FieldNotes: On The Road

SONOMA, CALIF.--During one of John Ward's clay workshops, John Williams sculpted his company's future. He forged a heavy, elaborate structure that quickly sagged under its own weight, despite his mighty efforts to hold it up.

"I hadn't built a foundation that was strong enough, and I was moving way too fast," Williams now says of that misadventure. As a result, he's shoring up his business and trying to slow down.

From failed clay models to business? No, it's not a non sequitur. Williams had wanted to expand the Sausalito Group, a communications-strategies firm he'd founded 14 years earlier. But he discovered that nothing in his successful career in advertising and brand management (as creative director for what is now the Bates Worldwide agency) was helping very much. He was stuck. He was losing sleep. That's when he met John Ward.

A former master woodworker and design-firm owner turned management consultant, Ward has fused two loves, craftsmanship and commerce, in a (literally) hands-on business-planning process he calls "kinesthetic systems modeling." At his company, Need to Know, he teaches participants to "sculpt" their business plans using modeling clay, the same squishy, faintly gritty stuff you flattened and rolled and pounded so brilliantly in second grade.

It's tempting to peg this guy as one more crazy Californian. But Ward's idea has a logical core. The human body, he believes, knows all sorts of things. If a business plan can be understood and expressed kinesthetically, through a medium as pliable as modeling clay, it taps into a lode of early knowledge that's richer and more authentic than a slew of spreadsheets and complex financial projections. "Business plans are so ugly," Ward grumbles. "They're"

To hear him tell it, modeling clay transmutes a flat, numbers-driven plan into a reshapable three-dimensional tool that an entrepreneurial team can use to identify and think through the keys to success or failure. Sculpting a tangible image of a business, he says, produces not only an interesting desktop art piece but something that "represents the most important thrusts of your business; that stands for what you want to accomplish in the next five years, who your customers are, and where you want to go."

This is how Ward's kinesthetic-modeling process works: He starts with a few quick (three minutes, max) warm-up exercises (model your favorite hat; make a boat) to loosen up workshop participants. Next, he has them take a stab at sculpting their product or service. The first of two rules he imposes is that the composition must not be literal--a computer programmer can't, for example, make a floppy disk; a shoemaker can't mold wing tips. The second is that the finished work must somehow incorporate imagery that symbolizes sales and marketing, administration and finance, and operations, the blood and guts of a no-nonsense business plan.

What comes out isn't always the sculpture a businessperson-turned-artist expects. Ward points to one sculpture that looks like a piece of dead coral, bleached and monochromatic. The coral is choked off at the base by an anchor chain on steroids. This is somebody's idea of a great business plan? The woman who modeled it, Ward says, intended to show a growing enterprise, unflaky and well-grounded. But the rest of the group saw only a poor branch that had the life squeezed out of it. When confronted with the group's response, "she just broke down," Ward says. "It's dramatic, but that's why I do the program: to get people to the imagery they really believe in."

Another of Ward's projects was to help Shift Media, a Web-site design and publishing start-up based in San Francisco, get a tighter grip on its business strategy. To work with that client, he teamed up with students from the San Francisco campus of Denmark's KaosPilot University. A fitting pairing: the aptly named KaosPilot is an edgy, notoriously out-there, three-year management-training program designed to help its pupils develop the skills they'll need to maneuver in a rowdy, radically changing business world. Ward and the students staged a "visioning retreat," an overt attempt to get the young Web talents unhooked from their beloved technology long enough to focus on business strategy. "It was hands on, mind off in this case," Ward says. The session got off to a rocky start. The start-up team groused and griped and bucked the process and declared the whole thing a colossal waste. When it finally came time for the group to dig in and model their business plan, two people working independently produced eerily identical images that resembled a burner on a gas stove. "That's when they all got the sense that there was heat, something cooking, in the center," Ward says. The burner imagery did radiate energy, of a kind: it sparked a detailed discussion about business values, the skills of the men and women running the company, how fast they could grow, the things that might go wrong and go right, and how well they could respond. A company had begun to take shape.

Anyone who's ever done a ropes course to learn teamwork or toyed with Legos in a training exercise to simulate the design and manufacture of a new product knows that surprisingly practical insights--"ah-hahs"--can emerge from floaty experiences. Contrary to common management beliefs, not every problem is amenable to coolheaded reason. When incisive analysis fails to forge a workable plan or to grow a company, businesspeople have to travel outside the map lines.

That's what Elizabeth Haughton, who runs the Haughton Learning Center, in Napa, Calif., decided she had to do when she wanted to expand her operation and grow her client base. She had tried writing traditional buttoned-down business plans, but like plenty of entrepreneurs before her, she stuck them in the back of a drawer and left them there. Then she attended one of Ward's workshops. Working with clay, she says, "is about preverbal understanding. It brings the truth out of you." After sculpting her business plan, Haughton says, she now knows her market, where it's going, and which changes she needs to make to grow her business. Her learning center now keeps longer hours (8 to 8), employs 10 teachers and two administrators, and serves more than 50 students.

Sculpting a plan is an original and surprising way to see things from a new perspective. It's not easy for most people, and in less capable hands clay turns to mush. Ward brings intelligence, an artist's love of image, and a businessperson's belief in structure to the process. The resulting alloy succeeds better than you'd imagine.

So much better, in fact, that true to his packaged-goods pedigree, the Sausalito Group's John Williams sees immense marketing potential in Ward's work. He'd like to integrate some part of the clay exercise into his consulting company's own portfolio of client services. It would be, he says, "a great way to unlock any executive team that's stuck."

Nancy K. Austin is the coauthor with Tom Peters of A Passion for Excellence.