Tom Wiese

Learning to learn

An antidote to formulaic thinking, Studio/E teaches an entrepreneurial approach to thought and action

Traditional planning can help you better navigate a rapidly changing world, but how do you put on an entirely new thinking cap? Some leaders in Minnesota have learned how at Studio/E, an experiential learning program created by Twin Citians Nate Garvis and Tom Wiese, in partnership with Babson College, the James J. Hill Reference Library, and Activ8, among others.

Launched in July 2012, Studio/E is about orienting leaders, be they in the world of business, nonprofits, or the arts, to new ways of seeing and dealing with the ambiguities of change. A studio is a place to learn and practice an art, and at Studio/E that art is thinking and acting like an entrepreneur, says Garvis, an author and former VP of government affairs at Target Corp. Students develop a new mindset and become adept at entrepreneurial thought and action. "We teach it as a practice, not as a prescription," he says.

Studio/E is an antidote to formulaic thinking, says Wiese, the president and owner of WieseLaw Contract Studio in Plymouth and an expert in business and entertainment law. The predictive model of planning is still important, he notes, but to turn potential roadblocks into opportunities, you need to be proactive. That means leaders must make learning a lifelong passion and habit.

How it works

The program, which lasts one year and costs $6,250, is a hybrid learning lab where each member is a student and a teacher at the same time. Participants represent a variety of fields, including business, the arts, health care, nonprofits, and so on. This provides a powerful mix of personalities, experiences, insights, and networks. Past participants have come from Wells FargoAllina Health, and General Mills, from nonprofits including the Bush Foundation and Animal Humane Society, and from small businesses including NPC Robotics and Peace Coffee.

New groups begin in January, with each group having about two dozen participants. When creating the mix for each group, Garvis and Wiese look for people who are interesting, interested in others, and generous of mind and spirit.

Group members meet four times, once each quarter, in the James J. Hill Reference Library in St. Paul, where they share their knowledge and diversity of experience, build relationships, and explore holistic thinking as a tool for leadership, innovation, and problem-solving.

Participants rely on Studio/E's proprietary framework and the insights offered by program coaches to further hone their skill-sets. They remain in touch through an online network and social media, seeking and offering advice as needed.

The curriculum contains elements of design thinking and creative engagement to help Studio/E members deal with challenges by developing a powerful mindset and methodology. "We are constantly tweaking the curriculum, thanks to input from our cohorts," says Wiese.

Digging deeper

Fully Booked: Meetings take place in the James J. Hill Reference Library

Kolina Cicero is a Studio/E graduate. She runs Minneapolis-based Cicero Media, a boutique content-creation firm specializing in social media and copywriting. "Being in a group with the right people is extremely empowering," she says, because it gets you out of your comfort zone, makes you look at the big picture as you pitch ideas, and teaches you to collaborate successfully.

But Studio/E isn't like a typical business meeting group, Cicero says; instead, she suggests thinking of it as a cohort of smart leaders eager to explore their own creativity through a dialog with others. She never felt intimidated in the presence of CEOs and high-level executives in the group. Her ideas about how to grow her business found a realistic shape through the program. The take-home message for her was: Deliver your business ideas early and often, and change according to the need.

Lee Wallace joined Studio/E in January 2013 to further enhance the mission of Peace Coffee, of which she is CEO. (A for-profit subsidiary of a nonprofit, Peace Coffee is designed to help promote sustainable food, farm, and trade systems.) Wallace had heard of the program from a friend and decided to call Studio/E to find out if she was a good fit. "I was interested in developing as a social entrepreneur and staying true to farmers, the community, and employees," she says.

She remembers Garvis and Wiese bringing fertile ides to the table, inspiring her to connect with others, and digging deeper into uncharted thought terrain. She credits the program with giving her new tools and techniques to help her succeed in business. "Studio/E is a valuable asset," she says.