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COMPUTING

Tech execs go to fun camp to innovate

May 26, 1999
Web posted at: 8:01 a.m. EDT (1201 GMT)

by Todd Datz

From...
CIO

(IDG) -- "They're here!"

Executives from Gardetto's, a Milwaukee-based snack foods company, stream through the doors of Eureka Ranch. A two-man zydeco band cranks out early morning Cajun tunes. Amid the high-energy music, Doug Hall and his staff greet their visitors with laughs, handshakes and platters of muffins, bagels and other breakfast goodies. A puppy hustles around the room, grabbing some affection from the assemblage and any wayward doughnut crumbs that hit the floor. Hall, the opposite of Wall Street chic in blue Hawaiian shirt and faded jeans, soon gathers his clients in the center of the living room and welcomes everyone. A large blanket-covered mound lurks near his bare feet. After a brief introduction, in which he notes, "Today, reality isn't relevant," Hall rips the blanket off, revealing a pile of Nerf guns. With a commando yell, he grabs a foam assault rifle and starts firing away at the momentarily shocked participants. In an instant, however, they too join the battle, blasting away at one another in a frenzy of multicolored projectiles and screams. Let the games begin.

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    A combination of Bill Gates, Ben Franklin and Bozo the Clown, Hall is CEO of Richard Saunders International Inc., a company dedicated to helping clients create breakthrough ideas for new products and services. At his Eureka Ranch outside Cincinnati in Newtown, Ohio, Hall hosts companies for intensive two-and-a-half-day brainstorming sessions, a service he calls Eureka Inventing. The cost of a typical session, from $75,000 to $150,000, has not deterred the scores of companies—including Compaq Computer Corp., The Walt Disney Co. and Kellogg Co.—that have passed through his doors since he founded Richard Saunders in 1991. (The organization is named for the pseudonym under which Ben Franklin wrote Poor Richard's Almanack.) Hall says he has worked on nearly 200 new and established products and services currently on the market. Recently Hall and his client Gardetto's agreed to let CIO Enterprise sit in on their inventing session, with two conditions: that we participate in the brainstorming; and that we not reveal any of the new product ideas that Gardetto's decides to pursue.

    Hall has a method to his madness, a rigorous, quantifiable process for inventing breakthrough ideas for clients. At his sessions, using a process trademarked as the Eureka Stimulus Response, preliminary research done by Hall's staff on the client company is used to generate seed ideas—the merest sparks that will start an idea bonfire in the group. On the first day of brainstorming every idea uttered, shouted or acted out is written down, regardless of how off-the-wall it seems. By the end of the first day, participants will typically have generated 1,500 to 2,000 seed ideas. That may sound unmanageable, but one of Hall's basic tenets is that a high number of raw ideas leads to a high number of breakthrough—"wicked good" in Hall's parlance—ideas. Most clients walk away with 15 to 40 quality ideas, many of which they will pursue further.

    That's a lot of ideas for just under three days of work. How does Hall do it? Simple: He insists that the inventing sessions must be fun. He likens the typical corporate lock-yourself-in-a-conference-room-and-create-new-ideas session to a mental skeet shoot. Someone hollers "Pull," someone else squeezes off an idea and someone else shoots it down. Mix in the usual defensiveness and self-censorship endemic to this approach, and it's not surprising that only the safest, nonthreatening ideas emerge. At Eureka Ranch, overloads of stimuli in a fun environment are key to creating better ideas. Instead of staring at bad office art on beige conference room walls, participants brainstorm in an oversize kids' play room, replete with video games, toys and plenty of music from the ranch jukebox, which Hall uses to get brains pumping.

The mission

Gardetto's is a family-run business whose flagship product is a snack mix called Snak-ens—a mixture of seasoned pretzels, rye crisps and breadsticks. Nannette ("Nan") Gardetto, executive vice president, heard about Hall from a consultant friend. "What intrigued me was the process he used," she says. "A lot of traditional marketing people believe that you start with a marketing strategy, then build [a new product] down from that. Doug believes, as I do, that you start with an idea, a product, then build up to strategy." Hall's promise to generate revolutionary new ideas rather than the more common, incrementally new ideas churned out in corporate America was especially important.

    The snack mix world is highly competitive. Smaller players like Gardetto's vie for a wedge of the pie with market behemoth Frito-Lay Inc. Nan Gardetto wants her company to come away from Eureka Ranch with new product ideas that she and her team can immediately begin testing. "I'm looking for greatness," she says. "I'm not looking for a line extension or just a good idea. I'm looking for something really breakthrough.... Snack mix is now a $400 million category. And everybody wants in."

    She's confident of an ROI from the Eureka process. "One thing about companies like ours is you've got to be willing to take risks. And this is a risk, taking 15 people offsite for two-and-a-half days. But it's a calculated risk—I'm going to get something. [In addition to new ideas,] I'm building the [executive staff] into a powerful team."

Seeking 2,000 ideas

Following the nerf battle—intended to strip away any last vestiges of decorum—the group breaks into four teams, each joined by a couple of Trained Brains. (Not surprisingly, Hall has a passion for giving his products and processes catchy names.) Trained Brains are the authors, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs Hall cultivates to participate in his sessions. Despite the name, they are not formally trained; their training is the varied backgrounds and experiences they bring to the fray. They are creative types who help during the brainstorming exercises—guiding, cajoling and occasionally lighting a fire under the stiffer corporate characters who would rather be planning third-quarter budgets than sitting on a floor getting their khakis wrinkled. Hall has a stable of a couple dozen Trained Brains and invites 5 to 10 to work with him each session. He gives them little information about the client beforehand—he doesn't want them to bring preconceived notions but to come in as naive participants, unafraid of fomenting creative unrest. Trained Brains for Gardetto's session include David Wecker, newspaper columnist and radio talk-show host in Cincinnati, and Craig Kurz, a Hall client and president of Cincinnati-based Honeybaked Hams. A few of Hall's 12-person staff also participate.

    With a goal of generating as many new product and positioning ideas as possible by day's end, Hall continually reminds the troops that no idea is too radical: "Respect the newborns...tomorrow we'll strangle them." Because Gardetto's is in the snack business, Hall uses food products in the first exercise to help stimulate ideas. Cans of baked beans, bags of cookies and competitors' snack foods litter the floor, fodder for idea-hungry brains. The teams furiously write down answers to questions that Hall throws out: What do you feel when you eat Gardetto's? What do you like about the labels? After the brainstorming, each team forwards a smorgasbord of new product ideas. A taste or two:

    "Dusters—mood food—something you sprinkle over Gardetto's. It can give you a sassy flavor or a salty flavor."

    "Invent a rice noodle snack that would expand in water. We'll call it the Gar-chia [based on the classic mail-order product from late-night TV]."

The air vibrates with chaotic energy as laughter, cheers and whoo-whooing for good ideas spill together—punctuated with pulsating tunes from the jukebox, like "Rock and Roll Hootchie Koo."

Cheeseburger in paradise

Partway through the afternoon, Hall throws a change-up and launches the group into a meditation exercise. The journey, as Hall calls it, aims to slow down participants' minds so that they can think about answers to the question, "Don't sell me snack mix, sell me ____." Hall offers analogies: "Don't sell me clothes, sell me attractiveness. Don't sell me a lobotomy, sell me peace of mind." The goal of the session is part marketing, part existential philosophy: What is the higher-order calling of Gardetto's products?

    In a soft voice, accompanied by New Age music, Hall guides the 20-minute meditation. Afterward, he spins Jimmy Buffet's "Cheeseburger in Paradise," while everybody records and then shares their thoughts and observations. Though a few people might have taken the opportunity to think about the upcoming Green Bay Packers football game, the meditation yielded plenty of positioning ideas, from "Fun, kids, sharing" to "Quality baked into every bite."

    At around 7:30 p.m., after a gourmet dinner from the ranch chef, the day's final Eureka exercise begins. Teams write down all the new product ideas on yellow cards and the positioning ideas on orange cards. They lay the cards out on the floor, and everyone marks Xs on their favorites. Tom Mayer, Gardetto's director of human resources and confessed Woodstock-era rock-and-roll aficionado, plays jukebox DJ, spinning tunes from The Doors, Aretha Franklin and Steely Dan that keep the energy levels humming. "Do you remember the band Wishbone Ash?" he asks Director of Brand Marketing Mike Curtin. Customer loyalty, positioning statements, slotting fees, a little Wishbone Ash—a typical mix of ideas and stimulus at a Eureka session.

    The long day ends around 11 p.m. The Gardetto's folks filter out the door, but Hall and the Trained Brains are just getting started. They regroup, discuss the day, then break off to go through the cards to identify the favorite new ideas. Some of Hall's staff will work through the night refining the ideas in preparation for the next day's session.

Harnessing the chaos

After a hearty ranch breakfast, armed with mugs of Brain Brew (the house coffee), the Gardetto's staff gathers around a large board. Tacked to it are 12 new product ideas and 19 new positioning ideas. These are the most popular ideas from the previous session. Hall gives the group an hour to review them, write down their observations and then vote for their favorites.

    The group spends the rest of the day discussing each idea in detail. After the previous day's anything-that-pops-in-your-head brainstorming, today is more focused; people sense that they're discussing ideas that may evolve into a completely new line of snacks. But the atmosphere remains lighthearted. Hall, in a University of Maine sweatshirt with sleeves drooping 10 inches over the ends of his fingers, makes sure of that.

    Mayer appreciates the environment. "Just the fact that a Nerf ball comes whistling at your head [during an exercise] makes you think of something different. [It's] harnessed chaos. You'd like to have it in the office, but that's not the real world."

    Today's session ends at dinnertime. The Gardetto's team heads to a nearby restaurant to relax and discuss the day's ideas. Hall and his staff, meanwhile, hunker down for another long night. They will whittle the product and positioning list down to what they consider the most viable options and write concept statements based on the day's discussions. But tomorrow's presentation will include more than just words. Cincinnati-based WBK Design, led by Senior Vice President Steve Klein, will also work through the night designing packaging for each final product idea. WBK will also unveil several new Gardetto's logo designs. Overnight turnaround is the norm for Klein, who has worked with Hall for 12 years. Hall gives Klein general direction, but leaves the designers a lot of creative wiggle room. Think of Hall as Coach K.C. Jones and WBK as Bird, Parish, McHale, et al., during the great Celtics teams of the 1980s. Sure, Jones did some coaching, but once the game started, he wisely let the players work out the details.

The payoff

Another foggy morning, another hearty breakfast, another mug of Brain Brew. Some hardcore video car-racers get in a few quick laps.

    Enter Hall in a long purple robe (still barefoot). He begins with a brief summary of their accomplishments so far and things the company should consider once the group leaves the ranch: Do you jump right into one of these new product/packaging ideas? Or transition more slowly into a new idea? Nan feels the company must charge forward with a big bang. "We won't have many opportunities in our Gardetto's careers to do a radical new launch—just boom, get it out there," she says.

    Hall then unveils the design team's creations—nine new logos and 16 packaging ideas for the proposed new products. Everybody moves in closer; seeing tangible results is rewarding after the heavy conceptual work of the first days. For the next few hours, Hall talks the team through the final positioning statement, then each of the product ideas and finally asks for feedback. Some products are sent packing, like Bistro Baguettes (sweet bread with raspberry-champagne preserves and cream cheese) and Saturday Night Snack 'Ems (featuring Charlie's skillet corn bread). But several products elicit widespread support. Those will get a closer look back in Milwaukee. Some will survive to test batch and market testing; others will be set aside or shelved indefinitely.

    By late morning, Nan is already rearranging flights to get everybody on the marketing team to fly home together. She also plans on immediately launching a team of people to work on the new ideas.

    During goodbyes, "Heat Wave" blares from the jukebox. Out of sync with the chill of the day, but dead on in capturing the high-energy brainstorming process best described as wicked fun.

Features Editor Todd Datz can be reached at tdatz@cio.com.


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