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INNOVATE

Cashing In On Creativity

Creative Think, in Menlo Park, Calif., a consulting firm founded and operated by Roger von Oech, 35, is dedicated to planting fresh ideas in stale minds.

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Roger von Oech and his award winning Ball of Whacks.

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Creative Think, in Menlo Park, Calif., a consulting firm founded and operated by Roger von Oech, 35, is dedicated to planting fresh ideas in stale minds. That is a noble undertaking, but PhD von Oech is also a businessman and realizes that he can't send his kids to college on magnanimity alone. So for the past two years he has staged large-scale (and, at $500 per attendee, for a two-day conference, profitable) conferences on how to achieve innovation in industry. And he has just published a book that helps get the mental juices flowing. The conference theme is "Innovation. " Thinking more creatively, von Oech has called his book A Whack on the Side of the Head. Both attempt to take an untraditional approach to standard perceptions.

The book contains witty observations ("For those of you who consider life to be a joke, consider the punch line.") and mind-ticklers ("What if people had seven fingers?"). But the annual conferences are far more solemn. That is because, under von Oech's aegis, important businesspeople deliver important messages to other important businesspeople. The lineup at last fall's crowded (more than 130 companies were represented) Innovation 2 conference in Palo Alto, Calif., was like a Silicon Valley All-Star game. Among the 18 orators were Trilogy Systems' Gene Amdahl, Activision's Jim Levy, Seagate Technology's Al Shugart, and Charles Schwab's Charles Schwab. Words of operational wisdom were dispatched as freely as dimes from J.D. Rockefeller.

For instance, Imagic founder and president Bill Grubb said team members need freedom to make and learn from mistakes; delegate authority, he urged. Malcolm Northrup, president of revivified Verbatim Corp., advised managing for return on equity, and earnings will take care of themselves. (He also predicted the coming to market of the 3-inch disk by midsummer.) Sandy Kurtzig, founder and president of ASK Computer Systems, which went public last fall after more than seven years of privacy, counseled not to go public too soon; ASK's Jacuzzi-and-hot-tub setting is an atmosphere, Kurtzig reasons, that -- along with liberal stock options -- encourages team playing.

Pursuing a theme expressed by several other well-off entrepreneurs, Adam Osborne, too, noted that a generous owner should be willing to give away a lot of what he has in order to motivate people. To illustrate, the portable-computer pioneer donated an Osborne 1 for a door prize, and in the wackiest twist of all, it was won by an Apple employee.




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