Houston. January 1, 1997. Rolf Smith, managing director of the Office of Strategic Innovation,
inc. (OSI), a Texas corporation, today announced the formation of a new, diffferent, and separate
division of the company called the Virtual Thinking Expedition Company (vTx). OSI will
continue to focus on strategic innovation, creativity training, keynote presentations, conference
workshops, and it's nine-year old School for Innovators. The strategic thrust of the Virtual
Thinking Expedition Company will be on working with corporations and organizations in search
of very different results for unusual and urgent large-scale complex problems.
Thinking diffferent to get different results is not new to OSI. Beginning in 1993, the firm tested
Mini-Thinking Expeditions in a variety of formats over a wide range of routes and corporate
problems in Australia, New Zealand, Texas, North Carolina, New York City, and the Colorado
Rockies. They were amazingly successful in both team impact and bottom-line results. In 1994, in
an on-going series of bold experiments built around significant real-world challenges facing such
corporations as Exxon, Arco, British Petroleum, Hoechst Celanese and WMX Technologies, the
idea of refocusing corporate project team thinking in very different ways was born.
Expeditions were organized around diverse teams - including customers, suppliers and outsiders -
each with problems significantly different in scope and magnitude, yet all focused on very
challenging cost reduction objectives: Alaskan Arctic Ice operations, manufacturing in the Carolinas
and North Georgia, and oil and chemical plants on the Texas Gulf Coast. The results were startling
and exciting when the teams achieved some "impossible" objectives with savings ranging from $2
Million to $50 Million.
By 1995 OSI had formalized the concept of the Thinking Expedition into a proven operational
model and moved into the area of more complex and urgent large-scale issues. During 1995 and
1996, Thinking Expeditions explored new products, business development concepts, as well as
softer and fuzzier areas in R&D. One Fortune 10 Expedition pushed into the unknowns of Human
Resources, targeting $50 Million in savings over five years; conservative estimates now put the
results at $130 Million. Attacking more complex problems, and working in concert with teams
from companies such as Procter & Gamble, Exxon, Battelle National Laboratories General Mills,
Johnson & Johnson, the U.S. Navy, Fletcher Challenge in New Zealand, and Cadillac Fairview
in Canada, bottom-line results have piled up fast, easily exceeding $1 Billion in the last two years.
In the process, new Thinking Expedition techniques, tools and processes have been cooperatively
developed with the corporate project teams, both out of sheer necessity and as well as by building on
the learnings on previous routes.
Perhaps the most important discovery though, according to Smith, has been a side effect: The clear
impact Thinking Expeditions have had on the individuals in the teams involved, and
correspondingly, on transforming a group into a real team. Team members leave the Expeditions
with unusually high degrees of personal energy and individual commitment to thinking different in
order to get different results. Smith believes that much of this comes from the atmosphere of
adventure and risk, the deep feeling of actually being "on expedition" which the process inevitably
creates. And with that, a cadre of highly energized, in-house Thinking Expedition guides is
emerging, all graduates of the School for Innovators. Smith points out, however, that "I'm not sure
I fully understand everything I know about this."
A prime example is the U.S. Navy SMART SHIP team, launched by Admiral Mike Boorda in late
1995, and kick-started by OSI through a series of Thinking Expeditions. Built around an
operational warship, the USS YORKTOWN (CG-48), the results of the team's efforts in SMART
shipboard manpower reductions alone have the promise of exceeding $1 Billion for Aegis class
It is on this background that OSI has launched the Virtual Thinking Expedition Company. vTx,
drawing on the network of in-house corporate expedition guides, will design, form and co-lead
Thinking Expedition teams for corporations and organizations struggling to discover ways to get
different results for urgent and critical problems and challenges. "Out-of-the-box and into the
unknown is where corporations want to go today." says Smith, "We take them on exciting
adventures with their minds through the 7 Levels of Change and the corresponding 7 Levels of
Fear - and they bring back results. It works."
vTx has some ten Expedition Guides in its virtual basecamp, distributed across the United States
and tied together over the Internet. Smith pulls 3-4 of the guides together into a lead rope team
for each 'Thinking Expedition, selecting them based on the nature of the problem, the makeup and
size of the corporate team, and the results and objectives around which the Thinking Expedition is
to be organized. A typical Thinking Expedition takes a team of 16-36 people on a 3 or 4 day
operation, each day running for 15-18 hours, the last day frequently ending well past midnight.
vTx will start the New Year off with a major Thinking Expedition for the U.S. Navy in the
Washington area, immediately followed by a Strategic Thinking Expedition for the Electronic
Messaging Association in San Diego. Both will be led by virtual rope team guides drawn from
the vTx geographically distributed basecamp on the Internet.
Smith, a retired Air Force colonel, conceptualized and headed the first military office of
innovation in 1986, and created a worldwide network of innovation centers in the intelligence
community. After he left active duly, he created the Office of Strategic Innovation and worked
with Exxon on their Innovation Initiative as a contract executive from 1991-1997. His new book,
"The 7 Levels of Change" (Summit Publishing Group, 1997) details how to tie creativity,
innovation, continuous improvement, and change together with correspondingly different levels of