"You're not epileptic, are you?"
That's the question I get as I enter the Chicago headquarters of the Creative Solutions Network. I answer no -- and immediately find myself in a reclining chair, with my back parallel to the floor and my legs in the air. Suddenly I'm wearing something called the Orion Brain Machine. It features headphones that emit an erratic pulse and glasses that display a kaleidoscopic light show. Oh, by the way, the chair -- called the Symmetron -- is moving.
Have I entered some postmodern torture chamber? Hardly. I'm just spending some time at the Thinkubator.
The Thinkubator is the brainchild of Gerald Haman, 39, who founded the Creative Solutions Network in 1988. An alumnus of Procter & Gamble and Arthur Andersen, Haman works with such clients as AT&T, BP Amoco, American Express, and Kraft Foods -- all of which have sent executives to the Thinkubator. What brings people from such respectable companies to such a strange place? The desperate search for creativity -- since, when it comes to enhancing creativity, few people have as many creative ideas as Haman.
"People used to believe that creativity was a gift that a lucky few were born with," he says. "In fact, all people have a degree of creativity -- they just lose it as they grow older. Schools don't foster the imagination; stodgy companies discourage people from taking risks. Here, we help people rediscover their gifts."
Rediscovering those gifts can translate into down-to-earth benefits. Haman has worked with Kraft to develop new pasta, cheese, and pizza products. He has guided Peoples Energy Corp., a Chicago-based utility, toward imagining new uses for natural gas. All told, his brainstorming sessions have generated more than 260,000 ideas over the past 10 years. (Yes, he counts. A "technographer" sits in on each session and captures every idea that emerges from it.)
How does Haman unleash such a torrent of new thinking? "If you want people to be creative," he says, "you have to put them in an environment that lets their imagination soar. Most people experience 'cubicle creativity': The size of their ideas is directly proportional to the space they have in which to think."
The Thinkubator provides wide-open intellectual spaces. It's a combination rec room and art gallery, and it's filled with fun (and in some cases bizarre) gizmos and gadgets. There's custom furniture in the shape of a light bulb, a conch shell, a bright-red pair of lips. There's an "aroma odorizer" that spills out "creativity scents." There's a sound system with a 500-CD jukebox, along with a collection of more than 5,000 CDs. There's a Wall of Wonder, which displays photos of the skylines of 30 cities. There's a team-brainstorming area that converts to a disco. Despite all of this attention to design, the Thinkubator hardly represents a triumph of style over substance. The brainstorming here is focused and systematic, and it begins well before executive groups (consisting ideally of 8 to 14 people) arrive. About a week before each session, Haman establishes what he calls a Question Bank. (It later evolves into an Idea Bank.) "The key to generating good ideas," he says, "is asking good questions."
Haman says that the best questions are usually the simplest questions. Such basic questions lead to genuine innovation -- especially if lots of people answer them. Last year, for example, Microsoft was searching for answers to the question "How might we improve relationships with our vendors?" Haman distributed copies of a sheet of paper with 13 lightbulbs drawn on it, and asked each person in a group of more than 100 Microsofties to write an answer to that question inside each lightbulb. But he went a step further: "I said, 'Pass your sheet to the person on your right.' Each person added to the other person's ideas. Then people wrote more ideas and did more exchanges. We generated nearly 2,000 ideas."
Of course, most companies that work with Haman don't want a one-shot dose of creativity. They want to make creativity part of their organization's daily regimen. Kevin Buzard, 39, manager of business development at Peoples Energy, has brought more than 10 groups of his colleagues to the Thinkubator -- and is now overseeing the creation of a Thinkubator-style space at his own company. Buzard also worked with Haman to commemorate National Train Your Brain Day at Peoples Energy.
"We're trying to recapture a spirit of childlike innocence," says Buzard. "We want our people to see the world with the same sense of wonder and possibility that children see it with."
Sidebar: Creativity on the Fly
Generating big ideas requires paying attention to small details. According to Gerald Haman, founder of Creative Solutions Network, you need to set the right mood before you can get the right stuff. Here's a sampling from his creativity flight check.
How you think depends on where you sit.
"There's a definite correlation between people's comfort level and their creativity level," Haman argues. That's why visitors to the Thinkubator have to take off their shoes and don tube socks. Haman has even been known to slice the necktie off an uptight client.
Open minds require full stomachs.
"When you're in a meeting and you're hungry, your mind focuses on eating rather than on thinking," Haman says. So visitors to the Thinkubator enjoy an endless supply of snacks -- including fruit, candy, herbal energy boosters, and, yes, cookies in the shape of a light bulb.
Good ideas require smart tools.
"Technology helps people with what we call 'the new three R's': recording, recalling, and re-creating ideas," says Haman. On-site, the Thinkubator uses lots of digital tools. After clients return home, they can access the ideas that they generated by visiting a secure area of the Thinkubator Web site.
Music stimulates the idle mind.
Before he became a creativity guru, Haman was a concert producer for such bands as Manhattan Transfer and Air Supply. Music plays a big role in the Thinkubator experience. A CD jukebox and a karaoke system let visitors choose from thousands of songs. "We pass around a song menu during our breaks and play special requests," he explains.
You can reach Gerald Haman by email (email@example.com) and visit the Creative Solutions Network on the Web (www.solutionpeople.com).