Road to Success Goes Through the Sandbox

Road to Success Goes Through the Sandbox

Alan Gregerman

By Gail Repsher Emery, Staff Writer

Unless it's at a toy company, work doesn't usually involve fun and games and permission to act like children. But it should, because business success depends on it, according to corporate consultant Alan Gregerman.

Gregerman, president and chief innovation officer of Silver Spring, Md., Venture Works Inc., takes workers back to childhood, into the sandbox. There, he teaches the gifts of childhood that are essential to business success, including the value of play, curiosity and cozy places.

"When we were kids, we were always creative," he said. "We didn't know enough to be dull and boring. Somewhere be-tween the sandbox and adulthood, we lost that creativity."

Gregerman helps adults recharge their creative juices by opening up a world of possibilities on the playground or in the office. For example, adults on a playground would probably throw or kick a child's ball. The child might draw pictures on it, barter it for something else or hide it under his clothes.

By observing children and acting like them, adults can bring new perspective to their jobs and ensure their companies keep innovating, said Gregerman, author of the new book "Lessons from the Sandbox."

It's not always easy to think in new ways, Gregerman and other creative consultants admit. Too often, business leaders don't think all employees need to be creative.

"Some companies will say well, I only need my technology or marketing people to be creative. To be world class, they need everybody to be creative," Gregerman said.

Creativity just isn't an option anymore, said Joe Keefe, executive producer of Second City Communications in Chicago. The 10-year-old SCC, the business theater division of comedic training ground The Second City, stages professional workshops that enhance creativity and business communication skills.

"Your brainpower is your equity, and companies that have the ability to improvise are going to succeed. The companies that don't become Smith Corona," Keefe said, referring to the bankrupt typewriter maker.

Ellen Glover called on Gregerman to help managers at Advanced Technology Systems Inc. in McLean, Va., redefine their mission. In the process, the managers rediscovered their sense of play and wonderment.

At the retreat, Gregerman asked his charges to roam around outside, taking pictures that represented the software systems firm as it had been and would be in the future. Glover, president and chief operating officer, was skeptical of the approach at first.

"We were working to refine our vision of the marketplaces that we wanted to pursue," she said. "At first, it seemed like a really corny exercise. But people came up with some really creative ideas and helped us visualize them for the future."

Whether they're in a boardroom or in a sandbox, creative consultants Gregerman and Keefe teach managers and workers to welcome all ideas and suspend judgment until a later date.

"You are trying to set up a place where people can be innovative all the time," Keefe said.

With Gregerman's help in stimulating discussion without passing judgment, DynCorp has "removed the fear factor of suggesting how things could be done differently," said Venkat Gopalan, chief information officer of the 55-year-old systems integrator in Reston, Va.

At DynCorp, Gregerman taught the gift of curiosity. In "Lessons from the Sandbox," Gregerman wrote that kids are always asking why: Why are we doing this? Why does this work this way? Those questions, he said, can help companies perform better, but employees usually don't ask them.

"As companies, we always need to be asking big-ticket questions: Do we have a strategy? Does our product really work?" Gregerman said. "But if we ask big-ticket questions, it's as though we don't have faith in the boss. It's a career-limiting move."

At DynCorp, employees' ideas have improved customer service and internal processes, Gopalan said. For example, a new job swap program sent network engineers to do the work of customer service representatives.

The engineers, Gopalan said, "immediately saw all the issues that the front-line folks were facing. In a traditional environment, we probably wouldn't have considered that."

Questions and suggestions have been a way of life at eStara Inc. since the Reston company was founded in 1999 to create voice-over-Internet solutions for e-business, said spokesman Ian Halpern.

"The company's whole premise is to allow people to talk to their computers," he said. "You are really given the opportunity to ask questions and to fundamentally question courses of action, because in a lot of ways we feel like we are trailblazers."

The company has grown from 15 to 45 people in the last six months, but it still has an open-door policy, from programming to marketing, from the lowest level to the highest, Halpern said.

"Creativity to us is the freedom to ask questions and the security to know that your ideas will be taken seriously," he said. "You really get the sense that you are rewarded for being engaged and thoughtful."

Just as important for creative thought is stepping back and waiting, said Dalroy Ward, a project manager with systems integrator Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego.

Software engineers need "the opportunity to push the technology," said Ward, who works in Falls Church, Va., managing the development of the Envirofacts Web site, part of a five-year, $262 million software systems engineering contract with the Environmental Protection Agency.

"They are used to looking at a problem and coming up with different ways of solving that problem. Sometimes [managers] coming in too early restricts that process," he said.

Along with the freedom to explore new uses of technology to solve problems, Dalroy said his employees also respond to a comfortable environment, what Gregerman calls the gift of cozy places.

"People aren't going to be super-focused if you put them in lousy working situation," Dalroy said.

Kids, Gregerman said, have an innate ability to construct cozy places in which to do their best "work" ? behind the sofa, in the closet, in their beds, in the dog's bed.

Adults, Gregerman wrote in "Lessons from the Sandbox," need cozy places just as much as kids, for a variety of reasons ? to escape the craziness of each day, to unwind and regroup, to do their best thinking.

At Commerce One Inc. and the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, officials have worked to create cozy places that meet the needs of employees.

Workspace at Commerce One, a Pleasanton, Calif., developer of e-commerce solutions for business, has to be "everything to all people," from project managers to designers, said Jeroen van Ek, group president for Global Services' southeastern region.

In the firm's Arlington, Va., building, cubicles face the natural light and Washington's monuments, while most common spaces, such as kitchens and meeting rooms, are inside.

And the 400 workers aren't trapped at their desks. They can move to so-called landing zones, which have soft chairs with tray tables for laptops, or to project rooms that range from sedate to snazzy in design, including a "space pod," complete with white shag rug on the walls.

"When you come into a space like this, it changes your attitude," said designer Alan Hockett.

The National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a Washington-based federal interagency task force that works to improve government operations, needed a space that could accommodate a constantly changing staff and encourage innovation and collaboration.

A three-month renovation in 1998 brought modular furniture on wheels; electric cables that can be moved under the carpet or around in the ceiling; tables that can be reconfigured; and connectivity to the Internet from anywhere in the office.

"The work space reflects our values of community and creativity. We traded off personal space for team space," said John Kamensky, deputy director of the task force.

Many companies that have created fun and funky environments "don't realize it's actually good for the company," Gregerman said.

Van Ek does.
"You have a meeting in a room like that [space pod], and it sort of kick-starts you," he said.

Too many workers still toil in awkward, nondescript cubicles lacking natural light and comfortable furniture, however. And not surprisingly, they usually don't do their best work in the office, Gregerman said.

Less than 3 percent of 10,000 employees queried by Venture Works over a three-year period said they were most creative at work.

"The implications are staggering," Gregerman said.

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