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Continued: Glenn Karwoski: The idea man

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 9, 2009 - 12:07 AM

You may think you don't have a creative bone in your body. That's probably because you haven't met Glenn Karwoski.

Karwoski has forged a unique resume over the past decade and a half, teaching a class on the creative process to graduate business communications students at the University of St. Thomas while running Minneapolis-based public relations firm Karwoski & Courage.

Earlier this year, he took his classroom-tested insights on creativity and innovation into the corporate world, launching The Business of Ideas. Both companies are operating units of Martin Williams, the Minneapolis advertising, brand strategy and creative agency.

"We think there's an appetite out there for this kind of thing,'' Karwoski said. "Without any kind of marketing, we've had clients seek this out. We just think it's a good business opportunity and it's timely."

The Business of Ideas works with Fortune 500 and other companies to generate ideas and develop customized idea-generation programs. It also provides creativity training and development for employees and follow-up services to help organizations create and maintain a creative culture.

Clients that have sought out Karwoski in the past year include Pfizer Animal Health, where a four-day innovation summit produced more than 1,200 ideas that participants then trimmed to three key ideas for eight brands.

At Marvin Windows and Doors, Karwoski worked with the company's marketing and sales people and distributors around the country to generate more than 500 ideas. The company carried out 10 of those, which helped Marvin meet growth, profitability and other goals.

A collaborative brainstorming session with Syngenta Crop Protection and its advertising and public relations agencies led to "a lot of new ideas with a different twist to them that are a reflection of the success" of Karwoski's efforts, Syngenta communications manager Mary Demers said.

Karwoski also has worked with General Mills and Hormel, where an idea-generating exercise on the Dinty Moore brand included a buffet of the beef stew prepared in different ways.

A major Twin Cities-based retailer (Karwoski said he couldn't name the company) recently signed him to develop a creativity and innovation training curriculum.

Holy Grail

New ideas are the lifeblood of business, and finding ways to generate them and to sustain creativity and innovation has been the Holy Grail that companies have long searched for. The sputtering economy also likely has much to do with rising interest in getting the creative juices flowing.

"One of the enemies of creativity and innovation can be success," Karwoski said. "Sometimes when organizations or individuals become successful and things are going well they can become complacent. ... There's nothing like fear and panic to make someone get creative real fast.''

Distinguishing his work, Karwoski said, is that he customizes his material to each organization, its needs and its culture, rather than taking a cookie-cutter approach. Karwoski charges a project rate for leading idea-generating sessions that depends on the size and scope of the work. Training and development begins at $3,500 for a half-day session with up to 15 employees and scales up based on the number of employees.

He would prefer to put together continuing innovation-maintenance programs for companies, to provide creativity support throughout the year, at an annual cost of $20,000 and up. He's also available for 60- to 90-minute presentations on creativity and innovation at conferences and planning retreats for a negotiable fee.

Simple but hard

For those feeling creativity-challenged, a good starting place, Karwoski said, is simply to tell yourself that you can be creative. To encourage his students to do that, he tries to provide an understanding of the processes and characteristics of creative people, through readings, a review of creative-process tools and techniques, in-class exercises and experiences such as an improv class at the Brave New Workshop.

"It really starts with a belief that you can be creative," Karwoski said. "That's what I ask people to do, is just to be open to the possibility that they are, in fact, creative."

He often uses a weight-loss analogy: "If you want to lose weight, it is the most simple thing in the world. All you need to do is eat less and exercise more. But it ain't easy. Being more creative and innovative is simple. All you need to do is to see differently and think different. But it's not easy. You've really got to work at that. You've got to make a commitment to learn how to do that."

As word of Karwoski's classroom work spread in corporate circles, companies in the Twin Cities and beyond began bringing him in for workshops and idea-generating sessions. The work had been done through Karwoski & Courage until he decided last spring to offer the service separately under The Business of Ideas.

Ideas you can use

Tom Angelis, vice president of marketing at Marvin Windows and Doors, said his only complaint was being unable to book the ever-busy Karwoski for this planning season. Last year, Karwoski met with Marvin stakeholders -- distributors, marketing people, salespeople and so forth -- to bring them closer together in the planning process.

Angelis said he was amazed at how quickly Karwoski led participants through a variety of creative problem-solving techniques, immediately grounding them all on a level playing field. Participants generated more than 500 ideas, then pared the list down to 10. The company executed them, and while Angelis declined to specify them, he said they have been successful.

"The trick is to identify the ones that are most relevant and meaningful and valuable for the company and the customers," Angelis said. "It's like turning on a water faucet. You can flood your house, but if you only wanted a glass of water, the flood is inconvenient. He creates this flood of ideas, then gets you the best glass of water out of all this tonnage."

Michael Porter, director of the Master of Business Communications program at St. Thomas, said communicators "are often trained to be great communicators but are not necessarily given the full business context. Glenn brings a complete understanding of both sides to the table.

"A lot of folks that would teach creativity can keep you out in the clouds someplace," Porter said. "Glenn will take you to the clouds for a visit and bring you back to the ground with something that can be applied in the real world.''

Ericka Webb, a communications manager at Best Buy, said the tools and techniques of the creative process that she learned in Karwoski's class have enabled her to be more creative more quickly.

"It's giving people the tools to use the creativity they have," Webb said. "You're not struggling to build ideas. It's amazing how much more creative you can be. You're not spending endless amounts of time thinking about how to get started."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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