reinventing the corporate war room

You have seen these rooms, I'm sure.  The corporate War Room is festooned with hundreds, sometimes thousands of images and broadsheets.

Let's say that task at issue is to "rethink the car."  The war room will have pictures of sea gulls, box cars, LA from a traffic helicopter, the Sydney Opera House, a suburban garage, the Delorean, the beach at Nantucket, the Ford F-150, sheep out standing in a field, experimental aircraft from World War II…that sort of thing.  The broadsheets?  They report brainstorms in point form.  

The motive is admirable.  To good effect, the corporation trades in the literal and the linear. But sometimes it needs to embrace the figurative and the simultaneous.  It needs to "think outside the box".  That's when everyone files into the war room.  

But there are problems.  First, what about that metaphor?  I can hear Jerry Michalski snort, "war room?  Next you'll be telling me your customers are 'targets'."  But I think we know what's going on here.  Any time the corporation feels obliged to do something lateral and imaginative, it issue a metaphor that says, "Dude, this stuff is deadly serious."  

The second problem is that War rooms for all their seriousness are amateurish.  Images curl. The bright plastic push pins pop out.  Thing overlap and disappear.  It's enough to provoke a visit from the Mike Ditka who lives in all of us: "You've got crap all over the place!"  The idea that organizes these ideas is something like "look, we did this ourselves.  We have posted all of our best ideas, our favorite inspirations, it's all here waiting to happen." 

Too often it doesn't happen.  And sometimes we wonder.  Is the War Room designed to get the world into the corporation?  Or is it a kind of "lock box" designed to keep things under lock and key once they get there.  Sometimes, the war room feels like "contents under pressure" to be opened only with "extreme caution!" 

Lorenzetti murals Palazzo Pubblico, Siena In a more perfect world, the war room would look like the inside of the head of someone who is really smart, really imaginative person, Henry Jenkins or John Deighton, say.  We would enter it as it stumbling upon a Victorian labratory, images and analysis flying (thanks to the wonder of pneumatic tubes!) hither and you, order and emergence in perfect proportion.

And that got me thinking.  Who could reinvent the War Room?  I came up with two candidates.  I am soliciting any and all suggestions, dear reader.  A couple of days ago, I stumbled upon a place at Stanford that sounds just about perfect.  The Stanford Strategy Center.  This appears to be the work of Michael Shanks, Tim Burns, Douglass Carmichael.  

Here's what they say about themselves:

Stanford Strategy Center is an initiative to create an environment designed to enhance discussion, strategic planning and collaborative decision making around matters of common and pressing human and international concern.

We start from the experience that strategic conversations in major organizations tend to be narrow in focus and unhistorical in framing. Our initiative has two key aspects:

    • to bring together in conversations those whose professional focus is on key issues and those whose humanistic study might provide valuable knowledge – from history, philosophy, literature, archaeology …
    • to provide a rich surround of supporting images and artifacts – a room, real and virtual, that provides participatory access to an archive of discussions set in context of themes, trends and narratives drawn particularly from the Humanities and Arts.

We are developing principles and practices for open, extended and iterative conversation that will inform more effective action in and around matters such as environmental change, energy issues, new media and technologies, the global market, sustainable planning and design, local democratic agency.

My second candidate is a firm called Toniq.  Cheryl and Craig Swanson have this brilliant way of canvassing the world, discovering the ethnographic and anthropological truths out there, and bringing them back into the corporations in images and sounds that are exquisitely chosed and organized.  This really does feel like being in the head of someone very smart because, well, Cheryl and Craig are very smart.  Why we don't turn over our War rooms to the Swansons is a small mystery.  Here's a bigger mystery: why is Toniq not better known. Talk about a secret weapon.  These people are the difference between good marketing and bad marketing.  

If one of the objects is to make the capitalism more porous, to help corporation inhale understanding and exhale intelligence, war rooms need fixing.


For more on the Stanford Strategy Center go here

For more on Toniq, go here


I am obliged to say that I know Cheryl and Craig Swanson.  I think I'm being objective, but you should know that there is the possibility of a conflict of interest.   I don't know anyone at the Stanford Center.  

A question

TypePad is driving me crazy.  What's a better blogging system?

6 thoughts on “reinventing the corporate war room

  1. srp

    To me, a War Room is a real-time control center, very orderly and organizaed with everyone feeding up-to-date information about conditions to the decision-makers, who allocate resources as they try to read the situation. Communication is clipped and crisp. Fateful choices are made and their results unfold inexorably on grease-markered transparent boards or on giant computer displays or perhaps on horizontal maps where where well-dressed young women with croupier sticks push and pull tokens of friendly and enemy units. Think of the Pentagon Situation Room, or that room where the RAF directed Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain. I always wanted to have a War Room.

    A War Room as I understand it is thus the antithesis of a brainstorming chamber. (And for all you Strangelove fans, no fighting in the War Room.) The kind of thing Grant is describing I would call a Think Tank or an Idea Lab or a Vision Center or some other blue-sky term. It sure doesn’t sound warlike. Although a lot of great ideas hatched in such a place might later play out in the real War Room.

  2. dl

    Is what you speak of the difference between one person’s coffee house proliferation of creativity…and another person’s cabin 400 miles away from another living soul being the tonic of proliferation and mental stimulation?

    Really great post… I think you are right… posts like this get me enthused about work. lol

  3. bruce fryer

    My concern is not so much the creation of good ideas, but actually doing something with them. There are probably a lot of “shovel ready” projects out there languishing. Execution is the strategy of 2009. I’ld rather heat up many bathtubs than boil the ocean.

  4. PS

    Reading the posts, I can’t help but think of the “War Rooms” that I’ve worked in. The label, War Room, seems to be consistent, but the functions of the room were varible. One was simply a conference room that had been “reserved” for a year and a half, for a new product team that needed a place to meet and conference rooms were otherwise difficult to reserve. Other war rooms had the walls papered with notes, images, PERT charts and market research findings (often handwritten). As is often the case, the material on the walls was often irrelevant to any particular discussion, and much of it was simply ignored, or forgotten – just like real wall paper. Regardless, I always felt that these were rooms to be entered cautiously and not places where marketing strategies were carefully tracked, or great ideas were born. They were just cozy, comfortable places, with one consistency – “DO NOT ERASE”.

  5. Mary Walker

    Typepad has been outpaced in the last few years — and it’s closed source etc. Strongly suggest you consider porting your blog over to WordPress…or, you can pay somebody to do that for you. (I know a Canadian WP programmer who could help — ping me if you’d like his contact info.)

    Also: there’s an easy-to-use WP theme called Thesis that I’ve recently switched to and am happy with so far.

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