Jump Start Your Business
Newtown, Ohio, on the out-skirts of Cincinnati. The sky's still dark on this drizzly winter morning, but innovation guru Doug Hall's headquarters--a 157-year-old, three-story, 29-room structure immodestly named the Eureka! Mansion--is already a furnace, glowing from every window. Inside, Hall reviews his client notes, prepares not one but two pep talks, and mentally runs through a series of group exercises designed to perform the equivalent of business magic: to pull new-product ideas out of what looks like thin air.
Hall is 38. Before his 1991 launch of Richard Saunders International (RSI), named after Ben Franklin's pen name, he spent 10 years at nearby Procter & Gamble Co., where he became the company's first and, so far, last "master marketing inventor." When he hung out his own creativity shingle, he promised clients delivery of 30 commercially viable ideas in 30 days. (In contrast, P& G's expected new-product development cycle was three months.) Nowadays, his techniques refined, he inspires his clients to come up with similar results in 3 days. Corporations such as PepsiCo (which has made 12 visits to the Eureka! Mansion), AT& T (10 visits), Nike, and even Batesville Casket send employees to the mansion for one-, two-, and three-day sessions to invent new products, paying RSI as much as $150,000 a visit--a McKinsey-esque rate that's at least five times what most "creativity facilitators" ask. The average American home now contains 18 brand-name products or services that, according to Hall, RSI helped develop or reposition.
Due through the mansion's door on this day are employees from Celestial Seasonings Inc., a $75-million-a-year company with the lion's share of a flattened market, herbal tea. Celestial wants to at least double its sales in the next few years and knows that to do so, it will need to branch out well beyond its artfully boxed teas. It knows, as well, what most companies are being forced to learn: that every business's vitality is built on being newer and better, and that staying power in today's market means following up one success with another, and another--and fast.
Eager to capitalize on its well-loved and well-established brand, Celestial has given Hall a dream assignment: help invent something--anything--that appropriately leverages its leadership position.
This is the diary of how Hall does it, step-by-step--with Hall annotating the logic behind his methods along the way. This, Hall argues--this by now well-tested mixture of play and sensory overload and analytical rigor--is the alchemy of creation. He trusts it so much that he has struck an entrepreneurial bargain with Celestial: he has waived his princely fee in return for a fixed percentage of sales on any mansion-launched products. In other words, Hall knows as he is about to begin this session that if he doesn't get results, he'll have worked for nothing.
He has two days.
Preparing the props
The Eureka! Mansion bustles with activity. Near the kitchen by the back door, a couple of Hall's so-called Trained Brains are filling balloons on the nozzles of two in-house helium tanks. In the spacious living room, other Trained Brains are loading a cache of tommy-gun-like Nerf Ballzookas, stuffing scores of bright yellow foam balls into the revolving five-chamber magazines. A 100-CD jukebox booms out high-energy oldies: "Wooly Bully," "Gimme Some Lovin'," "Wipe Out."
In the front hallway a caterer sets out breakfast-buffet fare. At the foot of the elegant staircase, a Dixieland quartet dressed in gold hats and bow ties warm up on trumpet, trombone, guitar, and banjo. The loaded Nerf guns get piled in the middle of the living-room rug and hidden beneath a blanket. The collective pulse thrums ever faster.
As Celestial's 8:30 arrival time draws nearer, Hall gathers his charges--a twentysomething-to-fortysomething mix of Trained Brains--in the mansion's living room and addresses them as if he were a coach before a big game. "It's not often that you find an entire category invented by one person," he says, pointing to box after box of Celestial Seasonings teas on shelves placed center stage, in front of the fireplace. Hall sketches the company's history: It was founded in 1970 by Mo Siegel and a partner, who initially picked their own herbs for their teas. It was sold to Kraft in 1984. Siegel then traveled the world with an eye toward philanthropy. Kraft sold the company back to its original management, which welcomed Siegel back in 1991 as chairman and CEO.
Hall gives his talk standing in front of an as yet unmarkered Panasonic whiteboard. He's wearing jeans and an untucked blue-and-white-striped short-sleeve shirt. His feet are bare.
At P& G, Hall was notorious: he was the guy who invented dress-down days on his own; the weirdo with all the stuffed animals in his office, who played music so loudly that the people in nearby offices had them soundproofed; but also, the guy people called when they wanted some help coming up with ideas. Hall loathed those closed-door, sit-around-the-conference-table sessions. He soon discovered that he came up with better ideas by combing the bargain-book bins at the local bookstore or walking the aisles at a farmers' market. In 1991 he left P& G, bought the mansion, and began turning what had been a bankrupt bed-and-breakfast into an idea factory.
"The people up top in the companies we work with can be pretty conservative," Hall continues telling his team. "They say they want big ideas, but they get scared of them. Celestial, though, is willing to take on anything. Licensing arrangements with other companies are possible: licensing others' names, licensing out the Celestial name." Suddenly, Hall kicks himself into a higher gear. "Really push for ideas that can promote an emotional reaction. It's a wide range--from Sleepytime to Fast Lane."
The group's pent-up exuberance begins to bubble up.
"Can we drink coffee today?" someone wisecracks.
A few minutes later two taxis are spotted parking by the front door.
The cry goes out: "They're here!"
The clients' arrival, greeted by Trained Brains
Brassy Dixieland rhythms fill the mansion. Two veteran Trained Brains, Hannah Buchanan and Eric Schultz, pair off in a swing-your-partner, elbow-locking dance step. "Trained Brains"?
"The interesting thing about Trained Brains," Hall will explain later about the facilitators, "is they're not trained at all." Among the 100 or so freethinkers in his Rolodex: a food chemist; a math tutor; a cookbook author; Tom Wilson, the cartoonist who draws "Ziggy"; and a TV- and radio-commercial voice-over artist. Some are flown in for sessions. "They tend not to be agency creative directors or the classic creative people you might think of but, rather, entrepreneurial types, people who run their own businesses, people who can both dream and package their dreams into reality," says Hall. "They have the ability to provoke and stimulate."
Now the front door opens wide, and in troops the Celestial Seasonings crew: five employees, one former Celestial vice-president of marketing, and Mo Siegel, who holds a tall Starbucks coffee in a gotta-have-it grip. The group flew in from Boulder the night before. For them, it's 6:30 mountain time, and they're all a bit bleary-eyed.
Hellos. Handshakes. Hall and Siegel hug. Everybody grabs something to eat and drink. The band plays on.
Were it not for the rain, a red carpet would have been rolled out the length of the walkway to the door, festooned on both sides with balloons. Trained Brains would have stood by, filling the air with soap bubbles.
Had Siegel booked the Eureka! Mansion during the summer months, the welcome would have been even more spirited. In warmer weather, clients reach the Eureka! Mansion by pontoon boat, soaked to the skin after gleefully defending themselves with water cannons against a sneak-attacking mansion staff--Hall on a JetSki, others firing from a speedboat. That baptism by fun on Hall's 65-acre lake begins a kind of corporate detoxification he's found crucial to creation.
Success defined and the evils of brain sucking
Hall's official welcome is given with everyone gathered in the living room, which is a cross between PeeWee's Playhouse and a frat-house basement. Two pinball machines flank an arcade road-rally game topped with an enormous stuffed Mickey Mouse. Hall's welcome always includes an around-the-room introduction, in which each person tells his or her name and also provides some personal revelation. Today's question: What's your all-time favorite toy? Past queries: What was your worst vacation? Any scars, and how did you get them? The aim: to lubricate people's tongues, ask them to talk about themselves. Then Hall gets down to business.
"Our goal is to come up with wicked-good ideas," Hall says to the assembled. "Big, hairy ideas that send fear into the marketplace. We need things that are really different, the sort of things that create conversation, as in 'Man, did you hear about that?' Ideas that are not new and different are commodities. The Harvard Business Review reports that you increase your chances of profitable success three to five times if you're extremely new and different." What Hall's doing is setting the bar, defining what will make the next two days a success. (That's important, Hall says. "I'm trying to get people to raise their sights, to dream of the huge-step change, not incremental ones.")
"But there's a challenge," Hall continues. "As we become intelligent, practical adults we lose the ability to see those new thoughts. As our education increases, our imagination decreases. The classic way of creating new ideas is the brain -draining, or brain-suck, method of creativity. You use your brain like a library. You just have to make a withdrawal. Instead, we're going to take your brain and use it like a high-speed computer. We're going to program it, feed it with stimuli. And out of that will come what we call the Eureka! Stimulus Response. If you're laughing, you're more likely to break all that education and come up with a wicked-good idea." Hall moves to the blanket-covered pile in the middle of the floor. "So we're going to show you what we mean when we say fun is fundamental."
Hall yanks the blanket off the stockpiled Nerf Ballzookas and passes out guns like a revolutionary. In seconds, the room's full of Rambos, blazing away at anybody and everybody.
Is this any way to come up with $100-million ideas? The pixielike Hall will tell you, Yes! and then maybe have you sit on a whoopee cushion. "I do that stuff for a simple reason," says Hall. "I get better ideas. Breakthroughs are going to contradict history. You have to break rules. And you have to give everyone overt permission to break rules."
Tactic: The Mind Dumpster
The day's first task is introduced as a Mind Dumpster, or less delicately, a Metamucil of the Mind. Purple index cards are passed around, and on them everybody is to record a first flushing of ideas, in brain-sucking fashion, with no more stimulus than the theme from Gilligan's Island playing on the jukebox. One idea per card. The possibilities: New-product categories. Target audiences. Sensory experiences related to tea. Interesting words that come to mind. Anything. The point: pluck the low-hanging fruit, which is rarely the sweetest. Removing those first-blush ideas frees the mind for bigger, better, more daring concepts on harder-to-reach branches.
Hall stresses the day's creed: No idea is silly. "Today I ask you, as we work, to respect all the newborn ideas," he says. "Tonight and tomorrow we'll strangle the newborns. Strangling ideas is easy. What's hard, what takes courage, isn't finding the problems in an idea but figuring out a way to take the outrageous and push it even further."
Tactic: The Mind Dumpster II
One or two songs past Gilligan and the Skipper, all the cards are turned in, and it's time for the second mind dump of the exercise, this time in small groups.
Hall and others have found that small rather than large groups tend to generate more ideas. Four or five people per group seems about right. "Any more than seven, and they're not as effective," say Arthur VanGundy, a creativity consultant and a professor of communication at the University of Oklahoma. Hall also suspects that the physical proximity of groups may play a role. Rather than isolating them in separate rooms, he generally prefers them nearly on top of one another, within earshot. Sometimes phrases or ideas will blow like seeds from one group to another.
Sitting catch-as-catch-can on couches, on the arms of chairs, and on the floor, the members of each group huddle around a formatted sheet of paper on a double-sized clipboard. Like everything at RSI, from the Eureka! Mansion itself to Hall's names for many of his idea-sparking exercises, these so-called Flapdoodle sheets are trademarked.
"You have only three or four songs," instructs Hall, once again employing the jukebox as a clock. The focus remains unfettered--it can encompass any stretch on tea or Celestial's brand equity. One group's scribe is Trained Brain David Wecker, a resident loose cannon and the coauthor, with Hall, of Jump Start Your Brain, the book that spells out the Eureka method, and the newly published The Maverick Mindset. (See Resources, below.) Wecker's got a stack of purple Mind Dumpster cards to goose the group should the outpouring of ideas be less than geyserlike. But that proves unnecessary. He's soon scribbling away with his marker, adding ideas helter-skelter on the page like so many mud balls thrown against a wall.
"Tea that keeps itself hot."
"A line of greeting cards."
"How about tea bags that fit over showerheads?"
"Teas that taste like foods you crave."
Imagine warming up on a doubles tennis court, batting balls back and forth with ever-increasing vigor. Or spin. At the Eureka! Mansion, you can hear the ball crossing over the net.
"There's your super tea."
When the music stops, each group shares the ideas on its Flapdoodle sheet. A Trained Brain rewrites them on the facsimile-producing Panasonic whiteboard, also recording any so-called bulges. A bulge might be a related idea from another group that's worth mentioning now or, just as likely, any new notions sparked by a just-posted idea.
"We want to sell a tea bag with Colorado springwater," reports Hannah Buchanan. "And how about a portable steam mister, called Self Es-Steam. Herbal tea bags for a vaporizer..."
Group by group, the raw ideas pour out--several dozen of them--from just this first exercise, some with early swipes at product names: kids' drinks (Tea 4 Tots, Lip Ticklers), herbs for cooking, a college survival kit, breath-freshener tea, fortune-cookie-like messages on tea bags. ("What if they could be made to appear by adding hot water?" somebody says--a bulge.) Claps and cheers follow each presentation.
"The applause is critical," says Hall, identifying it as one of several reasons for the group reports. "It makes them feel like they've won, and in today's world people don't feel like they've won enough." The group reports also allow for the bulges. Last, the additional volume of ideas shared during the group reports helps "stretch people's minds to help them think of other things going into the next exercise."
When one group's summary lists "Ginseng Magic" and "Ginseng Power" as possible ideas, CEO Siegel interrupts, explaining his desire to take a run at the fast-increasing market for ginseng, a traditional wonder herb harvested as a funny-looking root and long believed to have both energizing and calming powers.
"We have a product called Ginseng Plus, with a Chinese bridge on it, which doesn't mean anything to anybody," he says, rustling up the artwork for the proposed blister-pack display for the product, which is sold in capsules. "We're playing with the concept of Dr. Woo's Ginseng Magic."
For a company its size, Celestial Seasonings does a remarkable amount of ongoing in-house new-product development and daily consumer testing, by tapping the annual stream of more than 60,000 visitors who take its factory and office tour, eat in the Celestial Cafe, and browse in the company's gift shop. So why hire Hall? "Because he and his Trained Brains don't think like we do," explains Siegel. "And it really helps to spend a couple of days out of the office, just thinking."
Tactic: 'Smash association'
The next exercise is called 666. "This is where you smash-associate things together," says Hall, as he remixes the groups and gives each a set of three colored dice and sheets of paper with three six-item lists under the headings red die, white die, and blue die. The items on the lists are categories designed to get people thinking. The gathering closest to the front door rolls a white six ("New Preparation Process" on the 666 sheets), a blue three ("Picnic/Beach"), and a red six ("Spirited"), and tosses those stimuli into the group's mental blenders.
"Smash-associating is a structured way to do lateral thinking, which stretches the mind. It's like a balloon expanded: it never goes back to the same shape. Like a football coach calling plays, I'm setting up for creative exercises to come later. First I'll stretch their thinking from a product standpoint, focusing on occasion, target audience. Then I might hit them with the picture boards, where I'm focusing on getting them to deal with emotions and phrases and language. Now I'm getting the marketing side. It's setting up both the running game and the passing game," says Hall, defining the ground attack (the running game) as the grind-it-out product stuff and the passing game as the big-bang marketing stuff. He's found it's often best to alternate product exercises with marketing exercises. "If you do too many product exercises in a row, people will get an irrational mind-set when they're designing products. If I do too much emotional stuff, I'll have a hard time getting them to deal with reality."
Though largely free-form, the mansion exercises are anything but free-for-alls. They are, in fact, far more choreographed than most clients ever realize. Hall's model is Disneyland, "where things happen invisibly, where the characters just seem to show up." At the mansion, everything's designed to keep the client focused on new ideas. The food seems to be stealth-catered. Clients never see it arriving; their noses tell them it awaits.
While the 666 dice roll and the ideas fly, two artists (more of Hall's on-call virtual company) roam about, sketching on their own or on request. Maybe a package for an intriguing product, or perhaps a character to help pin down a concept, like the ginseng dragon taking shape on one sketch pad. "The sketches allow us to talk in a different dimension," says Hall. "Plus, they give incredible reinforcement to the group. People feel so good to be able to present an idea that way."
Meanwhile, Hall listens with one ear while he types at a computer to the right of the fireplace. Hosting about two dozen clients a year has taught him the importance of staying ahead of the creative avalanche; he's already winnowing through the day's ideas to get a running start on the evening's job of fleshing out the best ones into marketworthy concepts.
Tactic: A picture's worth a thousand words
The next group task plays off visual stimuli. Sandie Glass, vice-president and creative director at the mansion, passes out sheets of poster board featuring a wide assortment of pictures cut from magazines. Below each is printed a ladder of blank lines. Members of the group are instructed to list the words and phrases that come to mind when they look at the pictures. One board shows a picture of a lemon peel. Another, a sports-utility vehicle on a mountain ridge with a waterfall in the background. A third, a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. Hall's instructions: "Think refreshment. And raise your hand when you want a new board." Hall's intention: employ the pictures as a visual thesaurus.
As adjectives and phrases (tangy, tingly, invigorating, summer, blend of fruit) accumulate on the poster boards, sample cups of herbal iced tea appear on trays. In the pursuit of wicked-good ideas, the Eureka! Mansion leaves no sense untouched. Up the back staircase at the mansion there's a storage room (called the "Stimulus Library") packed floor to ceiling with plastic bins of categorized baskets of stuff--hands-on stimuli for generating thoughts off the beaten track. The stackslike repository includes bins marked Ugly Products (for instance, brown-paper coffee filters), Ways to Close (Ziplock bags, buttons, magnets), and Weird Science (Edge shaving cream, Alka Seltzer, relighting birthday candles, candy necklaces).
In part two of the exercise, the various word ladders help launch product ideas and sometimes names, such as Tea Splashes, tiny bottles of fortified herbal essences that can be added drop by drop to various foods and beverages.
During the group reports, Siegel can't wait to hold up a just-sketched rendering of a distinctive package for a product he's eager to find a way to sell. "I really like this a lot," he says, explaining how the package works to overcome some marketing obstacles. The discussion leaps to names. From around the room, half a dozen suggestions ring out. Like a fashion photographer posing a model, Hall prompts, "Less descriptive, more heart and soul and feeling."
There's another burst of names. And more discussion of the would-be product, which Hall knows Celestial has been wrestling with for a long time. Even with the smell of a lunch buffet wafting from the back kitchen, minds remain focused, and the discussion is animated. A different creativity maven, fearful of derailing the advancing train of thought, might keep everyone on track a good while longer. Hall calls a break for lunch.
Another lesson he's learned: don't try to get the whole idea in one pass. Invention, he's found again and again, tends not to be linear. "People always talk about getting it right the first time," Hall explains. "That's great for manufacturing but lousy when it comes to inventing. These things require some iterations. Birth is a messy process." Often, a word, a phrase, or a concept born in one exercise will suddenly reappear again later, but then it will really soar with a slightly different spin. "In fact," stresses Hall, "it's by not trying to get the whole idea at first that you get more ideas."
Lunch, and the ROI of a decent menu
The Dixieland band strikes up once again. Siegel, who's wearing a polo shirt, black jeans, and cowboy boots, changes into sneakers and heads to the back of the mansion to a small room with exercise equipment. Almost everybody else heads for the food, which is plentiful and hot (a piquant chicken dish, rice, a good tossed salad, plenty of gourmet brownies and cookies) and intentionally a notch or two above the typical cold meats and potato salad. A restaurant-style espresso machine awaits the java junkies. There's also wine ("Vintage bottles, not the just-in-time stuff") from the wine cellar. Hall uses good food and wine as rewards, tools for making everybody feel special.
"If corporations would double their food budget, they'd get more than double their return on investment," Hall says, and adds that he'll sometimes add an effervescent stimulus to a late-afternoon exercise, promising a bottle of champagne to the group that comes up with the best ideas. "In some corporations the people are competitive. If that's the spirit they've got, we'll work with that."
Some follow lunch with a stroll through the backyard's English-style formal garden, where creative sessions are sometimes held in the summer months. A few step up to the pinball machines. After about an hour, everyone drifts back to the living room.
Hall silences the living-room din with a whistle. It's back to the business of inventing--there are four more group exercises before half the Celestial folks need to head out to catch their plane back to Colorado.
"It takes four or five hours just to open up their minds," Hall stresses, going on to tell about one client who requested--and did not get--a change in the mansion MO. "They wanted to brainstorm for 35 minutes and then spend the rest of the time developing the ideas. Thirty-five minutes," says Hall, spitting out the words like spoiled milk. "You're talking $100-million products. Can't you spend at least eight hours on the open-ended stuff? We really push people here. What often happens is, late in the day when they think they've thought of everything they can, all of a sudden out pops another idea."
The afternoon speeds along with exercises now targeted toward specific areas, like ginseng or an intriguing "spa in a box" concept--products that would consist of a particular tea packaged with related items that extend or amplify the tea-drinking experience. What would the concept be called? What, besides tea bags, might go into the boxes? Each group gets a boom box, an audiotape of soothing nature sounds, a basket from the stimulus library brimming with sample "rest and relaxation" products, and a couple of different boxes of Celestial Seasonings teas.
A session on dessert products coincides with afternoon tea (guess whose?) and mounds of scones and chocolate-dipped strawberries. The ideas keep coming.
The late-afternoon arrival of the airport-bound taxi prompts Hall to reach for parting gifts. He passes out Eureka! Mansion T-shirts, bags of RSI's Brain Brew coffee, and copies of his books to the four departing Celestial employees. "We'll break till 6 o'clock," Hall announces to the remaining attendees.
Hall, his staff, and the Trained Brains descend the steep stairway to his candlelit wine cellar. Hall pours a California champagne into paper cups and toasts the day's efforts. "We've got gobs of stuff. Some of it's in scrambled pieces, but we're in good shape. They want to start earlier tomorrow morning, though, so they can catch an earlier flight. We can do that, but it's going to be a long night," he announces to the core group who will stay on after dinner, adding, "Sleep is for wimps."
Dinner is fortifying comfort food--meat loaf and mashed potatoes--that almost everybody carries back to the living room, where the conversations, inevitably, keep circling back to the bigger ideas that bubbled up earlier in the day.
"I really like the idea of that," says Siegel, restating his affection for the artist's package design.
"A breakthrough there," says Hall, "and the company triples in size."
Tactic: Categorize ideas, write product concepts
The night's work is task oriented. David Wecker's at a computer in the mansion's library. His first assignment: conceptualizing a new line of Celestial Teas, a faux-British offering called Royaltea. One room back, Eric Schultz is positioning an entirely new beverage for Celestial. Upstairs, in her office, with New Age music playing in the background, Sandie Glass works to corral and expand upon the far-ranging ideas generated for those themed kits. Everybody else is in the living room, taking turns punching up jukebox favorites while working to bring a bit of order to the morning's intentionally chaotic upwelling of ideas. That group includes Trained Brain Jeff Stamp; Mo Siegel; Lindsay Moore, Celestial's senior director of innovation and creativity; Keith Brenner, a consultant specializing in strategic planning and formerly Celestial's vice-president of marketing; and mansion apprentice Sean McCosh.
While McCosh sifts through the stack of purple Mind Dumpster cards, pulling out any remotely viable notions that went unmentioned during the day's sessions, the others begin separating the wheat from the chaff on the more than two dozen Flapdoodle sheets. Hall's instruction: write any promising near-term idea on a red index card; longer-term notions or those requiring licensing go on yellow cards. Hall then ducks out to visit a student art show at his daughter's school.
Hall returns an hour and a half later, dressed even more comfortably than before in red shorts, an oversize yellow T-shirt, and a blue University of Maine hockey cap worn backwards. Again, he's got bare feet. Arranged on the living-room rug are seven rows of index cards, each row 8 to 10 cards deep: the cards represent about five dozen ideas with varying degrees of marketplace potential, generated in less than 12 hours. The Eureka! Mansion has worked its preliminary magic--something it's becoming well known for. A couple of years ago, the University of Oklahoma's Arthur VanGundy compared various idea-sparking strategies with Hall's Eureka! Stimulus Response methods. VanGundy asked his groups and Hall's to come up with different ideas for snack foods. Hall's groups outperformed all the others, generating not only more ideas for new products but also far more meaningful ideas (as judged by a panel of food-industry experts). Most striking was the gap between traditional, unstimulated, brain-draining groups of four, which generated an average of 6.5 marketworthy ideas in 45 minutes, versus Hall's Eureka! groups, which averaged 36.3 meaningful ideas, or 558% more. "I was totally amazed," says VanGundy, who's been known to hire some of Hall's Trained Brains for his own creativity sessions. "I'd hold Doug up as a model of the principles I've been talking about for years."
Asked for three must-have ingredients in running a successful idea-generating session, VanGundy thinks a minute and replies: "One, people must have a belief that anything is possible. Two, you need a climate that's conducive to creative thinking, one that results in a playful atmosphere. Groups that are laughing and having the most fun are the groups producing the most ideas and the best ideas. Three, it's best to use a lot of different types of stimuli, which are both related to the challenge and unrelated to the challenge, to help trigger new associations and generate out-of-the-box thinking."
Just as crucial, he stresses, is avoiding the mistakes commonly made by corporations when they try to throw the creativity switch, all too often by rounding up the usual suspects and tossing them into a conference room for a couple of hours and ordering in sandwiches. "You don't want the same people who work together and meet together all the time," says VanGundy. "If you want to do something truly different, you have to meet differently." Meeting off-site is best. VanGrundy recommends bringing in people from different parts of the company, people with a diversity of viewpoints, making sure to salt the group with fluent idea generators. Another creativity killer starting with a whole bunch of criteria. "Companies will often start idea sessions by listing criteria for the new product or process. That places constraints on your thinking and forces people to limit their ideas. It creates a climate in which, instead of diverging in all sorts of directions to create as many ideas as you can, you're continually converging to evaluate all the ideas to see if they satisfy the criteria. It limits the number of possible ideas you can come up with and probably the quality of the ideas as well. There are three times you can judge an idea: now, later, and never. Now is not the right time."
Equally important, he feels, is to think of the emerging ideas in a new way--not, at this early stage, as new products or solutions but as more stimuli. "I like to stress that ideas are the raw material of solutions, potential stimuli for the high-quality ultimate solution," says VanGrundy. "Seeing ideas as stimuli rather than as ultimate solutions also relieves people from the pressure of having to come up with perfect ideas or solutions." Which, of course, helps generate even more ideas. The result: a self-feeding fire.
Editing the concepts
The next blasts of creative work in the Eureka process are rarely seen by the client. Celestial representatives Siegel, Moore, and Brenner call it a day at about 11 o'clock and head back to their nearby hotel. On networked computer screens throughout the mansion, the day's raw ideas are being molded and sometimes melded into new products with marketable benefits and catchy, memorable names. In Hall's words: "This is where the rubber meets the road."
Soon after midnight, Hall stretches out on the living-room carpet near the index cards, along with fresh printouts of several of the product-concept first drafts. Pencil in hand, he reads Glass's renderings of the tea-plus-other-items collections. For instance: "Sleepytime Collection--This kit helps quiet down the day. Tea bags with a hint of cinnamon are designed to be brewed in a cup of hot milk. Lavender-aromatherapy-spray atomizer and a scented, ultrathin sachet that you place between your pillow and pillowcase to enhance your sweet dreams." The thing that's still missing, Hall knows, is a defining umbrella word.
"What do we call these things?" he asks aloud about the "tea plus" kits, glancing at the index cards for help. Everyone keeps coming back to the word kit, so Hall heads to the library and returns with a copy of J.I. Rodale's Synonym Finder. "Kit," he reads aloud. "Set, collection...implements, utensils, gear..." Nothing particularly exciting. Then his eye falls on a nearby entry: kaleidososcope.
"I like it," says Stamp.
"It works," agrees Schultz.
Hall pencils it in: "Celestial Seasonings Kaleidscope/A Celebration of Herbal Sensory Collections."
Burning the midnight oil
The mansion's still lit up like a fraternity house at homecoming, and it's nearly as loud. At times like this, with Hall's high-decibel musical inspiration also being piped through speakers outside by the basketball and volleyball courts, the mansion's rather incongruous location in an industrially zoned area proves to be a blessing' there are no neighbors around to complain. "We don't try to get everything perfect at this stage," Hall explains. "It's more like M*A*S*H surgery."
Tactic: Make it visual
Hall faxes the day's work to WBK Design, in Cincinnati, where head designer and managing director Steve Klein heads a team poised for a six-hour turnaround of computer-generated package designs. Klein and his artists have already scanned Celestial logos and dozens of images into their computers. When Hall finally sets them loose, loose is the operative word. "I have to give them the core direction, but if I define it too much, it becomes color by numbers. I used to define it, and they'd give me pretty much what I said. But then I'm not getting the values of these incredibly talented artists, or of the writers, because it works the same way with the concept writing. It's not fun assembling a house from Lincoln Logs. It's much more fun when they're given the freedom to do something great. The basic mission is 'Wow me."
Hall doesn't bother to go home. In a bedroom on the third floor, he sets two alarms for 6 a.m.
Hall has logged a good hour editing concepts by the time Mo Siegel, Lindsay Moore, and Keith Brenner arrive. Hall, of course, has a trademarked name for the business of day two. He calls it InterACT. Essentially it's the point at which the real work intrudes upon the blue-sky optimism of the day before, the point when, in the light of competitive realities of production problems or maybe governmental regulations, some of yesterday's cute little newborns don't look quite so hale and hearty.
The living-room couches and chairs have been drawn tighter to help a group half as large as yesterday's to focus. Everyone receives an 11-page printout describing 33 concepts, 18 of which are individual kits in the Kaleidoscope line. Hall tells everyone to vote for 5 to 7 favorites, to help focus the discussion on the more promising ideas. While everyone reads, a Jimmy Buffet number plays on the jukebox.
If the Eureka! Stimulus Response sessions resemble tennis players warming up, the InterACT sessions are like match play. Suddenly, there are lines. And umpires calling, "Out!"
"I don't see a USP [unique selling point]," says Brenner, critiquing concept number two, Celestial Seasonings Nature's Force Ginseng Softgels. "It's not like we're introducing the product to the consumer; it's out there."
A 10-minute around-the-room discussion ensues. Siegel explains that Celestial's ginseng tablets do have USPs. "Ours is 25% stronger than Ginsana, and we include coenzyme Q10 [a substance with promising links to longevity]. WE also need to explain that we don't have ground-up weeds in our herbs; we've extracted the active chemicals."
"Standardized," says Moore. "We're experts at blending herbs."
Hall grabs the reins. "What I'd like to do is turn this into a marketing tool, one that can transcend ginseng and get to a corporate equity and a trademark that tells about this process of being naturally grown, of being lab standardized. If we could put a name on that."
"That's very good," says Moore. "Nature grown, lab standardized."
Notes are taken and shuttled to the library, where Wecker works on revisions. The updated ginseng concept and a couple of others reemerge a bit later, accompanied by the wording "NGLS certified, guaranteeing that each dosage is Nature Grown and Lab Standardized to authenticate optimum potency delivery."
Tactic: Visuals as new stimuli
All discussions cease when Steve Klein enters with the fresh-off-the-computers artwork--full-color mock-ups of boxes, cans, bottles, and bags--some of them clearly launched by the previous day's discussions, others flat-out surprises. he spreads them out, and everybody studies them, before these stimuli begin to drive the discussions. Among the designs are a couple of outright bull's-eyes, many intriguing mock-ups that accomplish their goals in part, and two obvious misses. Ironically, the misses prove especially helpful. The box design for the Kaleidoscope collection is so bad--condom boxes, everyone agrees--that the talk almost immediately turns to rescuing them. Soon born: the idea that each box should resemble its Celestial cousin but contain a window, a strategy that will distinguish the product from the existing teas while also revealing some of the nontea contents. And to Siegel's dismay, the artists have veered off the mark--his, anyway--of the distinctive package he liked so much the day before.
"Someone ought to run over to Kroger's and get...." he says, naming several products with similar packaging. Not three minutes later, after a quick trip to the upstairs archives of product-filled bins, Sean McCosh reappears with those very items, plus a similarly packaged, less well known brand that Siegel reaches for immediately. "This is it," he says, holding it lovingly aloft like the golden statue raised by Indiana Jones in the cave.
A clam at the mansion
The airport taxi arrives. The session continues. At 2:40 good-byes are said. Hall and Siegel hug. The front door closes. Hall turns to his crew: "Good stuff, folks. Get some sleep tonight."
Many of the concepts will be reworked tomorrow. Revised and new-package designs will be overnighted the following week to Celestial's headquarters, in Boulder. There will be more revisions and back-and-forth phone calls. Along the way, some totally new ideas will come to life. A month later, 41 concepts will be consumer-tested by AccuPOLL, a market-research company Hall cofounded and has since sold his interest in.
The question isn't so much whether Celestial will go to market with any of the ideas but how many of them it will go with. And more important, which ones: the safe, small ideas, or perhaps one of the big, hairy ideas? And how?
Standing in the now-quiet living room, Hall, still pumped on adrenaline and Brain Brew, praises the people who for him--those on staff and those on call. "We've been through wars together." His mind leaps to another metaphor to try to capture what it is he does. "It's a little like Daniel Boone deciding to go out on the trail, exploring. And you get to go with a whole bunch of really cool people. The key is, you can't do it in a vacuum. You can't expect to do it all at once."
In his inimitable--and marketably corny--way, Hall has reduced what goes on inside the Eureka! Mansion to a simple formula: E=(S+BOS)^F. "Eureka equals Stimulus to activate your mind--both related stimuli and unrelated stimuli--plus different Brain Operating Systems [smash-associating, mind dumping, bulging] to maximize the value of the stimuli. And last but not least, do it in an environment of playful fun to set off chain reactions, so one thought provokes new ideas and inspirations. I really believe that's the universal theory of creativity.
"You saw it--ideas changing and being sparked. I've come to understand parts of it," Hall says, "but a lot's still a mystery."
Then his face breaks into a big Eureka smile. "I do know, it's wicked-cool."
John Grossman (email@example.com) is editor and publisher of NewsReach, a monthly small-business newsletter based in Jamison, Pa.