Most of the 150 employees in Ernst & Young's office at 55 Broad Street spend their days hunched over computers -- preparing presentations, tweaking software systems, developing e-commerce strategies. Passers-by who take an especially close look at the building's second-floor windows might also see executives from Fortune 500 companies fighting over fuzzy hand puppets, but they're working there, too -- and they often pay more than $200,000 for the privilege of doing so for three days.
Welcome to Ernst & Young's "Accelerated Solutions Environment" (ASE), where the corporate boardroom meets Pee Wee's Playhouse. In a 7,000-square-foot loft space filled with video monitors, crayons, and children's toys -- plus an espresso machine in case anyone needs to get in touch with their inner adult -- the consulting firm's clients can brainstorm and problem-solve in their casual-Friday best. There's even a prop closet, since one of the most popular activities for companies is acting out skits -- one group staged a mock Jerry Springer show -- about themes such as what their brand identity means to them.
Indeed, at ASE, Pee Wee's word of the day is always facilitate. In Ernst & Young's consultant-speak, activities are called "modules," the program's support-staff members are "knowledge workers," and time is divided up into a "Scan Day," a "Focus Day," and an "Act Day."
At the end of the third day, the program's staff gives a telephone-book-size transcript of the group's brainstorming to more-traditional Ernst & Young consultants, who begin hammering out practical solutions to the problems. "Most of the time the technical answer is easy, but it's tough for the companies to get out of their own way," says Chip Saltsman, one of ASE's facilitators. "ASE lets them talk about the tough issues without talking about the tough issues."
Of course, the program also lets stressed-out businesspeople get away with some on-the-clock playtime -- and a few have even grown attached to their favorite toys. "One British CEO used a bumblebee stuffed animal any time he had to say anything bad," says Sue Shea, an ASE knowledge worker. "He loved it so much, we mailed it to him with the final report."