Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Twenty Three

After my call with Johansen I took my sales frustration out on the piles of work I had on my desk. I was able to plow through several weeks worth of messages, followups and introductory calls by the time lunch rolled around. Matt and I had planned a lunch to meet with a candidate to join our practice, an experienced ethnographer and market research consultant who was looking to join an innovation firm. Both Matt and I felt that her skills could effectively round out our team. Matt was the idea generation guy and did a lot of work on culture and communication. I led a lot of trend spotting and synthesis work, and also focused on building innovation processes and methods. Together we both offered training. What we were missing, however, was the capability to help a firm identify customer and prospect wants and needs, especially from a qualitative viewpoint. Meredith could fill Marlow Innovation's most obvious hole.

Her background and skills were impeccable. She had graduated only a few years before, from one of the few universities that granted an ethnography degree, since that branch of study had only recently split from the more traditional anthropology degree. After graduation she had worked for a mid-sized bank, but given the turmoil in the banking industry and the slow pace of change in that industry as a whole, she was looking for something more interesting and with more change. I had my concerns.

Moving from a safe, traditional nine to five in the banking space, to a consulting role in the innovation space was a big leap. In addition, Matt and I worked as hunters - we found the work, won the work and as a team we completed the projects we could staff internally, and sourced partners when we needed them. Both Matt and I had sales responsibility, and anyone coming aboard would need to pull their weight in the sales cycle. Would Meredith be able to make the transition from a relatively stable role in a slow moving industry to a consulting role that demanded quick thinking and learning new industries, while taking on sales responsibility and project leadership? It was a steep hill to climb.

I had liked Meredith from the start if for no other reason than that she had contacted us for the interview. I liked that get up and go attitude, and she seemed interesting and engaging on the phone when we first spoke. I'd let Matt talk with her as well before we brought her in to meet in person, to ensure I had his buy in and support. Matt gave her the thumbs up so we planned to meet at Darby's on Lancaster street - a neutral site that allowed us, and her, to back away if the first face to face didn't go well.

Darby's is one of those places that seems to exist only to satisfy my eating requirements. It has a chalkboard full of daily sandwich specials that only Dagwood could truly appreciate. Most of the sandwiches are stacked high with meats, cheeses and vegetables, and make for difficult eating even with good friends. I suppose I should have suggested a place where the food was easier to consume while talking, but Darby's it was. We arrived and took our regular booth near the back and waited for Meredith to arrive.

"You sure we can afford another person on the team?" Matt asked. We'd been through this before - we had a good pipeline of work for us and a few others, but bringing another senior person on board meant more sales efforts for both of us. However, I thought we could recoup the costs by taking on the work we'd been sourcing to other ethnography and research firms.

"I think we can get more work from our existing customers and take on larger projects with Meredith, and we won't need to outsource so much research work" I said. "No guarantees, but I think her skill set is something we need. You getting cold feet?"

"Cold, no. Cool, possibly. It means a lot of work to bring someone aboard, and it would be a big change for her as well."

"She's probably not the hard bitten type yet, you mean. Used to the 9 to 5 routine. Can she come up to speed quickly on a new industry, and add value quickly?"

"Yeah. It's an issue. Plus we have this charming rouge image to uphold. Is that possible if we add a younger woman to our mix?"

We were about to find out, as Meredith approached our table. She was younger than Matt and me, not that that mattered, tall and thin, with a slightly pinched face. She'd be more attractive if she smiled, I thought to myself. She looked a bit bookish and shy, unlike what I expected from our call.

"Mr. Marlow" she asked.

"I'm Marlow" I said, scooting around in the booth and taking her hand. "And this is Matt Ferguson, my partner. You spoke with him last week."

"Pleased to meet both of you" she said, but didn't look pleased. She clasped a portfolio close to her chest, as if she might need to ward off our possibly unseemly advances.

"Please join us. Can we get you something to drink?"

"Yes" she said. "Is it close enough to lunch to order a bourbon?"

I knew I had liked her on the phone.

It turned out that Meredith was very nervous, and after meeting a couple of guys like Matt and I you could understand why. After her drink, and a brief introduction from me on the firm and how we operated, she seemed to become much more comfortable.

"I've been working for Coastal Bank for over five years" she said "doing primary research, quantitative mostly, and some voice of the customer work. I've not had a chance to do as much ethnography as I had hoped, but I have participated in the development and launch of two new products. The work is interesting but slow, given the culture. The bank doesn't want a lot of risk, so we carefully plan our new products and I think we often miss opportunities. I'd like to do more primary research and ethnography, and I think a consulting firm focused on innovation would be the right place for me."

"What do you think ethnography and market research can add to an innovation project?" Matt was opening the door. Meredith would make or break her opportunity with us with this answer.

"Most market research tells us what customers like, or don't like, about what we already offer. Ethnography can give us insights into what people do, and why they do it, and offer a glimpse into needs that they have we can fill. Rather than talk about what they don't have, or don't even know they need, we may be able to spot opportunities they haven't recognized, or needs they have they aren't aware of yet."

I met Matt's eyes and he nodded slightly. Meredith had the right insights. Now, could she work the way we worked?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:28 AM

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