Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Billion-Dollar Brainstorming

Business was down. Customers weren’t calling. I thought it was because of the recession, but the people at Quantum Paradynamics, or QP for short, assured me the downturn was all in my mind. “The ultimate secret to wealth revealed! After our two-day WealthSync event, you’ll be seeing million-dollar bills everywhere,” the flyer read. “No, it’s nothing like The Secret,” the woman I reached at the hotline assured me. “This is much bigger than The Secret. We’ll be teaching you to unlock the million-dollar bills that are already there inside your mind!”

“Sort of like the goose that laid the golden eggs?” I asked.

“Even better! When you know the ultimate secret, there’s no limit to the million-dollar bills you’ll be finding. You’ll be seeing them everywhere!”

“That’s just what the flyer said,” I thought. “There must be something to this.”

Saturday morning, I found myself sitting in front of a whiteboard in a hotel conference room along with 17 other “entrepreneurs” hoping to turn their fortunes around. “It is just as easy to think about a large amount of money as it is to think about a small amount,” said the workshop leader, a man named Patel. “To get used to the idea of thinking big, we’re going to make a list, in the next 15 minutes, of 80 ways an automobile company could save money — and then, for each idea, we’re going to scale it up, not to a million dollars, but to a billion, just by thinking big. Now, who’s good at writing quickly?”

With a volunteer at the board, we started to come up with ideas. “Use fewer Post-It Notes,” was the first idea.

“Okay, Post-It Notes,” Patel said. “How many Post-It Notes would it take to get to a billion dollars?”

“A trillion . . . 100 billion if they have the logo printed on them.”

“Okay, let’s say 100 billion.” In a moment, 100b Post-It was up on the board. “Excellent. Next idea.”

“Close a factory.”

“Would you save a billion dollars by closing one factory? No? How many factories?” After a quick discussion we guessed the number might be about 10.

“Lay off workers at headquarters,” someone suggested next.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “To save a billion dollars, you’d have to lay off 10,000 workers.”

“You’re not resisting the idea of big thinking, are you, Rick?” Patel admonished. “Remember, we’re trying to practice thinking big so that we can experience big success.”

“Oh,” I said. “Oops. Ten thousand workers it is.” Lay off 10K, the board said in a moment.

“How about firing some of the senior managers and executives?” someone else suggested.

“Good idea,” Patel said. “You might not save money by firing executives because of the golden parachute payments, but what if we cut the executives’ salaries? How much would we have to cut?”

“Ten percent!” someone suggested.

“Say, this isn’t about General Motors, is it?” someone asked.

“No,” Patel said, “don’t limit yourself to General Motors. I’m not going to take your ideas back to Detroit with me Monday morning. Imagine any auto company that’s 80 billion dollars in the hole, and needs 80 ideas to save a billion dollars each. Who’s got another idea?”

“Sell off a division, or a trademark,” someone else suggested.

“Let’s take those one at a time,” Patel said. “Could a division be worth a billion dollars?”

We all agreed that it might take two divisions to get to a billion dollars.