How Insight Labs Gets Smart People To Brainstorm Solutions To The World's Problems

A Chicago agency is finding that the best way to tackle a conundrum, no matter how big, is to put the best and brightest together to think it through.

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Insight Labs' pro bono attempts to solve the world's problems started innocently enough.

Two years ago, Jeff Leitner, a Chicago-based digital strategist and former journalist, wanted to gather together a group of smart people to brainstorm the solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem. So, he scheduled a three-hour-long discussion in Detroit and asked friends, colleagues, and family to recommend people who would volunteer their time to talk through a problem.

Some major smarty pants from companies such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan, Deloitte, Quicken Loans, and Ford agreed to participate. On a January day in 2009, the executives tackled the question: How best to revive the Detroit economy and create jobs?

Leitner has since orchestrated 23 panels for Insight Labs, a pro bono group funded by a Chicago interactive consultancy called Manifest Digital. And his list of clients has only grown more prestigious: This fall, Leitner's scheduled to lead discussions for both NASA and the U.S. Holocaust Museum. The panels have unearthed an innovative business development strategy. What if our best ideas came out of mission-driven, not-for-profit work—ideas that we could then apply to our corporate gigs?

It works, Leitner says, because smart people engage in more innovative thinking if they don't have a direct interest in the problem they're trying to solve. Tackling a do-gooder problem also gives people a sense of urgency, he says, in a way that devising a new logo for a Fortune 500 company may not.

Case in point: One of the lab’s most successful panels involved the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. The hospital desperately needed to raise cash in 2010, following the global economic downturn, for its new building. Yet, Chicago donors weren’t feeling as generous as they had in the past. How could the hospital raise the money it needed to finish the construction and continue to serve the community?

The panel Insight Labs convened on behalf of the hospital decided that the institution’s problem lay in its branding rather than its mission. Instead of asking donors to fund some boring capital improvement project, the hospital needed to think of its ties to the community and the way it helped Chicagoans lead healthier lives. The panel decided the hospital really was leading a public health movement rather than simply opening a new facility. The conclusion changed the hospital’s strategy.

These type of brainstorming sessions—one of which I participated in, in New York City—give high-level people a chance to see Leitner and his Insight Labs' organizer-in-crime, Howell Malham’s creative thinking at work. They’ve introduced Leitner and Malhalm to a much wider swathe of influential people and potential clients. It's also given them insight into the best way to lead a group of strangers toward solving a problem. (Part of the secret sauce, of course, is curating the right crowd of people).

So far, the panels have been a boon to Manifest Digital’s bottom line. When panelists need creative or strategic help, it’s easy to think of Leitner, Malham, or one of their colleagues tackling the problem. When panelists turn to the duo for corporate advice, they connect them to Manifest Digital’s sales and marketing arm.

"It allows us to connect with bigger brands and companies further up the Fortune 500 Ladder," says Jim Jacoby, founder of Manifest. "People in that category are more willing to come to an Insight Labs than they are to meet us for a sales meeting."

Roughly one-third of its client now come directly from the panels, which may be the reason Jacoby lets Leitner and Malham run the panels full-time.

This style of working backwards from pro bono to corporate now pervades the culture of the agency, Manifest Digital, where Leitner and his Insight Labs' organizer-in-crime Howell Malham work. It's helped the agency figure out better ways to brainstorm with corporate clients, says Manifest founder Jim Jacoby.

Could this be the future of other strategic advertising or marketing work using philanthropy as a means to inform the thinking behind big brands? Maybe, and maybe that's not all bad.

[Image: Flickr user brunkfordbraun]

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1 Comments

  • Anne Murray

    Great article, and I fully agree with the value of working backward from a pro bono start.  I recently worked with E+Co, a non-profit investor in developing world clean energy entrepreneurs, and was very impressed with the innovative approaches to market they demonstrated.  These entrepreneurs are developing a consumer base among the Bottom of the Pyramid by selling  products at terms that work for those consumers, which they would not be able to do without E+Co support.   The enterprises promote these products based on economic and health reasons, yet in the process have broader impact in reducing energy poverty and greenhouse gas emissions.   As opportunity in emerging markets is of increasing relevance to the for-profit world, there are valuable lessons and perspective, that E+Co and the entrepreneurs they work with, can share.

    The impact constraints faced by non-profits like E+Co are lack of awareness of their work, and lack of funding.  There is no shortage of innovation and vision. I have seen first-hand how they have dared to do what others can't or won't, taking on risk for more than just a financial return.   These experiences will be invaluable, and have direct relevance to expanded problem solving.  There is a great deal to learn from these non-profits, I am glad to see that there is increasing recognition of the contribution they can make.