Consulting » INSIGHT – It’s war, Jim, but not as we know it.

The message on the scrolling electronic sign reads: “Welcome to The War Room. We hope that your journey from Europe was bumpy, cramped, the food awful and that you had little or no sleep. This is the ideal preparation for The War Room.” This is Chicago, but this isn’t gangsterland. This is the new PricewaterhouseCoopers facility, a 10-minute cab ride from O’Hare airport. For a firm that has just spent $5m on something that is supposed to transform their clients’ performance, this isn’t the most welcoming message. It’s indicative of what’s in store for FDs and their colleagues who shell out to spend one day in a suite of offices where their mobile phones, laptop computers, even their ties are all banned. But the facility is, according to Troy Reimschisel, the manager of the War Room, so client-focused that there is no PwC branding anywhere once you’re inside. So what is it? Technology features highly, but it caters for the fact that 65% of “top teams” are insufficiently computer-literate: portable touch-screens and styluses take the place of keyboards and mice. There’s also a video wall, a sound system that any NME reader would kill for, and a lighting system that can create any one of about 16 million colours. But why? It’s all part of making financial directors and the rest of what the Americans call “the C-suite” – the CEO, CFO, COO, CIO – leave their preconceptions and prejudices at the front door, freeing their minds and liberating their imaginations so that they can talk, argue, brainstorm and generally tackle high-level issues to help transform their corporations. “It’s a place where it’s quite difficult to hide,” says Pierre Wilter who designed the facility and the concept. “This is a place where you think, and you’re made comfortable about the fact that maybe you’re going to be failing more than half the time. Most of the ideas that we generate are going to be worthless. But a few ideas that we generate are going to be so extraordinary that they’re going to be the break-through ideas that are going to take you further.” When you get right down to it – and the War Room team admits this without questioning – there really isn’t any competitive advantage in the room itself. They’ll even admit that the concept will be copied by others before long. “There’s not a single thing here that is new. What is new is the way we put things together.” It’s certainly not about Powerpoint slides – “That’s not the way you make decisions.” Central to the facility and the day that executives spend in it is the three-to-ten weeks of preparation that goes on beforehand. The idea is that PwC consultants will go out and probe your board about what they want to achieve, what issues they want to address. Examples include an FD of a UK company who wants to drive a value-creation strategy throughout his organisation; another wants to “operationalize” a shareholder value culture while integrating a huge merger. Consultants then spend time with company staff and other experts within PwC or beyond – you want Charles Handy on a video wall? They’ll get him. Information and ideas are put together in a special intranet for use solely by the senior management team, then the whole lot is thrown into the War Room for what is usually a single day of thrashing ideas around. The idea is to use that day to “crystalise and focus on the problem”. What is extraordinary about this process is that about 95% of the work involved goes into all the pre-War Room research, discussion and preparation. Yet the vast bulk of the benefit isn’t actually derived until the day itself. There’s a lesson about latent knowledge, perhaps: you have to go to war to wrench it out of your own team. The facility is aimed at Global 200 companies – but not even all of them “qualify” for the War Room. Wilter has set another hurdle: “Boring people are not welcome here.”