Finding Corporate Opportunities "en Charrette"

Creativity in corporate America is on the rise. Innovation is the fuel driving our economy, and nurturing collaboration is now integral to the culture of many companies. We yearn for Google’s uber-productive and off-the-wall workplace, soak up IDEO’s epiphanies, and bask in the shear beauty and usefulness of Apple products. Traditional organizations interested in exploring these frontiers of opportunity and creativity might consider looking to the world of design for inspiration.

During the 19th century, at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, architecture students worked furiously on their dazzling designs right up to the last possible minute, often working from a cart, or charrette. This flury of activity inspired flashes of genius and inspiration stemming from time constraints—and the collaborative dynamics of working from a rolling cart—and was eventually characterized as working “en charrette.”

Architects today use the modern charrette as a collaboration tool, gathering key players in the same room to rapidly explore concepts, design solutions, and resolve diverging opinions. It is tremendously productive. Rocky Mountain Institute has long initiated charrettes for building design projects and is now using the charrette model to catalyze corporate transformations.

You may have read about our current work with AT&T’s building portfolio. Like other large corporations, AT&T has many business units largely focused on their own part of the mission and managers can be unaware of parallel or complementary interests in other departments. This is a lost opportunity for fertile cooperation, and AT&T is hardly alone. Large, multi-dimensional companies often struggle with coordination across a diverse business structure. Charrettes can be a way to cut through the disorganization and bring focus, clarity, and innovation to an effort.

Tomorrow, RMI will facilitate a charrette at AT&T’s corporate headquarters in Dallas in order to explore ideas, barriers, and crosscutting opportunities to significantly reduce energy use across the company’s massive infrastructure of facilities, technology, and people.

John Schinter, executive director of energy at AT&T, knows that the world can only reach bold energy goals through innovation. By participating in RMI’s Portfolio Energy RetroFit Challenge and further coordinating this charrette, he is breaking a cycle of “business as usual,” to which most companies succumb, to uncover key levers for transformative change in energy and resource efficiency.

Instead of designing windows and walls, this group will design programs and policies. Never underestimate the value of crowdsourcing for positive change, and a charrette is a viable tool for doing just that—albeit within a knowledgeable, targeted crowd. Included in the invitations to this event are people from all levels of real estate, human resources, accounting, sustainability, and energy management. This will allow us to explore the links that tie these business units together and identify measures that will benefit multiple missions within the corporation.

But how is this different from just a regular meeting?

A charrette is a robust, facilitated, and virtually choreographed event with a well-stated objective and planned exercises (thoughtful and sometime physical), designed to explode preconceptions, flesh out every possible solution to a well-stated problem, and then narrow down the options to produce an actionable outcome. We start with a pre-charrette “homework” assignment designed to elicit personal investment in the outcome. This can be anything from reading prepared material to asking attendees to craft a “BHAG,” or a big hairy audacious goal, for the future that will reflect the potential impact of this event, maybe in the form of a press release or just a paragraph.

Charrettes are also an occasion to present thought-provoking content or case studies to influential corporate players. In a busy business world, most of us work hard to keep up with trends and innovation in our own line of work and are not aware of related opportunities. We often open the charrette with a presentation that illustrates the company’s current trajectory and performance gap analysis with an open challenge to address that gap. This gets attendees’ wheels turning and gives them permission to be creative. That’s an immensely important difference between a meeting and a charrette.

Attendees stand, sit, pace, or draw during the discussions, often forming breakout groups in order to encourage diverse opinions and ideas, then report back to the larger group. Certain facilitators may be asked to be a “disruptor” at some point during the day. The role of the disruptor can be either fun or quite challenging, since attendees sometimes resist straying too far from their comfort zone. The disruptor calls them on it and challenges them by citing a competitor’s innovative approach or a bleeding-edge technology that’s going to change the game—whatever that game may be.

Our partners at AT&T are enthusiastic about the potential of this charrette, and we think this approach could catch on in other corporations faced with complex problems that deserve collaborative and integrative solutions, like energy and resource management.

Think of a charrette as an alternative to the top-down directive: an internal eruption of inspiration from the center out.

Recommended Reading