Companies Corral Staff for In-house Brainstorming

Best Buy, Whirlpool, and others sequester workers to live and think together in hopes they'll hatch ideas for the real (corporate) world

It sounds more like reality TV than a reasoned strategy. Last year, Best Buy (BBY) picked four groups of salespeople in their 20s and early 30s and asked the strangers to room together for 10 weeks in a Los Angeles apartment complex. On the agenda, besides hanging out at the beach: coming up with businesses the electronics retailer could roll out quickly and cheaply.

Believe it or not, the arrangement worked. Today, in a dozen stores in greater Los Angeles, Best Buy offers a service called Best Buy Studio, which provides Web-design consulting for small businesses. Jeremy Sevush, a former sales-floor department supervisor in West Hollywood, came up with the idea and then worked with executives to launch the venture only a couple of weeks after he moved out of the company apartment last May.

"My friends joked and said I was joining 'Real World: Best Buy Edition,'" says Sevush, 29, referring to the MTV (VIAB) television series that features a youthful cast sharing a home. "Living together and knowing we only had 10 weeks sped up our team-building process. We voluntarily worked longer hours, talking about business models while making spaghetti."

Extreme brainstorming sessions like Best Buy's may be common in the tech sector, where programmers and engineers are sequestered so they can better focus on the next breakthrough. Now other companies are turning employees into temporary housemates, too. Whirlpool (WHR), for example, packs eight sales reps off to a house in Benton Harbor, Mich., to cook and clean together for seven weeks under a program called Real Whirled. By thoroughly familiarizing themselves with Whirlpool appliances, the company hopes, salespeople will become sharper marketers of the goods.


Best Buy retained former IBM (IBM) manager John Wolpert to create and oversee its innovation project. Wolpert, who runs Team upStart, a consultancy in Sunnyvale, Calif., had used a similar real-life approach at IBM's Extreme Blue incubator in Austin, but never before at a retailer. He charges up to $75,000 for each 10-week immersive session, including room and board for employees, who are assured they'll get their old jobs back. "There's something magical about taking smart people out of their safety zones and making them spend night and day together," he says. "You have to prioritize on steroids and be absolutely ruthless to prove what you want to do can be done."

With consumers cutting down on electronics purchases these days—Best Buy's same-store sales have been declining since last fall—the Minneapolis company is reevaluating outlays. Best Buy executives won't say whether the real world version of The Real World will be renewed for 2009.

But they say they're keeping Best Buy Studio going to see if it should be expanded. They also want front-line employees to continue to offer up business ideas. "Employees don't need permission to create or innovate," says Brian Dunn, Best Buy's president and chief operating officer, who will succeed Chief Executive Brad Anderson in June. Dunn admits to having a soft spot for store clerks. He started as one 23 years ago.

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