A five-hour hike in the Colorado mountains inspired Tom Wiese and Nate Garvis to launch Studio/E, a Minneapolis-based exploratory leadership development platform and consultancy that equips individuals and organizations to explore new ideas, think like entrepreneurs and “harvest” more and better opportunities.
Wiese, then an attorney working primarily with entertainment figures, and Garvis, formerly Target’s vice president of government affairs, told their wives they’d only be gone for half an hour.
As the conversation unfolded, they realized that many of their high-level, high-performing friends were “stuck and unhappy” despite their success.
The problem, as Garvis and Wiese saw it, is the accelerating pace of change in the world.
Most people respond to change with what Garvin terms managerial thinking — in short, doing more of the same thing but more efficiently. While that may work when things are stable, what happens when you apply managerial thinking in dynamic, volatile times?
“Sometimes you hit the wrong target with amazing accuracy,” Garvis said.
With Studio/E, Garvis and Wiese want to offer their friends a way to find new ways of thinking about and experimenting with ideas for personal or professional goals by interacting with people from different backgrounds and viewpoints.
Members pay $6,750 for a year, which includes materials, social programming, workshops, salon learning opportunities, quarterly full-day ideation sessions and check-ins between sessions. Garvis calls Studio/E “an aggressively unaccredited university.” (Garvis and Wiese are senior fellows at the Lewis Institute and Social Innovation Lab at Babson College.)
Membership also includes access to Studio/E’s spacious clubhouse inside the company’s 4,000-square-foot Harmon Place headquarters. “It’s got a killer coffee maker, a nice whiskey collection and a great stereo,” Garvis said.
Garvis said the tools Studio/E provides help members learn to adopt the mindset of a curious explorer. Members are taught to understand their idea’s unique value, to identify assets they can apply to their idea and to find people who can help complete their idea.
Since 2011, Studio/E has had 27 cohorts with more than 650 members who have created or brought innovative ideas to 25-plus Twin Cities businesses, according to the company.
Membership is by invitation only, Garvis said, though he’s willing to connect with anyone who wants to discuss getting in. Structured payments are possible.
“The criteria for membership are that you have to be interesting and … doing something cool,” Garvis said.
“We have a strict no-jerks policy,” Garvis said. “Because what we’ve created is a safe place to think and act dangerously, to venture into unknown territories where you can discover more possibility.”
Companies began asking Studio/E to for on-site consulting services after noticing that employee members were thinking, acting and connecting differently and moving faster, Garvis said.
Garvis said Studio/E members gauge results with metrics like “return on learning” — a measure of how many experiments are conducted in a month, not how many succeeded or failed. Exploring ideas through small experiments is fast and cheap; Garvis said he couldn’t recall a team spending more than $1,000 in such exercises.
Tiffany Snyder, enterprise strategy execution leader at Cargill Animal Nutrition, said Studio/E gave her a “powerful framework” to test her idea for what would become Cargill’s IT Value Center of Expertise. Snyder described the center as a “transformation-concierge service” now offered globally to help business units derive value more quickly from technology investments.
During her Studio/E cohort, Snyder learned to apply techniques of serial entrepreneurs and used the framework to “navigate more like a startup.”
Bob Gardner, CEO of Minneapolis-based Gardner Builders, said Studio/E made him a better leader as he fine-tuned his vision for his rapidly growing company. Gardner Builders, which he described as “a hospitality company in the commercial construction business,” is general contractor of the Dayton’s Project, the redevelopment of the former Nicollet Mall department store.
Input from members with different points of view and from outside the construction industry was especially valuable, Gardner said.
“We’re talking to people from all different types of companies, nonprofits, politicians, you name it,” Gardner said. “It’s an opportunity to open our minds and think differently. It really is transformational for companies.”