@credit:Joe Melena @credit:Joe Melena 'Montessori for adults'

Publication Date: Wednesday Jul 28, 1999

'Montessori for adults'

Palo Alto's Knowhere Store teaches companies new ways to achieve goals

by Marcella Bernhard

Today is July 28, 2002. In the past three years, the company you work for has grown by 200 percent, earned record-breaking profits and kept you and your colleagues happy, fulfilled and passionate about your work. You will now take the next 30 minutes to explain, with drawings or words, how your mild-mannered company has become this 21st century utopia. Your tools: markers, a wall-sized movable white-board panel and an assortment of books, toys, art supplies and other resources. Your goal: Through this exercise called "backcasting" (as in the opposite of "forecasting"), to help unleash more of your co-worker's creativity, so they can help map out the company's strategy or expansion or launch a new product.

Providing the stage, props and direction for this exercise is all part of the mix at the Knowhere Store, a consulting service and retail business in Midtown Palo Alto. Through one-, two- or three-day workshops, the Knowhere Store's "facilitation team" uses innovative learning techniques and high-technology tools to help companies redesign and reorganize.

Since Knowhere opened in the old Bergmann's Department Store in 1997, Silicon Valley business giants, including Hewlett-Packard Co., Netscape Corp. and Cisco Systems, as well as smaller start-ups and nonprofit groups, have used the store's services. And though the corporate seminar is hardly a radical concept--after all, ropes courses, wilderness retreats and other team-building activities are now de rigeur for seemingly everyone from Fortune 500 companies to neighborhood groups--the Knowhere Store promises to help companies solve pressing organizational problems in just a few days or even hours.

It's the combination of the store's unusual set-up, tools and workshop processes that makes the "time compression" strategy possible, Knowhere staffers say. When a client's employees leave their cubicles and meeting rooms to generate ideas by drawing, acting out skits and building models, their innate creativity kicks in and problems are resolved more quickly.

"We take out all the noise in the system, all of the regular business-as-usual processes," said Knowhere Store general manager Russ White. "This allows us to produce greater results in a two-day seminar than would usually happen over six weeks of meetings."

Laura Yousefi, a customer services and support manager for Hewlett-Packard in Mountain View, brought 20 HP employees in sales, marketing and consulting to the Knowhere Store in May for a two-day workshop. The staffers work in different departments, some on different continents, but all are part of a united HP effort to help its business customers implement Microsoft Exchange, an e-mail messaging system that can be run on HP computer hardware.

Yousefi's goal was to establish, with input from all 20 employees, a one-year "road map" for the project as quickly as possible. "(Knowhere Store staff) made a promise to me, that I could get what I wanted out of the people involved in the project in as fast a time as possible," Yousefi said. "The environment and their methods were so unlike a typical office, I knew it was a great chance to unlock breakthrough, highly creative thinking from the team."

With the market driving rapid change, Silicon Valley companies are willing to pay big money for quick and effective business solutions. A three-day workshop facilitated by Knowhere Store staff and consultants costs up to $250,000, while a two-day event with fewer facilitators and participants ranges from $25,000 to $60,000.

"The Knowhere Store was very effective, though a bit pricey," Yousefi said. "But I knew I could get more there for my money. My other options were less expensive, but I don't think I would have gotten the same results."

Although the consulting service is the core of the operation, Knowhere also sells innovative office furniture and tools. In addition, Knowhere's cavernous, 19,000-square-foot building includes a 6,000-square-foot loft that is rented to organizations for meetings and strategy sessions.

The Palo Alto Knowhere Store is one of four nationwide established by the MG Taylor Corp., a Hilton Head, S.C.-based company formed in 1979 by the husband-and-wife team of Matt and Gail Taylor to focus on organizational learning and systems thinking. The company operates a Knowhere Store in Hilton Head; two other outlets are operated under license by independent firms.

MG Taylor counts among its clients not only the Silicon Valley powerhouses but large national organizations like NASA, Avis and Continuum Health Partners.

As well as quick solutions, the Knowhere Store promises to unloose creative thinking. The facilitators teach a process in the workshops that is designed to free an organization's "group genius"--a lasting adaptability and flexibility that translates into daily increases in productivity.

"We're selling a new way of working," White said. "Our product is the (workshop) process, which we sell to help organizations achieve a goal."

Sometimes called "Montessori for adults," the Knowhere Store resembles a techo-savvy, futuristic elementary school for very lucky children. Furniture, mostly wall-sized white-board panels, chairs and tables--can be moved to suit new activities. Personal computers and laptops are scattered on tables throughout the store, and clusters of television monitors are mounted on two walls. Bookshelves are filled with stuffed animals, art supplies, educational games and Dr. Suess books, next to modems, Palm Pilots and other high-technology knickknacks. From this eclectic environment, say Knowhere clients, emerge the thinking, discussions and solutions they're seeking.

Terry Irwin, a principal at the San Francisco office of the international design firm MetaDesign, Irwin participated in a two-day workshop for MetaDesign at the Knowhere store earlier this month. "We were put in this incredibly creative space that, visually and psychologically, reinforced the idea that anything is possible. The facilitators and the space encourages nonhierarchical collaboration, and really got people collaborating," Irwin said.

Said HP's Yousefi: "I guess I could have gone into a room and decided on a road map for the program by myself, but with (the Knowhere Store), you can get people to dump all their ideas on the table, and you can get collaboration and shared ownership of ideas, and passion about the project established really fast."

MetaDesign's 25 designers and managers came to Knowhere for a two-day workshop aimed at helping the company restructure its 7-year-old San Francisco office. MetaDesign wanted to move from temporary, project-based teams of designers and managers to groups that would be more permanent and independent. The task of the MetaDesign employees at Knowhere was to come up with a plan for the company that would increase profits while retaining both the quality of its design work and the qualities that have made it an inspiring place to work.

"Our purpose (for the workshop) was to help everyone collectively develop a snapshot of the future and a map of how to get there," Irwin explained.

Knowhere workshops use a process called "scan, focus, act." During the "scan" phase, participants from MetaDesign, for example, brainstorm on broad questions of what they would like the company to become in the next three years. At the initial meeting of the MetaDesign group, Knowhere store "process facilitator" Todd Johnston tells them, "By 5 p.m. tomorrow," , "MetaDesign will leave here as a new company."

Participants first work alone on the "backcasting" exercise, using markers and a wall-sized white board to answer a set of questions any way they choose. The MetaDesign group reads a scenario about the company's amazing success by the year 2002, then is asked to "tell a story of how MetaDesign reached its current status."

Some participants illustrate their panels with drawings of timelines or of petri dishes incubating ideas, while one person writes a text "manifesto" that fills the entire white board. As the day progresses, participants share their ideas for the future in small teams, which they later present to the entire group. Teams are given more specific issues to tackle and separate into "breakout sessions" to discuss topics, including creative work environments, brands, company heritage and design.

In the "focus" and "act" phases, the MetaDesign group fleshes out the ideas and formulates an action plan. Main points and ideas from group sessions are written down on 8-by-12-inch paper-covered magnets, called "hypertiles."

As participants work, Knowhere Store facilitators create a Web site for the workshop that they post just a few hours after the event begins. Digital photographs of group work, participants' white board panels, hypertiles and documents from the workshop are put on MetaDesign's workshop site, which the Knowhere Store houses on its home page. The password-protected site provides a lasting record of the day for participants and other MetaDesign employees.

Knowhere facilitators adjust the workshop schedule, exercises and physical space of the store to compliment the MetaDesign group's direction. Discussions break out on subjects ranging from the more philosophical (Can MetaDesign expand as a company and keep the same quality of work?) to the practical (How much should employees be paid?).

By the end of the two-day workshop, MetaDesign has a concrete plan of action and has formed committees to keep the discussion on these subjects going. The group also has its Web page and memories of the shared experience to take back to the rest of the office.

"I know much more of MetaDesign then I did before," one designer says. Later, Sandy Speicher, a MetaDesign designer, agreed. "We have the tools now to become a better company, a place to start from that we didn't have before."

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