Sometimes the freshest ideas are hiding in plain sight. On a sultry afternoon at a resort in Greensboro, Georgia, a dozen or so Coca-Cola brand managers are hovering over bins of ice and beverages, magnifying glasses in hand, à la Sherlock Holmes. They've been instructed to scrutinize the drinks that their company sells and to look for details that they've never noticed before.
One manager mixes glasses of instant Powerade, testing how the taste changes with more or less of the blue powder. Another grabs a Fruitopia bottle and peers at the text messages hidden in the psychedelic graphics on the label. When it's time to share, Scott Stuckmann, 34, senior brand manager for Coca-Cola Classic, has an observation about his bottle of Barq's root beer: "Our target market for this drink is teenagers, but the packaging is designed to emphasize the history of the beverage," he says. "Why would a teenager care about that?"
That's exactly the kind of simple-yet-noteworthy insight that the exercise — part of a two-day seminar called "The Five Faces of Genius" — is designed to produce. Annette Moser-Wellman, the leader of the seminar and founder of FireMark Inc., an innovation consulting firm based in Bainbridge Island, Washington, has spent a good portion of her career studying these types of "aha" moments. If you want to come up with great ideas consistently, she says, analyze your own creative style and learn how to enhance it.
"We're in the midst of a business renaissance, in which innovation and new ideas are critical. Yet how many managers do you know who spend any time thinking about how they think?" asks Moser-Wellman, 41, whose ideas have helped companies such as Andersen Consulting, Kraft Foods, and Starbucks to become more inventive.
If any company is ripe for some hard thinking these days, Coke is it. After going through the most significant layoffs in its 114-year history, an extended slump in market growth, and a gut-wrenching restructuring, the company is looking for ways to shake up its hidebound corporate culture, and Moser-Wellman's program is part of that effort. More than 200 managers at Coke have been through FireMark's training so far, and another 300 are scheduled to go. "We're coming out of the Dark Ages at Coke," says Jeff Dunn, 43, deputy group president for Coca-Cola North America. "For us, this is not just another training program. Innovation is what is going to help us turn around our business and our culture."
Part of the reason Coke was attracted to the curriculum, says Dunn, is that it's not based on brainstorming around a specific business problem. Instead, it teaches people about the nature of creativity and how to cultivate it. Moser-Wellman, who has degrees in art, theology, and business, developed her ideas by studying how history's great artists, scientists, and designers came up with their ideas, and by defining their creative MOs. As part of the seminar, participants analyze their own individual creative styles and then do a series of activities designed to help them learn and borrow from other approaches.
Maria Ellis, 30, a brand manager for Powerade, found one of those activities to be particularly helpful. She wrote the name of her business unit in the middle of a chart and then surrounded it with facts about that unit — things that seemed important, but not necessarily interrelated. Then she tried to think like an "Observer" — one of Moser-Wellman's five creative types, someone who finds inspiration in the details — to see if there was a way to link some of that information together. She came up with an idea that she thinks will entice more moms to buy Powerade for their families — a potential growth market for the drink.
Moser-Wellman says that the workshop taps into people's natural craving to create and experience art, something they don't often get to do at work. "There is an artist within each person, and everybody has the capacity to find creative genius in themselves."
But even hundreds of creative geniuses can't help companies that don't know how to implement daring ideas, cautions Alan Robinson, coauthor of Corporate Creativity: How Innovation and Improvement Actually Happen (Berret-Koehler, 1998) and a professor at the University of Massachusetts. "The danger with any kind of creativity training is that you get people all fired up, and the company doesn't have the structure or procedures in place to implement these ideas."
Coke appears to be committed to making innovation training the real thing. "We're restructuring; we're changing the way we work," Dunn says. "We're doing everything we can to become a place that encourages people and rewards them for great ideas."
Contact Annette Moser-Wellman by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sidebar: Inspired Instincts
You can learn from the masters. Annette Moser-Wellman explores the creative process in The Five Faces of Genius (Viking Penguin Press, February 2001). Here's a preview.
The Seer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on his visionary moments: "My subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined, and the whole, though it be long, stands almost complete and finished in my mind, so that I can survey it, like a fine picture or a beautiful statue, at a glance."
The Alchemist: Architect Frank Lloyd Wright's genius was in marrying design with the natural landscape. His masterpiece, Fallingwater, seems to spring from a rocky ledge.
The Observer: When he took his young daughter to an amusement park, Walt Disney noticed the bored adults, the run-down rides, the unfriendly operators. What if there was a place where kids and adults could play together?
The Fool: When scientist Roy Plunkett was working on a new configuration of a refrigerant, he accidentally left a container of the stuff out overnight. By the next morning, the material had polymerized into a hard, resistant material: Teflon was born.
The Sage: Pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz was inspired by the painter Vermeer's use of lighting and mood, and then used the techniques to create work that was entirely new.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.