Idea Summit

Rolf Smith has spent a career thinking about how people think. Now, he is helping people at some of the world's most powerful organizations to generate big ideas — and to rethink their whole approach to creativity.

"This is not a meeting. This is not a training session. This is not an exercise," declares Rolf Smith, who is standing before the Face 2005 Team — 22 chemical engineers, biologists, and project leaders from Procter & Gamble Co. with a mandate to develop new products that will redefine the future of cosmetics. "This is an expedition. And there will be no whining. No sniveling. No excuses."

If Smith, 59, speaks with military authority, that's because he spent 24 years in the U.S. Air Force. His military career has included working with the Electronic Security Command, becoming an expert in artificial intelligence, and launching the air force's first Office of Innovation. (Indeed, by the time Smith retired from the air force in 1987, after declining an assignment at the Pentagon, he was known throughout the ranks as "Colonel Innovation.") But Smith doesn't just talk the military talk. He walks the walk. His baggy, khaki-colored cargo pants are zero fashion and all function. The dozen pockets of his safari vest are filled with gear. As flute music from the Bolivian Andes plays in the background, Smith paces around a room that's cluttered with tents, backpacks, and climbing ropes. Outside, a narrow path stretches toward the Potomac River.

The P&G people are puzzled — and on edge. They are about to embark on a long, arduous, and potentially rewarding expedition. A Thinking Expedition. And Rolf Smith is their no-nonsense guide. "Please take off your watches," he instructs, "and place them in this basket." "Give up our watches?" a few mutter. "You've got to be kidding." He isn't kidding: "We will return them to you in five days."

The genuinely exciting news about the new world of business is that there is more room for creativity than ever. Smaller and smaller groups of smart people can do bigger and bigger things. Just ask the people who developed the first Netscape browser when they were kids just out of college, or the pair of Stanford graduate students who started Yahoo! as a way to postpone writing their PhD dissertations. Now the sobering news: You're only as good as your last great idea. The half-life of any innovation is shorter than ever. People, teams, and companies are feeling the heat to think up new products, services, and business models. What's the reward for one round of successful innovation? Even greater pressure to revisit your success, and to unleash yet another round of innovation.

That's precisely what these 22 P&G employees from Hunt Valley, Maryland are facing. They are part of P&G's high-stakes effort, dubbed Organization 2005, whose goal is to double the company's revenue (to $70 billion) by that year. Cathy Pagliaro, 34, an energetic associate director for P&G's cosmetics-product-development department and the woman responsible for launching this expedition, explains the challenge that her group faces: "Our CEO, Durk Jager, has declared that Organization 2005 is about three things: stretch, innovation, and speed. The challenge for our small group is to help make those words a reality. My department has a charter to do new and different things to help fulfill our revenue goal. But to do that, we can't think about things the way they've been thought about inside P&G for the past 162 years. The only way we can change is if we start to think differently. I don't know exactly where that will take us, but I do know that it looks different from where we are now."

Rolf Smith's job is to help the team begin to think differently — and to turn what can feel at times like a crushing burden into a thrilling (if exhausting) intellectual adventure. Through his Virtual Thinking Expedition Co., based in Estes Park, Colorado, Smith has guided teams from some of the country's largest organizations — IBM, DuPont, Ford, AT&T — on expeditions driven by the human desire for a sense of adventure in the pursuit of the next big thing. "Americans instinctively understand the concept of an expedition," says Smith. "The history of the world is built on one expedition after another. It is part of our makeup and our psyche."

A Thinking Expedition combines creative problem solving with challenging outdoor experiential learning — similar to an Outward Bound boot camp for the mind. "It's an accelerated unlearning process," Smith explains. "The days are intense, full, and demanding. There are no scheduled meals, no scheduled breaks. We deliberately design the expedition to push people out of their 'stupid zone' — a place of mental and physical normalcy — so that they can start to think differently, explore what they don't know, and discover answers to mission-critical problems."

To really grasp the design of a Thinking Expedition, you first have to understand how Smith himself thinks about thinking and change. If you want different results from the creative process, he argues, you have to do things differently. Before you can do things differently, you have to think differently. To think differently, he adds, you first have to think about the way you think. The capacity to think about your thinking is what Smith calls a "third-order mind shift." It may sound like semantic gymnastics, but Smith believes it's a fundamental ingredient of creative breakthroughs. "Metacognition is the first step in the process of change," Smith argues. "But to take this step, individuals or organizations first have to overcome a major obstacle — an overwhelming fear of thinking."

If you listen carefully to Smith's ideas about how companies can prosper in this change-or-die environment, you realize that he almost never summons the two words that are used incessantly by every other guru in his field: "creativity" and "innovation." "Among businesspeople, I've discovered that the word 'creativity' can derail a conversation in one second flat," he says. "It's too touchy-feely. It isn't about results. In the air force, I learned that the word 'innovation' scares people. It implies too dramatic a change — the kind of change that threatens to leave people behind."

So Smith developed a different way of thinking (and talking) about the nature of change and the process of unleashing new ideas. He explained those ideas in a book, "The 7 Levels of Change" (Summit Publishing Group, 1997). The book's central proposition is deceptively simple. Although not all change is the same, there is one common element — thinking. When you break down the process of thinking into a manageable number of steps, you reduce the perceived risks associated with change. These seven levels of thinking, Smith is quick to stress, require seven corresponding levels of action. "Being creative is when you think about your thinking," Smith says. "Being innovative is when you act on your ideas."

Level One is effectiveness — doing the right things. Level Two is efficiency — doing things right. Level Three is improving — doing the right things better. Level Four is cutting — doing away with things. Level Five is copying — doing things other people are doing. Level Six is different — doing things no one else is doing. And Level Seven is impossible — doing things that can't be done. Smith's goal for every Thinking Expedition is to move a team along this continuum.

Smith has incorporated another crucial piece of his worldview into Thinking Expeditions. Breakthrough ideas, he believes, come from the edge — that uncomfortable point at which levels of stress, tension, and exhaustion are pushed beyond the comfort zone. "People are more creative when they're on the edge," explains Smith, who often works with teams well into the early-morning hours, guiding them into new creative territory. "People like to complain that they don't think well when they're tired or hungry. I take those people aside and tell them, 'That's the whole point. We don't want you to think well. We want you to think differently!' "

Don't Clean Up This Mess!

"You are not who you were yesterday," Smith tells the members of the P&G team, who are now outfitted in safari vests with the logo "Think expedition" stitched across the front pocket. The first day of the expedition, which ended at 11:30 PM, is now behind them. They have been briefed on the mission, the ground rules, and their roles. The main objective, Smith insists, is not to solve the specific product-development challenges that the team faces — no one is going to invent a new mascara or face cream in the next five days. Rather, it is to define and refine the challenge itself — or, as Smith likes to call it, "the mess" that the team faces as it tries to invent new products. Quoting Albert Einstein, Smith says, "The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution." Even though it's early in the morning, and breakfast hasn't yet been served, this statement perks some people up. "Most people are convinced that they already have the solution to every problem," says Smith. But invariably, he tells the group, after a few days on an expedition, the nature and depth of everyone's understanding of the so-called mess change significantly.

Smith and the P&G team began working on the mess long before they arrived here. Each participant had filled out an Expedition Visa, a detailed questionnaire with open-ended and fill-in-the-blank questions. The visa serves two functions. First, it gives Smith a richer understanding of the creative challenge from the perspective of the entire group, as opposed to how his initial contacts at the company see things. Smith and his team leaders then use those insights to design the overall flow, timing, and route of the expedition. They read each visa like detectives reading clues, gaining deeper insight into how each person thinks. "By the time the team walks through the door, we know enough to bond with people very quickly," he says. "The secret to guiding is to establish trust — fast. From there, you have to learn how to read the group in terms of all the different personalities, types, and styles that members bring with them."

No one needs a visa to read Jeff Leppla, 37, the idea man behind a breakthrough technology for one of P&G's innovative (and still highly secret) beauty-care products. Leppla has enough energy to power a locomotive — and to run his own horse-breeding and -racing operation in Lexington, Kentucky on the side. His enthusiasm is infectious. At dinner the night before, he rallied the people at his table like an indefatigable football coach. Referring to Smith, Leppla boasted, "Guys, we're going to break this dude in!" But even he recognizes the scale of the mess that he and his colleagues face. "There has to be a crisis to push us to take a risk. But often we lack a sense of urgency. And in a company as big as ours, urgency can be a difficult thing to feel."

Indeed, generating a sense of urgency is one of the main design principles behind Thinking Expeditions. That's why Smith had advised Cathy Pagliaro to begin creating — through a flurry of cryptic emails to her team — a sense of mystery and anticipation weeks before the expedition. "I didn't tell anyone what we were doing, where we were going, or what to expect," she admits. "All I told them was to block off several days to go off-site. It was a huge risk to keep people in the dark. A lot of them couldn't handle not knowing. But you want to nudge people out of their comfort zone, because that's when real growth happens." She then adds, with obvious satisfaction, "I sure pissed off a lot of people!"

Smith plays his part like a master puppeteer. From the moment you walk into his staging room, you are imprinted with a sense of both urgency and difference. Contact with work or home is not prohibited, but it's strongly discouraged. Days run far into the night, and nights run into the early morning. And throughout the expedition, Smith and his team rely on an ongoing stream of multimedia props to spark and energize the flow and ideation — and to maintain the feel of a real expedition.

For instance, film clips from "Mountains of the Moon," about Captain Sir Richard Burton's search for the source of the Nile in the 1850s, are used to show the orchestration of expeditions — how teams are formed and how they prepare for the leap into the mapless unknown. The scene from the movie Apollo 13 in which panicked scientists avert disaster by making a lifesaving fix from whatever is on hand is shown to illustrate Smith's Level Seven, doing-the-impossible thinking. Slides, photographs, and music — from Mozart to the Gypsy Kings — are used to shift mood and thinking direction.

And then there is the staple of any Thinking Expedition: blue slips — Smith's tried-and-true tool for capturing ideas. A blue slip is a piece of light-blue paper measuring two and three-quarter inches by four and one-quarter inches (deliberately not three by five) that expeditioners carry with them at all times. Smith is adamant, almost to the point of obsession, that a fresh supply of blue slips always be on hand. The key to capturing an idea, he stresses, is to write it down: "Ideas can come from anywhere and at any time. The problem with making mental notes is that the ink fades very rapidly." To hammer this point home, Smith cues one of his trusty visual clips — an old advertisement for Canon copiers that conveniently asks, "Where is a thought if it isn't written down?"

In fact, Smith believes that in both work and life, the only things that get done are those that get written down. So the hundreds of blue-slip ideas that the Face 2005 Team will generate over its five days are gathered to create the "Trail Ahead Travel Log." The log is divided into sections that list the team's discoveries, results, vision, and concepts of operations, as well as what to do to keep the sense of the expedition alive when people return to P&G. "I wanted to make sure that we not only had a different experience but also discovered and created a tangible output," says Pagliaro.

Smith also knows that it takes smart, thought-provoking questions to inspire the kind of thinking that generates breakthrough ideas. So a slide appears on the screen at the front of the room: "The average child asks 125 probing questions a day. The average adult asks a mere 6." So during an expedition, Smith asks a lot of questions. Some are focused on specific problems; others are intentionally vague, open-ended — and even, on the surface, a bit silly. One of his favorites: "What's a thought that you've never thought before?"

Smith recalls that during one of the first Thinking Expeditions that he led — this one for Exxon Corp. in 1994 — one of his obtuse questions ended up saving the company millions of dollars. A team of engineers assembled to focus on several of Exxon's offshore oil-production sites. "Most engineers live in a world where projects are done efficiently, effectively, and with slight improvements," says Smith. But he had a different agenda. "Several sites were in the ice, in the middle of nowhere. At that time, building roads to the sites would cost roughly $1 million a mile. I wanted to push those engineers into a higher level of thinking. We asked team members to think of a completely crazy idea — something that they believed couldn't be done or wouldn't work. You know, one of those stupid ideas."

One engineer came up with a stupid idea with radical implications. "Let's stop building roads to the sites altogether!" he declared. It was a complete mind shift for the team. After elaborating on the idea, the group discovered a more innovative (and cost-effective) way of reaching offshore locations — a "stupid" idea that had the potential to save Exxon $50 million per production site.

Thinking about Thinking

Rolf Smith has spent virtually his entire career thinking about thinking. Back in 1963, at age 23, he left his job as a physics teacher at a boys' Catholic high school to join the U.S. Air Force. After a stint as a computer-communications officer at Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, he was dispatched to complete his master's degree in computer science at Texas A&M University. That's where Smith first became interested in doing things that couldn't be done — and operating in the realm of seventh-level thinking.

For instance, he became hell-bent on doing his master's thesis on artificial intelligence. Specifically, he wanted to program a computer to play chess. But he had a hard time finding support for his project. "The professors told me that there was no one at A&M who knew anything about artificial intelligence, so I wouldn't have an adviser. Then they told me that I shouldn't waste my time — that computers couldn't think." Eventually, the head of the department, an avid chess player himself, decided to humor Smith. He agreed to be his adviser on the grounds that Smith would create a chess program to give him some stiff competition. "Dr. Wortham began playing against the computer one day at 6 AM," says Smith. "It beat him soundly. And I got to finish my project."

Smith's chess-inspired interest in pattern recognition and in analyzing the tactical and strategic implications of positions had wide (and obvious) applications in his work in the air force — and also, he later realized, in his work on thinking in business. But it was not until 1984 that Smith, then a lieutenant colonel and director of long-range planning for the Electronic Security Command (now called the Air Force Intelligence Command), consciously began focusing on the process of innovation. And it was at this point that the air force's chief of staff made a bold request: Make the air force more innovative. "No one thought we could do it," says Smith. "A lot of people said that there's no way you can teach people to be creative and innovative. They're either born with it, or they're not."

But with a letter from his boss, Brigadier General Grover Jackson, authorizing him to go anywhere in the world and to do whatever it takes to "make innovation happen," Smith created the U.S. Air Force's first Office of Innovation. Its purpose? To spread innovative thinking and practices around the world — in places like the Strategic Air Command, the Space Command, and U.S. Air Force operations in Europe — and to create a global network of innovation centers in the field. "Our group had license to jump the chain of command to get things done. We were on a fast track for bold ideas."

The impact was immediate — and huge. Smith and his team received, on average, 600 ideas per year from 13,000 enlisted men and women "in the trenches" worldwide. But it was one young airman on the Kelly Air Force Base, in San Antonio, who taught Smith the most important lesson in cultivating an environment in which breakthrough ideas actually are allowed to break through. The first creation of Smith's office was something called Form Zero (bucking an air-force rule that all forms had to be numbered beginning with the number one). Anyone in the force could use Form Zero to submit an idea. One day, Smith received a form from this airman: "Put speed bumps in front of the barracks," it said. "I'm on night shift and have to sleep during the day. I can't get any sleep because people speed down the street in their cars." Though admittedly this was not a breakthrough idea, it was a reasonable request, so Smith's office worked with the airman to implement a solution.

A few months later, the same airman sent in another form: "There's only one pay phone in the hallway of my barrack. Every time I talk to my girlfriend, everybody stands in the hall, listens, and laughs. Let's get a phone booth outside the barracks." Again, Smith's team worked with the airman to come up with a solution. Like clockwork, a few months later, they got yet another idea from the guy. "But the third time around," Smith says, "it was one of the biggest operational ideas we ever got. It absolutely blew us away. It solved a problem that I can't talk about — but that the air force had been working on for a long, long time." The lesson? "If you show that you truly pay attention to ideas — even the small, seemingly insignificant ones — then you'll create an environment in which people feel comfortable generating and offering them."

The Long Climb to Creativity

The day is hot, humid, and overcast — the kind of day that frizzes hair and dampens spirits. Everyone hopes for rain. Some hope that it will bring relief from the heat; others pray that it will postpone the day's agenda — rock climbing. Harnessed, helmeted, and with all the appropriate legal waivers signed, the Face 2005 Team starts hiking down a narrow path in Virginia's Great Falls Park toward the Potomac River — and toward a sheer rock face at the water's edge. Admittedly, the P&G crowd looks more like the grown-up cast from "The Bad News Bears" than like a team of scientists on a serious expedition.

It turns out that climbing is also an integral part of Thinking Expeditions. Mike Donahue, 53, founder of the Colorado Mountain School, introduced Smith to the power of climbing in 1991: He guided Smith, along with Smith's family and partners, up Longs Peak, a 14,255-foot mountain in Colorado. Since then, Donahue and Smith have been guide partners. They complement each other perfectly. Donahue is tall and trim, with a face that looks like it's been weathered from the outdoors. Where Smith quotes Einstein, Tom Peters, and Margaret Wheatley, Donahue prefers to emphasize his points with more personal references or ancient quotes. He's particularly fond of one Himalayan saying: "When the explorer is ready, the guide will appear."

For Donahue, the power of climbing is that it's a perfect metaphor for work and life. "Climbing is an ongoing process of making decisions and moving forward," he says. "One of the easiest ways to change is simply to alter your position — to focus on the one-inch square in front of you and put one foot in front of the other. But to go forward — on a cliff, on a project, or in your career — you sometimes first have to take a step sideways, or even a step back."

It's dark as the Face 2005 Team hikes back up the steep trail after hours of climbing. But everyone's elation is palpable. Some made it to the top of the cliff, others did not, and some fell off trying (luckily, everyone was protected by safety ropes). Still, everyone is pumped. Over a dinner that lasts well past midnight, Donahue and Smith are quick to capitalize on that energy, and they push team members to express what they learned from the experience. Despite groans from a blue-slip-fatigued group, Smith prompts the usual flurry with his pointed questions. One woman shares her insight: "We're conditioned to think that small steps aren't good enough. But I realize that small steps are just what you need to get to the top."

But getting to the top is just the first of two main objectives in climbing; the descent is equally important — in real climbs as well as during a Thinking Expedition. It's also just as challenging. "It's just as far getting down a mountain as it is going up," Donahue says. On an expedition, the "long trek home," as the descent is called, represents the work required to turn the big ideas that were generated at the summit into pragmatic action items that can be implemented when the team returns. "On an expedition, the driving force is the summit," Smith explains. "Once it's reached, the focus then becomes getting back down. But this direction reversal is one of the most dangerous points of the expedition." It's during this leg of the adventure that Level Seven hypoxia (when the body's tissues are deficient of oxygen), as Smith calls it, can set in. Team members are tired, they want to get home, and worse, they stop thinking. The danger is that they return to their organization with the "high" of climbing but without the "how" of getting things done differently.

The Face 2005 Team experienced several breakthroughs (and breakdowns) during its Thinking Expedition — not to mention a 2 AM trip to the emergency room. Tia Steele, 50, a research psychologist at P&G, reached a personal "summit" that literally pushed her over the edge. Soon after her successful climbing experience (which she had once vowed that she never would do), she felt that she could tackle anything — including the rope swing that hung from a tall tree in the field next to the Catoctin Inn, in Buckeystown, Maryland. Steele gave new meaning to Smith's expression "fall off trying" (as a means to demonstrate that you can learn from your failures), as she swung out high on the rope but did not have the strength at 2 AM to hold on. Early the next morning, as the rest of the team was gathering for another day's adventure, Steele was sitting at her table with both rope-burned hands tightly bandaged — but with an enormous smile on her face.

Steele's accident, like climbing, was an apt metaphor for the idea-generation process. Smith looks at his role this way: The guide is connected to each person on the expedition by an invisible rope. His job is to keep the right amount of tension on those ropes, so that everyone is right on the edge of stress. But guiding is a delicate business. "Sometimes," he says, "we'll pull the group a little too hard, and we'll have to go in and fix things."

And sometimes those ropes snap. At 11 PM on day two, the invisible rope connecting the Face 2005 Team did just that. It was late. People were grumpy. And Smith was orchestrating yet another think-fest, placing individuals at tables for an exercise. Participants at each table had to come up with a list of their strengths, and they had to determine which skills the group as a whole lacked, those that might be needed when implementing product ideas later on.

That's when the "troublemakers," as they came to be called, started flying high. This team insisted that it lacked no skills. Team members listed everything from technical savvy, to packaging design, to project priority setting, even to psychic abilities. But their confidence was starting to disturb some of the others — and finally long-buried tensions exploded. There was crying, pouting, yelling, finger pointing, and even some door slamming.

"Our team truly felt that it could dream up and make anything happen," explains Jeff Leppla, one of P&G's project leaders and also a hair-on-fire troublemaker. "And if we didn't know how to do something ourselves, we knew others who could help us. We could get funding, write business plans, conduct market research, and come up with product, packaging, and process design. All we needed was a lawyer. But I realized that our confidence provoked an enormous defensiveness from the rest of the group. I see now that we must have come across as a bunch of know-it-alls."

It was a major blowout that served as a perfect lesson — one that Smith could not have planned better himself. In fact, it granted department head Cathy Pagliaro one of her biggest take-aways. "The 'troublemakers' had no idea how they were being perceived," she says. "And the rest of the group was pissed off because they felt unvalued, cut off, and unappreciated. This stuff happens all the time in the real world of work. For me, there was no clearer way to demonstrate the power of differences among teams. And once you understand that power, you can leverage it when forming teams or tackling a problem. When you experience it as we did, it drives the lesson home as no lecture ever could."

Anna Muoio (amuoio@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company associate editor. Contact Rolf Smith (thinking@onramp.net) or Mike Donahue (summits@earthnet.net) by email. Learn more about the Virtual Thinking Expedition Co. on the Web (www.thinking-expedition.com).

Sidebar: Monday-Morning Creativity

For some fire-in-the-belly change agents, returning to the daily grind of work after the thrills of a Thinking Expedition can be too much to bear. "We lose some people during reentry," concedes Rolf Smith. "They want to change everything right away." Smith calls this impulse the "shiny-bead syndrome." Here are his cures.

To move 'em, "ootch" 'em.

Real change does not happen fast. Smith advises "ootching" people by starting small. "It's important to help people pinpoint how they could perform one low-level function better," he says. "Then they'll say, 'That's neat. What else can you do?' "

Meetings matter.

Running a good meeting is a skill that few businesspeople have mastered. But in the real world, most ideas get hatched at meetings. Smith has perfected the art of the five-minute meeting. He believes that the crux of a meeting can be boiled down to five basic questions: What's the most interesting idea or subject in front of us? What are the most crucial issues facing us? What are the most pressing challenges you, as an individual, face? What opportunities do these ideas, issues, and challenges present? What actions can we take now? The guide passes out blue slips, asks one question at a time, and allows 45 seconds for a response.

Talk less, listen more.

"Sometimes it's hard to get people to listen to one another, especially when they feel that the person talking is terminally stupid," says Smith. How can you listen better? Play a game. Smith pairs people up to play a game called "Do You Mean?" It goes like this: One person says something. The person who's listening rephrases that statement by asking, "Do you mean ... ?" The other person then responds with a simple yes or no. As the listener, you win the game by listening to a statement and accurately rephrasing it three different ways.

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