Start Your Idea Engines

An inside look at one of the most exclusive intellectual clubs in the world-and how you can set up your own brain trust.

Here's an idea: Gather up the smartest people in the world, put them in a room with executives from your agency, close the door and let the conversations begin. Unlike innovative ideas that develop on the back of dirty cocktail napkins, this one developed in a gorgeous, glass-walled house on a rocky spine overlooking the Big Sur coast in Carmel Highlands, Calif. There, in 1994, a dozen military and information technology experts gathered to consider the impacts of IT and globalization on the United States and on warfare. How would the Internet and other emerging technologies change the world?

Over wine, fruit and cheese, the techies and the warriors talked, argued and laughed. With Pacific waves breaking against the rocks below, the otters swimming and the sun setting into the West, the group had a wide-ranging and provocative discussion that helped plant the seeds of network-centric warfare-one of the guiding principles of 21st century American defense strategy-in the minds of the nation's top military thinkers.

Richard O'Neill, a Navy captain who had been tapped by then-Defense Secretary William Perry to organize the session, realized the value of such gatherings of great minds from both within and outside the Pentagon. O'Neill decided to replicate the meeting (which was at his brother-in-law's house) with additional sessions on a variety of topics. One of the attendees, a RAND analyst named John Arquilla, now well-known for his scholarly work on networks, suggested the name The Highlands Group.

When O'Neill dutifully ran the plan by Pentagon officials, most said OK-with a caveat. A Pentagon lawyer explained that the term "group" would subject any meetings to the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a law that requires meeting announcements listed in the Federal Register, registration with an office at the General Services Administration and a host of bureaucratic restrictions that O'Neill and others believed would quell the free flow of ideas and no-holds-barred discussions they sought. Besides, the idea was not to issue recommendations or offer advice to government officials the way groups covered by the act do. So O'Neill renamed it the Highlands Forum and moved into the private sector to manage it as a consultant to the Pentagon. For the past 12 years, he has organized several confabs each year. They have included Nobel Prize winners, science fiction writers, futurists, journalists and chief executive officers who have come to share ideas with Pentagon executives.

O'Neill calls it an "intellectual capital venture firm." Linton Wells, the Pentagon's deputy chief information officer and the career senior executive who oversees the forum, describes it this way: "The Highlands Forum is an idea engine. It basically looks to get a small number of people, typically around 25 to 30, together to look at issues at the intersection of technology and policy."

Government executives in 2006 find themselves in a world of increasing complexity and rapid change. The 19th century bureaucratic structures in which they operate are unable to cope with 21st century challenges. Need proof? Think Iraq. Hurricane Katrina. Health care. The effects of globalization on the economy and education. Immigration. The aging of America. The ideas for dealing with such incredible challenges are out there, but not necessarily in federal agencies. Leaders need forums where they can explore ideas that could transform their operations-and their thinking-to more effectively deal with the new world. They need to rev their own idea engines.

The Highlands Forum is one model.

Rules of the Road

The forum's operating rules are simple. First, there are no members, only participants. A thousand thinkers have participated over the past 12 years, attending the sessions to which they have the most to contribute. Sponsor Wells attends most sessions, but other Pentagon executives are invited only if they can contribute to and benefit from the topic. Officials from the intelligence shop might attend one meeting, policy leaders another, personnel chiefs another. Similarly, outside experts come when O'Neill believes they are the top minds on a subject or their perspectives will spark debate. Journalists often are invited to play the skeptics.

Second, the meetings are small, usually 25 to 30 people. "To me, anything larger than that is pretty much in broadcast mode, and you don't get the give-and-take and the thoughtful dialogue that would result in new ideas, which is what we're trying to do," O'Neill said at a seminar at Harvard University's Center for Information Policy Research in December 2001. They are selective, invitation-only conclaves, not all-inclusive, anybody-can-attend conferences. Unlike typical government conferences, the gatherings usually are peppered with presentations meant to prompt discussion, not lengthy PowerPoint lectures followed by a few minutes of questions and answers.

Third, the Highlands Forum is off the record; participants can take ideas with them, but they can't attribute comments to other participants if they write reports or articles about the events later. This discourages grandstanding. It also encourages honest debate. Pentagon leaders and big thinkers need not worry that their comments will be quoted out of context.

Fourth, they are focused, usually by a central question with which Pentagon leaders are grappling. Meetings have homed in on managing risk, what nano-technology would mean for the future and how to communicate with and listen to people at home and abroad affected by military operations. "What I've found is it's typically given me two to three years' lead time on [what] many interesting people are thinking," Wells says. "For example, one of the ones we've done is on the world of the small-nanotechnology. And one on ubiquitous microsensors, which now ties in with a lot of the systems surveillance we're doing. . . . You'll get Nobel Prize winners and Pulitzer Prize winners and historians and physicists and microbiologists and security specialists and intelligence specialists and there's this serendipitous interaction."

V-8s and Hybrids

Similar informal idea-generating groups are popping up in surprising places, often paid for by the organizers and held during nonwork hours. By day, Kitty Wooley is a midlevel management analyst at the Education Department. At night, she hosts periodic dinner groups that bring together "guvvies," as she calls federal managers and employees interested in improving operations, with experts on various topics.

For participants, Wooley tapped into the senior fellows' network of the Council for Excellence in Government, a Washington-based nonprofit that works to improve government operations. The soirees bring together 20 or so attendees from among several dozen of Wooley's contacts. The senior fellows program identifies rising stars across government and exposes them to new thinking in public administration, so it was a natural group for Wooley to tap. A recent dinner featured Christopher Mihm, the director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, for a discussion of the government's increasing reliance on third-party contractors, nonprofits and state and local governments. Wooley receives no support at Education in putting on the dinners, which are held at a Washington hotel. Participants pay for their meals and she covers the speaker's repast.

In another effort, K. Scott Derrick, an analyst in Mihm's shop at GAO, and Don Jacobson, a Foreign Service officer, recently launched 13L, a group that will explore new ideas in public leadership. Like the Highlands Forum and Wooley's group, Derrick and Jacobson are keeping it small and focused-the 13 denotes the number of members and the L stands for leadership. They're also keeping it informal to avoid incorporating it as an official group. "We decided to create something small, yet hopefully effective," Derrick says. He got the idea for the group's name when he saw that there's a group of playwrights in New York called 13P. "I liked the idea," he says. "I figured that 13 people would be large enough to gain diverse input and synergy, yet the group would still be small enough to be cohesive and effective without the administrative requirements." 13L will focus on projects, possibly setting up a governmentwide mentoring program or exploring how to revamp an agency's leadership development program.

A benefit of all such groups is their low cost, especially compared with more formal idea exchanges at multimillion-dollar conferences. The Highlands Forum costs a mere $330,000 a year to operate, covering the costs of two sessions of two or three days each year and several shorter "mini" sessions. O'Neill pays no honoraria or speaking fees to outside participants, instead drawing them to the sessions by offering the opportunity to discuss ideas with some of the smartest people at the Pentagon.

The Fuel for Ideas

Sample a few Highlands Forum sessions and it's easy to see the appeal. Civil War historian James M. McPherson recently took Pentagon leaders and other participants on a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield, and then discussed the difficulties of Reconstruction following the war, including why the South resisted. Lessons from that era are instructive for leaders now coping with the reconstruction of post-Saddam Iraq and post-Taliban Afghanistan.

For a session on risk management, O'Neill organized a trip to the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where Pentagon leaders talked about managing risk with casino managers, card counters (allowed into the casino just for this occasion) and stock market investors. For the session on nanotechnology, O'Neill enlisted Sun Micro-systems co-founder Bill Joy, who wrote a Wired magazine cover story titled "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us;" Richard Smalley, who won a Nobel prize for the discovery of carbon nanotubes; and William Haseltine, former CEO of Human Genome Sciences, a pioneering genetics firm in Rockville, Md.

"In the first few years, we had topics," Wells says. "Over the last couple years, we've had themes. A lot of them had to do with networking. As we move to a network-centric environment, what are the implications for security, what are the implications for organization, what are the implications for operations? We've done a series on strategic listening. When you talk about strategic communication, the American way of doing business is to transmit, and what Dick came up with is, maybe we should sit down and listen to what our target audience is trying to tell us."

The Highlands Forum model has kept Wells and other Pentagon executives on the leading edge of thinking in such areas for 12 years. It's a model that works well for the Pentagon, perhaps paradoxically because the Defense Department operates on a hierarchical, 19th century structure. "The idea engine generates ideas in the minds of government people who have the ability to act through other processes," Wells says.

In the Pentagon, he says, "the way you make something happen is to go back and deal with the existing processes in the building. You deal with the capabilities generation process, you deal with the acquisition process, you deal with the resourcing process and you get ideas into play, and you hopefully cause the system to adopt them as their own.

"What happens out of Highlands is you get people who come back with an idea and say, 'Now how can I cause this to happen?' You don't come out with a 442-page report written by the Highlands Forum that gathers dust on a shelf, or generates all sorts of bureaucratic antibodies because it's come from outside," Wells continues. "It enables the people who have the day-to-day responsibilities to do these kinds of things to think differently about them. Maybe some of the ideas get translated into action. Do all of them? No. Are all of the ideas good? No. Are some of the ideas wonderful? Absolutely."

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