, or what might be called the art
of Backcasting, is another powerful technique related to time and perception.
For whatever the reason, looking backward-Backcasting-to imagine events
which have supposedly already happened is much easier for us than forecasting.
When trying to work your way out of a current problem, it is more productive
to leap into the future, imagine a successful end state, and then explain
how you got there rather than getting lost in the myriad of current details
and stumbling blocks. Psychologists note an empirically consistent and very
different response when participants are asked to backcast instead of forecast.
Gail Taylor also has observed this consistency:
"If you ask someone to forecast and hand them a problem which says:
'From today's date, describe the next twenty years,' people routinely say
that they can't predict the future. Their written descriptions of the next
twenty years are brief, not particularly rich, and are heavily weighted
towards the content of today's newspaper headlines. But if you hand the
same person a problem which says, 'Today is 2050; now describe the last
twenty years,' people will write a great deal."
Maybe forecasting is less productive because
the welter of current facts places a constricting barrier on our creative
problem-solving ability. Maybe the fact that yesterday was very much like
today, and today is very much like tomorrow, keeps problem-solving attention
fixed on smooth trends rather than radical breakthroughs. Whatever the reason,
forecasting is a weak technique.
The recognition of how powerful Backcasting
is-of using it to create a common vision of the future, and then using that
vision to let people achieve their maximum potential-was a gift of insight
given to Matt Taylor by the novelist C.S. Forester. Forester was best known
as the author of the Horatio Hornblower series, as well as the author of
The African Queen. Here is Matt's story:
When I was a boy, I loved the C.S. Forester
Hornblower stories and reread them until I almost had them memorized. When
I was about thirteen, my mother found that Forester was living nearby.
She wrote him a letter and Forester invited us over for the morning. We
came at 8:00 AM and stayed the whole day.
We ended up in his living room at 5:00 at
night, and he said, "Have you ever read The African Queen?"
Matt had seen the movie with Humphrey Bogart
and Katherine Hepburn battling their way down the African river to single-handedly
take on and sink a German warship, but-no-he hadn't read the book.
"You really ought to read the book,
because it's very important," Forestor said. "Let me tell you
how I wrote the book. I imagined two characters-people easily drawn from
life, an old spinster and a drunken, irresponsible Cockney boat captain-and
I imagined, what could they be at their maximum? I built that in my mind,
then I wrote the entire plot of the book to give them the experiences necessary
to become that."
"I knew," says Matt, "I had
been told something really important. Of course it took a number of years
to understand what I learned."
The first part of what Matt learned was "you
don't get there from here, but you can get here from there"-you can't
get to the desired future state by starting with your current vision of
the present. What you need to do is envision the desired future state of
what these people or this company could be at their maximum, and then you
begin moving as much of that future state into the present as possible.
That future vision will help to solve present problems, and keep you on
course. Matt continues:
What had to happen for the missionary and
the Cockney was for them to come to an understanding-a mission, a goal.
Now here was the vision: they are going to blow up a German warship.
And then they had to solve the problems of
getting their boat, the African Queen, down to Lake Victoria and doing
it. At every problem they came to, for logical purposes, they were blocked,
dead in the water-a broken propeller or impassable rapids.
If they had not had the vision, the mission,
they would have stopped. They brought "there," the vision of
the future, to "here," the present problem with the busted propeller
or getting through the weeds, to inform them how to proceed day-to-day.
The vision provided the continuity and the wholeness. But the ability to
take it day-by-day provided the capacity to deal with problems as they
came. They applied the vision to each incremental challenge they faced,
so that each incremental step took them closer to their vision.
In the DesignShop, our job is to heal those
diseases, the barriers, that stop people from reaching their maximum potential.
How? Exactly the way I said. You take them down to the river and give them
a boat and a goal and they go down through the swamps to blow up the German
Forester did it with fictional characters.
DesignShops do it with real people and organizations. An MG Taylor axiom
states, "The future is rational only in hindsight." Client after
client travels to the future and then discerns the rational path for having
We have already implicitly seen one fairly
simple Backcasting story when we talked about Carl Jr.'s creation of the
plans for Store 2000. You'll recall that they asked themselves what they
envisioned the store to be in the year 2000, not what they might want in
1994 when they were working the problem. They designed for what technologies
and demands would be present in the future, but gave themselves the constraint
that they would not include any technology which was not on the market within
six months of their start-to-build date.
Gail Taylor gives an example: "We have
told other problem solvers, 'You are so successful that Fortune magazine
is coming to interview you. How did you do it?' And from there, people invent
pathways that lead to the successful conclusion. We said to Avis: 'Picture
this: you've got no central reservation center. How did you do it?'"
With business booming for Avis Rent-A-Car,
their central reservation system was fast approaching overload. Operating
costs in their Tulsa, Oklahoma, location had been rising, so expanding the
existing center or building a second center in Tulsa was not appealing.
The planned solution-conventional and reasonable-was
to open a second center in a geographic location with lower costs. The reservation
load would be split between Tulsa and the new site. Cities had been evaluated,
a new Virginia site for the second center selected, purchase of the property
underway, the necessary funds committed, and building plans were being drawn
up. Tulsa employees would be offered the opportunity to relocate to the
Charlie Bell, the Vice President responsible
for worldwide reservations, had been wrestling with the complexities of
coordination between the two sites. With cooperation, he felt, everything
would be fine. But with the employees as nervous as they were, as unhappy
about the idea of relocating, cooperation could be scarce. To try for that
smooth transition, to iron out problems, to soothe employees nervous about
the change, Charlie decided to hold a DesignShop event.
The first task for the DesignShop session
was to get everyone focused on requirements for continued success. Everyone
knew Avis couldn't keep growing at the Tulsa location-just too expensive,
something had to be done. Then they tried the radical Backcasting approach:
"You've got no central reservation center, and things are running very
well. The workload is way up, but costs are way down, and employee quality
of life has improved. How did you do it?"
By Backcasting the question, the participants
could find the solution. Instead of pouring money into a new building, instead
of managing two geographically remote locations, instead of relocating people
out of state, a very different picture began developing around telecommuting.
Why not work in local neighborhood groups, use low-cost buildings scattered
around the suburbs of Tulsa, keep all the jobs in Tulsa, but at a much lower
cost of commuting to the workers, using cheaper space?
Working in the DesignShop context-while maintaining
a focus on employee quality of life-had actually eliminated a variety of
barriers, and in the process opened up possibilities which had not been
previously visible or available to the Avis team. In the process of then
bringing the future vision to the present, they worked through tactical
solutions to the complexities and issues of the problem. It was hard work,
just as the African Queen's journey through rapids and leech-infested swamp
water was hard work.
For Avis, for Charlie, and for the employees,
the results were great. They broadened their options beyond the conventional
solution-the "pretty good" solution of building a second site-and
moved to a great reservation system operating at lower cost and higher employee
satisfaction through telecommuting and two additional mini-centers. Unexpected
benefits kept accruing. They found they had greater flexibility, could add
business without adding facilities, add new employees at lower overhead
cost, and with the restructuring they gained better productivity at the
central Tulsa location.
Innovations in time management played a role
in getting this kind of breakthrough result, but they are only one part
of the story. To see the others, we need to return to the Wharton event
just now getting underway.
1. As before, record impressions and questions
upon finishing the chapter.
2. Very quickly compose a list of practices
or systems that your company could not do without, but which seem to be
limiting its development in some way. Choose one or two by circling them.
3. Before moving on to the next part of the
challenge, pick a specific date somewhere seven to ten years in the future.
Now put yourself into that date, in a specific environment-notice the season
of the year, what you are wearing, the weather, what's happening around
you. Once you're firmly, mentally established in that year and can envision
it clearly, move on to the next part of this challenge.
4. For the last five years, your company
has been operating without the practices and systems that you circled in
your Journal almost a decade ago. Breaking free from these constraints
once seemed impossible, but now it's all clear and so simple to see. You're
on your way to have lunch with a friend you haven't seen for years, and
she's very interested in hearing the story of how you broke free so she
can apply it to her business. You pick up a pencil-a quaint tool from the
last century, but you still like to use one-and draw a diagram that explains
the whole story.