Group Genius

That's what creativity gurus Matt and Gail Taylor seek to unleash with their mind-bending workshops.

Sidebars: Creative Domains, Testing the Future

Frustration. It's 7 PM on the second day of a two-day seminar on Hilton Head, South Carolina, and the entire executive team from New York-based AM Cosmetics is incredulous. Smack-dab in the middle of a brainstorming session that was producing a concrete business plan, creativity guru Matt Taylor has pulled the plug. As the executives look on in astonishment, Taylor's colleagues silently pile candles, rubber bands, paper clips, Play-Doh, wing nuts, fishing line, and 40 other items unrelated to cosmetics at the front of the workshop space.

Then it gets worse. Taylor instructs them to equip themselves at random from the pile of objects and to use those items to make ... a toy. And not just any toy. The toys must do things. They must propel themselves up or down or sideways. They must make sounds. Or change color. Or change smell.

The cosmetics executives look at one another, then back at Taylor, who is now standing on a chair. "Oh, come on," says a serious-looking accountant-type who's here from New York for what was advertised as a workshop on the business paradigm of the 21st century — but which now looks like a scene from "Romper Room." "You have got to be kidding."

Taylor isn't kidding. After spending four decades studying, modeling, and testing the character of creativity, the 59-year-old architect-cum-futurist knows how to work the innovative spark: how to find it, coax it out, then build it into a collective blaze that can transform companies and reenergize organizations. He and his wife, Gail Taylor, a former school teacher whose radical notions about learning and creativity nearly got her drummed out of public schools, have broken the creative process into a series of steps, or "states," through which they can guide any person, team, or enterprise to accomplish any creative project — from bringing out a new product to remaking an entire company.

Admittedly, it is seldom a smooth trip. Participants at the Taylors' DesignShops get frustrated, angry, and rebellious. They also find that the process works, that it unleashes what the Taylors call "group genius," a collective creativity so powerful, energizing, and transformative that organizations ranging from restaurant chains to the U.S. military's aerospace test program have turned frustrating dead ends into hugely successful ventures — in a fraction of the time required by conventional management.

And yet MGTaylor Corp. is tiny and virtually unknown. For most of the 1990s, it chalked up roughly $1 million in annual revenues. But this year MGT is operating at a rate between 10 and 15 times that. The firm is developing an agreement to create an alliance with Ernst & Young to pioneer a network of creativity-focused management centers. It already has 13 design and construction projects under way, building creativity centers and field offices for various clients. Its calendar is chock-full of dates for workshops and creativity seminars. "Up to now," Matt Taylor says, "our strategy has been stealth. We've shunned public exposure and worked by word of mouth. We are a distributed, ad hoc, sapient organization, and intend to remain so."

That a self-described stealth creativity organization would find itself on a growth bender and attracting the interest of Ernst & Young is, in the context of today's business world, both instructive and predictable. After spending most of the last two decades trying to slash their way to profitability, most companies have come to realize that a corporate strategy of self-mutilation is not the path to longevity. Nor, for that matter, is a pure technology play, since there's virtually nothing you can invent, license, or buy that your rivals can't match. The only real margin is your workforce, or more precisely, how well it works. Which explains why companies now spend billions annually on various team-building programs.

What those programs are teaching them is that there's something more important than how employees work together: how they think together. It's the prospect of this cerebral collaboration, creating patterns and products that otherwise couldn't be imagined — this "massively parallel processing," as the Taylors put it — that brings companies to Hilton Head. "Smart companies now realize they must innovate their way to profitability," explains Matt Taylor. "And after that, they have to keep on innovating."

Easier said than done. Creativity is hard to measure, difficult to quantify, and nearly impossible to justify. So companies have identified their creative types and squirreled them away, confining creativity to a "safe" place. Worse, when companies have needed creativity, "they have assumed it was a singular event — that they didn't need to have creativity happening all the time," says Gail Taylor, a diminutive 58-year-old with short, grayish hair and dark direct eyes.

Even now, when the idea of creativity has been rehabilitated, corporate America still isn't sure what to do with the real thing. Workshops, books, and gurus extolling creativity are often long on metaphors and light on concrete techniques. Even the change-hungry managers who see creativity as essential still regard innovation as a mystery, a condition that a>icts only certain people.

All of which, the Taylors say, is wrong. Creativity may be exceedingly complex, but it is neither accidental nor unique. It is in fact a natural human state. The right tools and conceptual models — and the Taylors have plenty of those — can draw out, accelerate, and apply creativity to any problem or challenge, from the smallest office glitch to the most pressing global concern. Indeed, the Taylors are not particularly timid in explaining their mission. "Our goal," says Matt Taylor, "is to transform the model of working."

Monday, 7:15 AM two dozen designShop participants from AM Cosmetics, a $150 million personal care company, start arriving through the front door of "KnOwhere," MGT's headquarters and one of the more unusual work environments these participants have ever seen. The front half of the 5,000-square-foot space is a retail outlet, selling everything from relevant books - "The Third Wave," "The Art of War," "The Dilbert Principle" — to distinctive, hyperfunctional office furniture.

Toward the rear of the building is the actual workshop area, a warmly lit space with curved walls, a large gathering area, and alcoves for break-out groups. Wall shelves are packed with children's toys, dolls, puzzles, and hundreds of books — many on business but others on topics that vary from tide-pool ecology to the art of Walt Disney. Most of the walls are finished in a smooth, gray surface that can be written on — massive notepads for brainstorming sessions. Ceiling microphones and video cameras record the proceedings, piping them back to the Knowledge Deck, a raised corner where a half dozen staffers energetically turn the DesignShop into a massive, multimedia document.

Matt, wearing jeans, an open collar, and his trademark vest, opens the DesignShop, outlining the session's two-day schedule. Participants, he says, have entered not only a new work space but also a new context, where hierarchy doesn't exist, ideas are welcome, and opinions can be expressed safely, without fear of reprisal — guarantees that Matt always wrings from company brass before hosting a DesignShop. "There are no chiefs here," he says.

Then the first lesson begins. Michael Kaufman, a tall, friendly- looking Californian who will be cofacilitating with Matt, holds up a wooden toy airplane. "What's this?" he asks.

The point is not to test people's toy knowledge but to introduce the notion of models - a central aspect of the MGT approach. Over the years the Taylors and their colleagues have created detailed, highly graphical models of every major aspect of business: how workers absorb information, how education and training occur, how corporations are structured - and how they must restructure to survive in the next century.

The models are multifunctional, providing ways to view and correct different aspects of a business, organization, or enterprise. The Taylors' Seven Domains model (see sidebar, p. 212), for example, lays out the key dimensions of a company, from its physical workplace to its communications technology to its corporate philosophy; locates where managers are most likely to find barriers to creativity; and helps eliminate them. Another model, the Seven Stages of the Creative Process, offers an elegant description of the discovery process — a circular route that begins with the identification of a need; moves through the envisioning, building, and testing of a solution; and winds up back with identification. MGT's models are not for the faint of heart: an advanced version of the Creative Process model, for example, has 294 steps.

Most participants usually cut their teeth on something called Scan, Focus, Act (SFA), a simple, three-part, nature-based model that anyone can use immediately. "Scan" is the information-gathering phase, where existing conditions and needs, opportunities, and options are assessed. In "Focus," options are scrutinized, debated, and winnowed down to a chosen course of action — which is then tested in the "Act" phase. The results of that test are re-scanned, and the cycle repeats.

Though simple in appearance, the SFA model has broad applications and immediate benefits. For many program participants, it's the first time they've seen the creative process as a series of steps. And the first time they've been a part of that process.

Monday is Scan day, and AM Cosmetics executives spend much of the time gathering information and assessing options. In one exercise, each participant makes a detailed assessment of AM's status, mission, strengths, and options. Nothing is off-limits. Everything is a potential inspiration, a potential tool, a potential model. Even learning about the concept of models is a natural Scan exercise. And not only models of business.

After lunch participant teams scan the ecologies of tide pools, rain forests, beehives, and the human body, discovering parallels between these living systems and their company. Later they scan the present from an entirely new angle: the future. Each is assigned a cultural, political, or business trend — such as political freedom or information exchange — and then told to go 50 years into the future and report where that trend is and how it got there.

It's a technique the Taylors call "backcasting," and it illustrates one of the Taylors' favorite axioms: "You can't get there from here, but you can get here from there." "There" is an imagined future — where you want your enterprise to be 5, 10, even 50 years from now. "Here" is where you are now. "The trick," says Gail Taylor, "is to try to bring back a piece of 'there' to 'here.'"

Gail has been hauling in great chunks of "there" ever since the late 1960s, when as a second-grade public-school teacher in Kansas City, Missouri she discovered that her students could learn faster than the normal curriculum could teach them. After a pupil posed a question Gail couldn't answer ("Why do soap bubbles have colors?"), she asked the class for any questions they had, about anything they wanted to know, and let them figure out how to find the answers — giving them access to all information sources, including those off-campus.

The kids went wild, inventing information-seeking methods with more enthusiasm than she had previously witnessed. "I could literally see their thinking, it was so intense," recalls Gail. "For the first time I realized I didn't have to 'teach' creativity — that it was innate and that every kid in the class had it."

By year's end her students were beating fifth- and sixth-graders on test scores. The results were so spectacular that school officials drew their own conclusion: Gail, already known as something of a maverick, had to be cheating.

Disgusted, she quit and in 1972 set up the Learning Exchange, a marketplace for educational innovation in an old warehouse space. While doing projects in this large open environment, Gail discovered what came to be known as the "working big" principle - having participants write or sketch ideas on huge poster boards rather than 8x11 notepads. "Small paper leads to small vision," Gail explains. "You can't see the complexity emerging from a project when everyone works from a tiny piece of paper. And you can't collaborate."

In 1976 Gail took a class entitled "Rebuilding the Future." The instructor was Matt Taylor, a designer who had begun training to be an architect when he was 12 and who seemed unable to look at a product or process without trying to make it better. An Air Force brat, Matt had grown up on bases around the world, always on the move yet never lacking for a community. In Matt's view, military culture is one of the few instances of an intentional community: a close-knit, planned enclave whose members are educated and dedicated, accustomed to high technology and "can do" practicality, and most important, committed to an overarching goal. "When I finally got out in the real world," Matt recalls, "I was shocked at the lack of rigor, at what was taken for granted, and mostly at the mindless, chasing-the-dollar mentality that served no larger purpose."

Part of Matt's interest in architecture and design was the power it afforded to recreate the kind of rigorous, purposeful community that had provided such comfort in his past. When Matt was 16 and his family lived in California, he began working in architecture firms. He apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Matt admired not only for the broad social reach of his vision but also for his almost Victorian insistence that an engineer — the quintessential figure of action, numbers, and hard-nosed decisions — be a person of passion, artistry, and creativity as well.

In the early 1960s Matt entered the construction industry, which he found incredibly exciting though badly managed, terribly organized, and hugely wasteful. Drawn by the possibilities of prefabricated construction, he devised a fast-track construction system and an early version of today's just-in-time delivery. He also created what he now calls a "value web," a network of all the players in a given project, from owner to laborers, that fosters communication and collaboration and makes it easier to solve problems.

By 1960 it occurred to Matt that the entire business paradigm — the centralized, medieval-hierarchical system that he later called the "second wave," after futurist Alvin Toffler — needed fast-tracking. Not only was business organized around a dying model, but the element that could save it, the capacity for innovation, had systematically been excluded from the process by corporate America's growing reliance on structure, chains of command, and a top-down culture. The great engineers of the late 19th century, in whom art and action found harmony, had been replaced by organization men, bureaucrats who had no interest in or understanding of the creative temperament. The feeling was mutual: creative types who once might have been drawn to the adventure and romance of business now eschewed it as crass and vulgar, says Matt, "something that you went into only if all else failed."

Matt found himself on a mission to reunite business and creativity and to create a community that could integrate the two. He went on a reading binge, sucking up everything he could find on systems theory, information, cybernetics, psychology, and economics. Then he distilled his view of the way things should work into equal parts elaborate models and corny axioms.

Matt and Gail were two of a kind. Just before they met, Matt had founded the Renascence Project, a "futures-oriented" research and community-development center in Kansas City devoted to urban renewal and entrepreneurship. In 1977 they married, moved to Boulder, Colorado, and began a systematic search for the conditions under which creativity flourishes. By 1980 they had produced the first DesignShops, drawing a small but committed following. Practicing what they preached as futurists, the Taylors saw a new complexity emerging. "For the first time in our history, creativity is required of all of us, all the time," says Matt. "And that requires not only a different way of thinking about management but also a completely new methodology and a new level of discipline."

But it was the go-go '80s. the rest of the world wasn't ready for the Taylors' version of "Montessori for adults." Corporate America wanted manly merger mania, not wimpy creativity, and Matt and Gail had no interest in pushing the issue. They rejected the usual management-guru shtick: write a book, make a video, do the lecture circuit, repeat the same speech endlessly. Instead, they elected to wait for the change to come.

Matt recalls asking an R&D team at a Big Three auto company how many hours a week they actually spent doing productive, value-adding work. "They thought about it and finally said, 'About four hours.' Four hours. The rest of their time was spent in meetings and other useless crap." Matt sighs.

"Structure wins." Finally the wave broke: reengineering crashed, slash-and-burn wiped out, and a new management explosion created a new business movement - one with a hunger for creativity and for the knowledge MGT was offering.

Tuesday, 10:33 AM five members of an AM Cosmetics team stand before the rest of the group, struggling to explain how they killed their own company. It's part of a "scenario challenge," a variation on back-casting in which players are handed a realistic business outcome from 1998 and asked to explain how it happened. This team's scenario: they represent AM's real-life rival, which has devised a strategy that killed AM in late 1997. "Describe the basic elements of your strategy," reads the assignment. "What made AM vulnerable? What innovations did you use? How did your strategy roll out? How did you catch AM so completely off guard?"

The objective here is several-fold. Players are being pushed out of the box, made to see their company and all its frailties in brutally honest terms. And it's not an exercise in goofy fantasy: each alternative reality a team concocts has to be backed by realistic measures. Other teams have happier scenarios in which their company is kicking its rivals' butts. Their task is to figure out, step by step, how that happened — lessons they can immediately apply to their strategic planning.

By lunch the DesignShop's atmosphere is electric. Without waiting for the energy to subside, Matt moves into the next exercise: Vision/Mission/Strategy. Teams regroup in the main meeting area to hammer out where AM is going and how it's going to get there. There is excited talk about new product lines, new markets, new strategies. Then out of the cauldron of ideas comes a real solution to an actual marketing problem: AM will turn away a large but brutally troublesome customer, and hand over the business to its chief rival. And with the energy and resources the "loss" frees up, AM will aggressively pursue its rival's more valuable customers. It's a risky strategy, but it's in sync with the DesignShop's creative inspiration: what looks like a defeat, if executed relentlessly, will turn into a double win.

Teams break out again, each assigned a separate chunk of the company's vision: technology, marketing and image, distribution. They spend the next several hours huddled in groups, then reassemble in the main room to report out. As each team explains its contribution, ideas prompt more ideas, as well as concerns, from the others. It's a riff of massively parallel processing that could easily continue through dinner — except for that frustratingly clever interruption called Inventions, and the challenge of building a toy.

Inventions starts promptly at 7 PM by 7:08 the pile of objects at the front of the main meeting area has been picked over. Teams line up to receive specs for their toys, which are designed to serve as AM marketing gimmicks. The specs are so outrageous — moves up 12 inches, moves down 12 inches, changes color, or changes shape — that participants cannot imagine creating these toys in a toy shop, much less from a pile of household detritus. And yet, within one hour, grown men and women are pawing intently through screws and tape and Styrofoam, scavenging the environment for furniture and other materials, and fashioning outlandish machines that, even at this early stage, are clearly meant to do things.

"It'll never work," says one older gentleman as his group struggles with a handmade spring mechanism. Finally, he can hold back no longer. "Let me do that! Outta my way." At 10:30 that evening, to great cheering and laughter, the toys are rolled out.

As with every other DesignShop phase, Inventions operates on several levels. There is huge parallel processing, with each team member working on a different aspect of the toy. As the evening progresses, players gain a startling new perspective on their colleagues. The exercise also provides a refreshing view of collaboration. The AM executives begin to experience work as fun, and this becomes another possibility, something to draw on when they're back at "real" work. And finally, there's the feeling of creative success, something many have never felt before.

Wednesday. 7:06 AM. Map day. Participants sip coffee and munch bagels, powering up for the final push, the Act that comes after Scan and Focus. One by one, they lay out their new takes on the company's vision, its mission, and its strategy, including 30-day, 90-day, 6-month, and 12-month goals. This raw material is then sifted through collectively — debated, taken apart, and reassembled — until there is complete agreement over what will go on the Annotated Network Diagram, the ANDMap. The ANDMap is a corporate schematic and action plan, a blueprint showing exactly where the company is going, project by project, decision point by decision point, benchmark by benchmark.

Now there is tentativeness in the room. The group has been together less than 50 hours, and here they are trying to set goals that will have implications for two, three, and four years. What they're really feeling, for the first time, is the tension between talking and doing, between Focus and Act. To act is to test, and to test is, possibly, to fail. But it is also to learn, to put more feedback into the process. As Matt, the former architect and contractor, puts it, "You start building when you can't learn any more from the drawings."

Despite such tentativeness, ANDMaps are surprisingly potent documents. Forged in such a high-energy collective process, they accurately reflect the management team's sense of the company and its direction; equally important, they forge a tacit agreement that these goals are correct, worthy, and appropriately ambitious. Most companies emerge from the MGT experience with a set of goals far larger than any they had when they began: One-year plans to take the company public or execute a leveraged buyout. Two-year plans to persuade Congress to change a critical law. Three-year plans to quadruple earnings. Indeed, although the Taylors can see a time when they'll leave DesignShop facilitation to colleagues and move on to new paradigm-shifting projects, they can't imagine losing their appetite for the gusto of such plans.

Noon. the DesignShop is over. MGT's staff members scramble to finish documenting AM Cosmetics's DesignShop product — a detailed blueprint of where the company will be in three months, six months, one year — and how they will get there. Participants, still buzzed from the 50-hour ride, gather in a circle of chairs to share their impressions. "I like what I see here," says one veteran manager. "I wish this could have happened to me 20 years sooner."

Paul Roberts (prroberts79@aol.com) is a Seattle-based writer.

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