Friday, May 29, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Twenty one

I won't bore you with the details of the brainstorming effort with Cantide, except to say that each brainstorming session I conduct reinforces the sense that well run brainstorms seem to run themselves, while poorly planned and conducted brainstorms seem to start and stop, accelerate and slow at random points, much like a stickshift car driven by a teenager.

I was fortunate at Cantide to be working with a team that was well prepared, had a clear understanding of the opportunity and understood the rules and methods of good ideation. My job was simply to keep the team talking, clarify ideas and occasionally nudge the team to think more creatively. Even with a team that is well-prepared and engaged in the idea generation, ideas come in waves, ebbing and flowing as the ideas spill out. Just when you think that one vein has been exhausted, simply changing the perspective slightly or asking a new question can open up an entirely new vein of ideas.

Once we'd finished the idea generation phase of the brainstorm we consolidated some of the duplicates and grouped the ideas into major categories. Then we worked through a voting mechanism that allowed the group to identify the ideas they felt were the strongest and most likely to succeed. After that we assigned ideas and specific follow up actions to individuals in the room, who were willing to sign up for the additional work, and set a meeting time two weeks later to review their progress.

At the end of the day I was spent. I've read that the brain is a calorie burning machine, and I guess even in tired innovation consultants that is true. I've noticed that a day of idea generation and brainstorming wipes me out, and I've heard the participants say the same thing - idea generation is real work when done well. I shook hands with Frank and thanked him for asking us to facilitate, and left Cantide for the day. In the parking lot I called Matt to see if there was anything pressing going on in the office, otherwise I had a date with another Raymond Chandler and a single malt on my sofa.

Matt said it had been quiet in the office, and he'd gotten a lot of work done on the upcoming training session he was leading for a new client. No word from Accipiter.

Not that I expected to hear from them yet, but I had hoped to get some feedback on the presentation. I made a note to call Fred Phillips, since he was in attendance, to get some insights from him about the meeting with the Accipiter executives and ascertain their comments or feedback if he was willing to share that with me. Otherwise I could probably get the same information from Briggs, however I felt he was biased toward the innovation project, while Fred was at best neutral.

I climbed into the car and headed for home. The traffic on the freeway was clogged like an ancient artery, cars like red blood cells pooling, clotting, breaking up and moving again, start and stop. The late day sun hung heavy in the sky as the smog started to rise, the air heated by the exhaust of a million people heading for home after a long day at work. I was just a corpuscle on the highway like so many others.

When I arrived at my apartment there was a message on my machine. June had called, wanting to know if I'd like to eat dinner together. June lives in my building, a few floors down, and we've carried on an on-again, off-again relationship for a number of years, neither of us committed enough to the relationship to take the next step, but both of us enjoying the other enough to re-kindle the flames every couple of weeks. June was from the deep South, Mississippi I believe, and had made her way to the coast in the hopes of landing a job in an office and working and living in the big city. She'd achieved both of those rather modest goals, and had her eye on moving up in the advertising world, most likely only to be stymied in her goals by the organizational hierarchy and the fact she's named June and not James.

I kicked off my shoes, jerked off my tie and threw my jacket and tie on the couch. I didn't feel like going out, but didn't mind the idea of seeing June either. I picked up the phone, punched in her number and heard the rings on the other end of the line.

"Hello"

"June, it's Sam"

"Hi Sam. How're things?"

"Things are fine. And you?"

"I'm good. A bit tired but hungry. Do you want to join me in a dinner out?"

"June, I've got a different proposition. What if we order in? I've been on my feet most of the day on a consulting gig, doing some idea generation work with a client. I don't think I'd be great company out, but would like to see you."

"Well, I suppose that would be fine. I could order some Chinese from the place down the street."

"That would be great. Want to come over in 30 minutes or so? Give me a chance to clean up a bit? I have some beer and perhaps a bottle of white in the fridge."

"You do know how to make it sound enticing Sam. I'll order the food to your place and be over in 30 minutes."

"Great. See you then."

Knowing June, and by extension a good number of women, I knew the food would arrive in exactly 30 minutes, and June some 10 to 15 minutes thereafter, to be comfortably, fashionably late. That meant I had time for a shower and to clean up my apartment before she arrived. Which was a good thing, since it appeared my interior decoration consisted of flinging most of my worldly goods from the center of my room and being quite content with where they all landed. After all, scattered socks in the kitchen and cutlery in the bathroom must represent some in vogue modern art, or at least a existential experience at living in the moment. Or perhaps I was just too lazy to clean until it was really required. Which it was at at moment like this.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:00 AM 1 comments

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Twenty

I left the Excelsior feeling good about my presentation, hoping I had ruffled a few management feathers and challenged Accipiter to take innovation by the horns. After any executive presentation like this one, I felt drained but strangely elated, the way I expect that people who run 10Ks feel at the end, although the furthest I'd ever run was from the booth to the bar and back, careful not to spill my drink.

The next day I was scheduled to facilitate some ideation work at Cantide Enterprises, an old client that had adopted many of our ideas about an innovation capability. We had helped Cantide define their innovation goals and processes and identified a core team to build out the methods, processes and tools for innovation. The core team would periodically identify new opportunities to pursue or work with the lines of business to spark new innovation campaigns to target emerging market opportunities. Cantide would call us to facilitate scenario planning workshops based on the trends the core team captured, or to facilitate ideation sessions on important topics.

The great thing about working with Cantide is that the core team understands what innovation is all about and is eager to get going on any innovation project. We don't stand around gazing at our navels and wondering what we should do next. When Cantide calls, I know there will be a clear opportunity or challenge defined and the teams will be trained and ready to go. Frankly, at this point in their evolution, Cantide has the people who can lead the ideation sessions without us. But I think they like to keep a fresh perspective and bring us back from time to time to keep their innovation teams honest. Cantide's core innovation team had been through our training and implemented the 'best practices' we'd published for them about idea generation, so they had a team ready to go when I arrived that morning.

Frank Adams, the head of the core innovation team at Cantide, met me in the lobby.

"We've got the team all lined up for an ideation session today. They've reviewed the background materials and we've prepared them for an ideation session on new opportunities in the electric vehicle market. Personally Sam, I think there's a huge opportunity there for Cantide, and this idea generation session can really kick start new ideas to help us enter that market."

Frank was fully on board, as was most of his team. Cantide's CEO was noted in the industry as someone who liked to shake things up, and entering a new market like electric vehicles was exactly the step that Cantide was likely to take.

"Is the purpose of entering the market to disrupt the existing market for electric vehicles?" I asked.

"Yes" he said. "Many of the existing firms in that market are merely porting gasoline powered vehicles into that space. We believe there's an opportunity for a completely new design of the vehicle, the body, the chassis and the motor."

"Is the team ready?" I asked.

"We sent out a framing document with our expectations and background material last week. The head of the vehicle LOB personally sent emails to those who were selected to brainstorm, encouraging them to use this time to think creatively and bring back great ideas. I think we have a great group. Come on, let's introduce you as the facilitator and get the ideas flowing."

Frank and his team had definitely done their job well. The team assembled for the idea generation session was engaged and excited, and you could sense from the energy in the room that they felt the work was valuable and important.

I prepared myself for the facilitation role. Normally I'm not much of a 'leading man', especially when it comes to ideation facilitation. Not to be too hard on myself - I do have a range of great ideas, but I'm not quite the on-stage personality that Dave or Matt can be. I like to say that facilitating a brainstorm is like being a game show host and a therapist all at the same time. You are certainly on stage, and to an extent the center of attention, but none of the meeting is about you. The ideas are the star of the show, and your job as a facilitator is to keep the energy and enthusiasm of the team high, while keeping the focus on the ideas. At the same time, you have to draw out the ideas from those who are a bit pensive, and help rephrase or reframe ideas that are suggested. Often there's a deeper meaning or a better idea lurking just below the surface, and you have to draw that out, while not forcing the idea into your own little box. The best facilitators are people who can light up a room, but know when to draw attention to themselves and when to focus attention on the ideas.

While I am not dramatic, I do like to kick off the meeting with a few dramatic touches. The first is the ritual closing of the door - to seal the team off from the rest of the world for a few hours. My standard pitch is usually something like this:

"While we are in the room together, we can generate any idea we want. We have all the money available to us, and we can break or make any rule we want. If we need to be able to fly for an idea to succeed, we can fly. If we need to travel in time, we can do that. The only way for us to succeed today is to be willing to work together, to suspend our critical thinking for a while, and generate really interesting ideas. Do you think you can do that?"

This generally gets some smirks, giggles and a few disdainful looks, but I knew Frank and his team had prepared the brainstorming team, so we moved on to the next step.

"Frank and his team have placed some rules up on the wall. We have always found that good brainstorming is managed by a set of rules. Seems strange, doesn't it, that idea generation works best when governed by some rules? The rules are:
1) Generate wild ideas - we can always make them safe later 2) Don't judge ideas too early - there will be time later to decide which ideas are feasible. Don't judge while we are brainstorming. 3) Generate a large quantity of ideas - don't worry about whether or not your idea is the best - just generate many. Your idea may spark a new idea from someone else. 4) Build on the ideas of others. The best ideas are often ones that are builds from a previous idea. Use the phrase "Yes, and" rather than "Yes, but". 5) Use the phrase "What if" to start your dialog when possible. 6) Stay in the phase we're in. If we are generating, then generate ideas and evaluate or judge them later. If we are in an evaluation phase, then evaluate the ideas then. Finally, once an idea is generated it belongs to the group, rather than any individual. In that way we aren't associating an idea or concept with a person, but considering the idea in its own right."

Those rules were taped up on the walls, easily available for the team to see. I think Frank had prepared the team to expect these rules and they seemed to accept them readily.

"I'll be facilitating the brainstorm today, which means it's my job to start you talking and keep you talking about ideas. Frank will be acting as a scribe, to capture the ideas you present. From time to time we'll stop and ask for clarification about an idea as we are capturing. Frank and I may also submit ideas from time to time. Before we get started, are there any questions?"

An overly eager person named Todd toward the back of the room raised his hand.

"Yes" I said.

"What will we do with the ideas we generate once the brainstorming is complete?"

I turned to Frank, who answered. "We'll rank the ideas and select the ones that we believe are the best, which will then be assigned to a team for further evaluation."

"How can I get on that team?" Todd asked.

"You just did" said Frank.

"Any other questions before we start?" I asked.

None were coming, so I prepared to start the brainstorm.

"As we begin, let's reconsider the opportunity that brings us here. Cantide is interested in entering the market for electric vehicles. Our purpose today is to generate ideas about the electric vehicle market and examine how we can use the knowledge and products and partners we have to best disrupt that market."

I turned to Frank. "Anything else to ensure the team is on the same page?"

"You've read the material and know the opportunity" Frank said to the team. There were nods all around. "Let's get started" he said.

And we did.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:12 AM 2 comments

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Nineteen

I was 40 minutes into a 60 minute presentation, and getting the high sign from young Mr. Executive at the back of the room. He was looking for a quick wrap up, but I felt I had the buy-in of the group to pace myself and cover the remaining material effectively. I shot him a frozen rope and he sat down, looking unhappy and glancing around for support from the executives at the conference table.

"As my time is almost up" I said "I'd like to recommend a few actions and some things to think about as you begin to structure your innovation program."

Everyone shifted in their seats. They'd endured the 40 minutes of lecturing about innovation, and were ready for the punch lines. Finally, they were thinking, here comes the actual stuff we need to do.

"First, build an innovation team that can assist the business with consistent innovation methods, idea generation and trend spotting. The team doesn't need to be large - three to five people is fine - but does need to be full time. This team will form the core of your innovation program and act as the keepers of the culture, who can help others in your organization create innovation projects and programs."

At this Thompson interrupted.

"Do you mean one centralized team or do you mean one team per line of business?"

"We think that one central team that is not beholden to a specific line of business is more valuable, since it can offer solutions to any line of business and is freed up from the quarterly demands within a line of business. The central team is really an organization to ensure consistent methods and processes are used, and to offer support to innovation teams in the lines of business."

"Thanks" he said. I think I had just helped him win a point over several of the individuals who were responsible for lines of business within Accipiter, but I didn't care. Innovation should happen in those lines of business but if each group creates its own methods and tools, anarchy will break out.

"Next" I said "you will have to have the right expectations about resources and time frames. Part-time innovators rarely succeed. They will be pulled back into their "day jobs" very quickly. If you are going to build a successful innovation capability, the central team and the individuals who work on innovation throughout the organization need to be committed to that work. Additionally, your team will need to understand the lead times from idea generation to new product or service launch. How long is your average product development cycle here at Accipiter?"

Phillips, who'd been silent throughout the discussion, weighed in. "Anywhere from nine to eighteen months, depending on the product." Other heads nodded in agreement.

"OK" I said. "That is from the time someone agrees to fund a new idea and convert that idea into a product or service?"

More nods all around.

"What's the 'typical' time from idea capture through to the decision to enter product development?"

Silence. I like asking that question because no one really knows. Even in a firm with a well defined innovation program, it can vary from a few weeks to five or six months. No one volunteered an answer.

"Let's assume its three to six months" I said, just to get a number out there. "If those numbers are reasonable, that means that once your teams commit to an innovation project, it's unrealistic to think that you'll have a new product or service in less than a year in the best of situations. As a management team, you have to set the right expectations for an innovation program."

More shifting in seats. Talking about more than a year was anathema to many of the people at the table, who were driven by Wall Street and the 90 day reporting structure.

"Also, you will need to consider how you fund innovation. Many firms try to fund innovation projects through their annual planning process. How successful do you think that is?"

One guy near the front rolled his eyes and shook his head. No volunteers on that one.

"We call an annual planning process an idea killing opportunity, mostly because there are many competing interests for very limited dollars, and most proposals are much more complete than idea proposals typically are at that stage. Think about this for a minute - does your customer or competitor care when you 'fund' projects, or whether or not there are funds available in this calendar year? No, of course not. They release new products according to their marketing plans and timeframes. I've worked with several firms that insisted on integrating innovation with their annual plans, which meant that great new ideas generated in the fourth quarter waited for funding in the summer as part of the following year's annual plan. Does that make sense to you? If not, we advocate an R&D fund for innovation, to move ideas that happen out of sequence with traditional funding models."

At this point the CFO spoke up. "What is the size of the budget you've seen in other organizations for an R&D innovation fund? she asked.

"As you would guess, it varies widely, but we've seen anything from several hundred thousand dollars to several million dollars available, distributed by the head of the innovation team or an innovation council."

She nodded and I continued.

"The last, and most important aspect for success in an innovation project is your behavior. If your team is invested in innovation, all of you will be advocating innovation, talking about innovation with your team, and willing to suffer a few setbacks as well as innovation successes. It's an old, hackneyed phrase, but you've got to walk the talk. You can't be successful asking people to innovate and then pull the rug out from under them at the first failure. There's too much risk and uncertainty involved. If you aren't sure you have the commitment as a management team to innovation, you'll be better off not starting a program that you won't fully back or support."

I wrapped up my presentation with a short conclusion and asked for questions.

One gentleman, near the back, asked "What can we expect as a return for an investment in innovation?" I think he was looking for an ROI or ROE kind of answer. Instead, I gave him this.

"The return will depend on your investment and expectations. You should also think about what kind of return you expect. We've had firms that launched innovation programs because they would create more organizational excitement and engagement, and they measured those programs as successes before the implementation of ideas. You may also want to measure the program based on what it does for your marketing and positioning. If you are actively engaged in innovation, it may impact your differentiation and the awareness of Accipiter in the press. Both of these are less quantifiable results, but valuable nonetheless. If you are asking about specific returns, like an ROI or ROE metric, I can't answer that because I don't know today the kinds of ideas you'll pursue, but I can promise you that it will most likely take at least a year to see any financial results whatsoever."

Probably not the answer he expected, but the one I felt was appropriate.

Young Mr. Executive was flapping his arms in a manner that led me to believe he was learning to fly or extinguishing flames near his seat. He was eager to wrap up and move the meeting on to the next agenda topic, which I believe was cocktails on the veranda of the Excelsior. I asked if there were any more questions. Seeing none, I wrapped up my presentation and packed up my gear.

Briggs approached me as I was finishing my packing.

"Thanks" he said "I think we all learned a lot today. I was especially appreciative of the comments you made about compensation and culture."

"Just part of our standard pitch."

"We have a small token of appreciation for your time. It's a check for $2500. I know it probably doesn't cover your actual costs, but the management team felt it was appropriate."

"Thanks" I said, surprised at the generosity. "I'll look forward to the opportunity to work with you and your team if Accipiter decides to move forward."

"That will be the big question"

I stopped to say thanks to Bill Thompson, who was surrounded by a covey of executives eager to bask in the sunlight of his position and power.

"Mr. Thompson, thanks for having me in today to speak with the management team. If there are any further questions, please feel free to forward them to me."

"Thanks, Sam. We all appreciated your presentation and will be getting in touch shortly to discuss the next steps."

I nodded and left, walking down the long halls to the lobby. The bar, with its dark booths and smooth whiskey beckoned, but I felt it was probably best to clear out of the Excelsior completely, rather than seem to lurk at the edges of the Accipiter meeting. Now the waiting game would begin.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:48 AM 2 comments

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Eighteen

I decided to move along to the crux of the presentation.

"We believe there are several key factors for innovation success in any business" I continued. "Let's review several of those now".

The presentation flipped over and I presented on the first topic - strategic intent.

"In my experience, we find that the firms that have the most success from an innovation perspective are those that have clear 'strategic intent'. What I mean by this is that they have a clearly articulated vision and that people within the organization understand the company's strategy and goals. We often use the example of Apple. Apple didn't create the cell phone, or PC, or portable music player. They entered all of those markets after the markets had been proven and innovated around customer experience. If you look at Apple's successes - and failures - you'll see that they innovate around a core interest or capability - customer experience."

This seemed to get a few heads nodding, but I knew I wouldn't get the question I normally get when we do this presentation for mid-level managers. Inevitably, when we bring up this point to mid-level or more junior managers the question will come - "can you describe for us what our strategic intent or core strategy is?" usually in a joking manner. The disconnect between what a management team thinks it is communicating and what their teams hear and implement is often a wide gulf.

Next I addressed specific goals for innovation.

"Each quarter you identify revenue and cost goals for Wall Street and work diligently to achieve those goals. While innovation is often talked about as important, do you have specific, measurable innovation goals that you can report as well? For instance, the number of ideas generated in a quarter, the number evaluated, number of prototypes or pilots conducted, number of people within the organization active in an innovation program? Generally speaking, most firms talk about innovation but until there are metrics and measurements associated with innovation, it is difficult for innovation to rise to the level of importance it requires. Frankly, what we'd like to see is a specific innovation goal in an annual plan - innovation will be responsible for driving X% of our revenue in the upcoming year. Then, your intent and goals are clear and it's easier for people to understand what they are measured on and what's important."

I glanced around to see if there were questions or comments after this slide. I knew the points I was making were both obvious and things that Accipiter didn't do well, so there was a significant amount of shuffling and shifting in the seats. A few hostile glares, but, to their credit, a number of very engaged individuals as well.

At this point in the presentation we usually talk about the three "C's", three major roadblocks to innovation in any organization. Those are culture, communication and compensation.

"Most firms we work with want to kick off an innovation project as quickly as possible. However, from our experience we can tell you that until you address these three 'C's', your projects will falter. Culture, communication and compensation have a direct correlation with what the innovation teams can accomplish, and where they spend their time. Let's look at compensation for a minute. If we ask people to join an innovation program, but don't change the way they are evaluated (which indicates how they will be compensated) then we've set them up for failure from the start. Asking them do to some risky, uncertain work that isn't part of how they'll be evaluated is asking them to make tradeoffs between their existing jobs, which are well defined and the compensation and evaluation programs are intact, and innovation, which has little definition, no clear evaluation or compensation program. In an economy like ours, who is going to move into a short-term, uncertain position with little definition of compensation or evaluation metrics? Yet time and time again we see firms ask people to engage in innovation projects without changing their compensation or evaluations."

Briggs was fully engaged at this point, almost leaning over the table to demonstrate his agreement with what I had just said. Again, it is an obvious and often overlooked point - don't ask people to risk their roles and positions without some assurances that the work they'll do will be valued and rewarded by the company.

"Let's look also at culture. For the last decade most firms have focused on Seven Schema, Lean and operational excellence. That means an emphasis within most firms on cost cutting, consistency and elimination of variance and risk. So the cultures have become hardened to asking questions about different or innovative ways of doing things. Innovation by its very nature introduces risk, variance and uncertainty. So over the last ten years most firms have created cultural roadblocks to innovation, reinforced by training and compensation structures. Most of the firms we work with show evidence of this. The corporate cultures reject 'new' ideas or anything that introduces significant change. Consistency is rewarded, change, especially disruptive change, is avoided. So where does disruptive change come from? Third parties, firms that enter the market from another space, or start ups that have little investment in the status quo. Most real disruptions are forced on an industry from the outside, rather than created from within. Look at music distribution. A few years ago, if I had predicted that Apple would be one of the largest music distributors, you would have laughed at me. Now it seems obvious, and Tower Records and the other distributors who distributed physical media are on the ropes. Why? Their corporate cultures blinded them to the obvious fact - consumers were demanding greater ease of use and interactivity with their music."

I glanced at my watch. I'd hit many of the big issues I wanted to cover, but I needed to bring the message home with a few closing remarks. There didn't seem to be a groundswell yet for the bum's rush, so I decided to move on to my closing remarks.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:06 AM 2 comments

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Seventeen

The room was quiet and expectant, like a bunch of nervous new fathers waiting for the nurse to announce the birth of a new baby. They were also tired, distracted and thinking about the issues and challenges that had been raised during the day, and eager for the day to end so they could return to their email and phone calls. All that stood in the way of that was me.

I felt it was important to establish my bona fides, so I started with a brief overview of the firms we had worked with, especially the Fortune 500 types that I knew most would readily recognize. As I walked through some different case studies and the work we'd done and successes we'd had, I could see several of the attendees paying more attention.

Then, I threw them a curve ball. I asked them for a definition of innovation. A few seemed curious, the rest a bit puzzled. One gentleman near the back of the room volunteered "Something new or different".

I agreed. "Innovation is usually something new or different. Are there other definitions or descriptions you'd offer?"

Another offered "Generating ideas about new products".

"Yes" I said "That is also part of a definition about innovation".

There were several other statements or partial definitions of innovation.

"Are you satisfied with the definitions we generated? If it's this difficult or uncertain for the management team, how can Accipiter be successful at innovation if we can't clearly define what it is?"

I continued.

"We define innovation as 'people putting ideas into valuable action'. Note what this says. People - that is, you and your employees, generating ideas and converting those ideas into new products and services. It's not enough to be 'creative' - to just generate ideas. Those ideas have to be evaluated and prioritized and implemented for the benefit of your customers or for Accipiter."

Some more heads were nodding, some seemed even more skeptical.

"We work with management teams to create clarity about your purpose, goals and intent around innovation" I said "because it's one of the most important functions in your business, yet poorly defined and very risky, since it introduces change and risk. Without clear communications and a well-defined goal, most of your employees can't or won't work on innovation effectively."

Now the fish were beginning to rise to the bait.

"OK, I understand your perspective on the definition" a woman near the front said. "How do we at Accipiter create a definition that helps the employee population innovate, and communicate to them the issues and challenges that we believe are important? We have a suggestion box and we do receive ideas, but most of them are fairly useless and don't align to our needs or goals."

Well, she'd done it. Waved the red flag at the bull. Talked about an undirected suggestion box as if that was the beginning and end of an innovation program.

"That's great insight--I'm sorry I don't know your name."

"Teresa Smith"

"Teresa, your comment is on the mark and is indicative of what we see in many firms. Often we as management teams ask our employees for their ideas - which they are more than happy to provide. However, we don't ask for ideas in specific areas where we as the management team need ideas most desparately, and we often aren't clear about where we need their ideas the most. A definition of innovation can help, but so can using what we call directed ideation. Rather than an open suggestion box, we advise, and our clients can attest to this, that a directed ideation - idea campaigns where you ask for ideas to solve a specific problem or address a specific challenge, are much more effective. You know the most common sound right after an idea is submitted to an open suggestion box?"

"No"

"Sounds a lot like a shredder" Got some laughs. "The reason is that with an open suggestion box anyone can submit any idea, and they will. But when your team looks at those ideas, it doesn't usually find much of value, since you haven't provided guidance as to which ideas are most important to you."

More heads were nodding, but I was losing valuable time. 15 minutes into a 45 minute pitch and I hadn't even talked about the commitments the management team would need to make.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:26 AM 3 comments

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixteen

Halfway through a Chandler classic I was interrupted by the sound of a meeting breaking up. Chairs shifting, voices murmuring. The doors to the conference room burst open and a flood of people exited, cell phones pressed tightly to their ears, giving me the distracted once over before hurrying off down the corridor to conduct their private seances with disembodied voices over the cell phone.

Bill Thompson emerged, talking with Fred Phillips and another executive. Thompson caught my eye, acknowledged my presence with a nod and continued talking with Phillips. I waited patiently for Thompson and Phillips to finish. A younger executive, noticing Thompson acknowledge me walked over.

"Mr. Marlow?"

"Yes, I'm Marlow."

"Bill asked me to help you set up for your presentation to the executive team. Could you follow me please."

I stuffed Chandler and his hardboiled detectives into my bag and followed young Mr. Executive into the boardroom of the Excelsior. This room was the size and shape of a squash court, long and narrow with high ceilings and a bank of windows overlooking the valley. I've seen the seniors at the rec center play shuffleboard on platforms far smaller than the conference table, which gleamed dully from the waxing and polishing, barely visible underneath the folders, water bottles and coffee mugs left as detritus from the recently adjourned meeting.

"If you need a projector I'd recommend connecting here" young Mr. Executive suggested. "The screen is to your right, and if you care to we can offer you a lavaliere mic."

"No thanks" I said. There were only 25 people in the room. I was fairly confident I could project for them to hear. I started up my laptop and jacked into the LCD projector. While I waited for the interminable boot process, I pulled out my notes to review my previous conversations with the Accipiter team.

"The break should wrap up in five minutes or so. I'll introduce you to the rest of the team, and then you'll have 45 minutes for your presentation. I'll give you a signal when you have five minutes left before we'll need you to end."

"What's the signal" I said, certain it would be a slashing move across the throat, reminiscent of my chances of winning work with Accipiter. Or so it seemed.

"I have a small sign in the back of the room. I'll raise it with 10 minutes left and with 5 minutes left to go."

"What happens if Thompson or another executive wants to extend my presentation?"

"I doubt that will happen."

It's never failed before I thought, but I left him to his own considerations. With the PC finally warmed up and convinced I am who I say I am, I started my presentation and prepared my notes. Executives were filtering back into the room. Phillips caught my eye and nodded. Briggs entered, glanced in my direction and scurried toward the other end of the table. Curious - did he not want to be associated with innovation, or was he worried about seeming overly interested in innovation? Typically any HR initiative is looked at with suspicion by the rest of most management teams. Perhaps he was concerned about appearing overly interested.

Mr. Young Executive, who I later learned was named Hank, hurried out into the hallway and with the care and urgency possible only when a young executive is herding older and senior executives into the final section of an all day offsite, he managed to get the vast majority in the room in just a few minutes.

He took the podium and said "We'll conclude our meeting today with a brief presentation on innovation by Marlow Innovation. We're pleased today to have Sam Marlow, the founder of Marlow Innovation, here with us to provide an overview of innovation and what that could mean for Accipiter. Mr. Marlow has over ten years of innovation experience, working with a number of Fortune 500 firms in a wide array of industries. I hope you'll give a warm welcome to Sam Marlow and give him your full attention."

He nodded and left the podium to me.

"Thank you for the introduction" I said.

"I was asked to come and speak with you about innovation" I began. "For the next 45 minutes or so, I'll be challenging your assumptions about innovation and educating you on what we believe - no, what we know - is the difference between successful innovators and firms that aren't successful."
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:16 AM 2 comments

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifteen

I arrived early at the Excelsior that day. I'd received a summons to present on innovation topics two weeks earlier, and had submitted a draft of my standard management presentation over ten days ago. There'd been no response or questions on the draft, and I was prepared to present it now.

The reception area of the hotel, which could have easily held a tennis court and spectator gallery, was bustling with doormen, clerks, a concierge and a number of other hotel flunkies. I sidled up to the concierge and asked for directions to the Accipiter meeting. He looked at me with poorly concealed surprise, as if I was a slightly lower life form than he expected from individuals working for or associated with Accipiter. I almost felt I should apologize for my slightly wrinkled suit, which I thought held up rather nicely after spending the last few weeks crumpled in the corner of my closet.

"Accipiter is meeting in the North Wing. The executive team is meeting in the Stanton conference room. That's the North wing, second floor. I believe they have a table set up just outside of the conference room." I couldn't tell if he were happier to have me out of the reception area, or somewhat apprehensive that he was sending an impostor off to meet an important client.

I felt the Stanton conference room particularly appropriate. Tom Stanton had been a non-descript governor in the previous century who's most notable accomplishments apparently had been to ignore all signs of progress and innovation. He'd ignored the demands for new waterways and canals and had blocked the development of new rail corridors. Stanton had been the classic one term governor who accomplished little, and it was reflected by the fact he was remembered only in hotel conference rooms.

The carpet was soft and hushed under my feet, like walking in soft sand at the beach. I turned into the elevator and was surprised to recall the final anachronism - an elevator operator. "Which floor please".

"Second floor". I tried to think of a witty excuse for riding an elevator one floor, or to query him about his future job prospects, but nothing interesting popped into my mind."

"Second floor" he said and I exited right, to the north, and saw ahead of me a host of junior executives working crisply and frantically. A small table off to the left with an attractive blond halted me in my tracks.

"Welcome to the Accipiter Executive offsite" she said. "How may I help you?"

I had already spotted my name tag on the table in front of her.

"Marlow" I said, pointing at the name tag "I'm the speaker at 3pm for the executive team."

She glanced at me quizzically, as if uncertain of my parentage, my reasons for existence or my truthfulness, or perhaps all three. She glanced over her shoulder and called for John Briggs.

Briggs, who'd been one of the busy executives in the hall, looked up and rushed over.

"Mr. Marlow" he said. "Glad you could come today. This is a bit embarrassing but the meeting is running slightly behind schedule. Could I ask you to wait for another 20 to 30 minutes for your presentation? Can I offer you some water?"

"A coffee would be appreciated" I said.

Briggs turned and eyed the youngest, most junior executive in the hall, and called him over. His new task in his management journey was to make a simple innovation consultant happy by delivering a hot, black coffee with real sugar, not that artificial stuff. He took the news with a straight face and left to find my coffee.

"Many of us on the management team are glad you are here and that there will be an open discussion on innovation today. I'm looking forward to hearing your presentation."

"Thanks, I think you'll enjoy it. I'll spend a significant portion of my time on the cultural impacts necessary for success when building an innovation capability."

He seemed both pleased and worried by that statement.

"Understand" he said, beckoning me into a small conference room "that some of the management team doesn't understand the importance or urgency for innovation here at Accipiter. There may be some resistance to your presentation or difficult questions."

"Nothing we don't see every time we talk to executive teams" I said. "When firms decide to innovate, you can always find out where the fault lines lie in the business, and which people believe they have turf to protect. Anyway, a project like this is always competing for limited funds that other executives would prefer to be spent on their projects."

He nodded. "None of the other projects is as important as innovation to me."

Briggs, and the entire HR and Talent Management team, were behind innovation, he told me. They saw it not as an immediate opportunity for HR, but as a program that would have many positive secondary benefits. "Firms that are more innovative are more exciting, and it's generally easier to recruit new candidates to a firm that has a reputation for innovation. Also, I think it will be easier to retain people if we are more innovative" he said.

I agreed with him but noted those changes could take two or three years to manifest, even in a successful innovation program.

He left to check on the status of the meeting and returned with my coffee and an update on the agenda.

"Bill let me know they are still about 30 minutes behind schedule. The team is going to reduce a break that's planned at 3:30 and have you start just then. They can now only spare 45 minutes, given the slip in the schedule."

I had expected as much. In over ten years of speaking to management teams, I'd rarely seen a meeting stick to the agenda. Knowing I was one of the last speakers for the day today, I'd already prepared myself for a shortened time slot.

"No problem" I said, pulling a Raymond Chandler from my briefcase. "I'll be here when they are ready. I suppose my presentation has been loaded on the computer?"

Briggs went off to confirm, and I opened a collection of short stories from Chandler.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:54 AM 2 comments

Friday, May 15, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fourteen

A week or two passed with no word from Thompson, Phillips or Johansen. I was ready to write off the Accipiter opportunity and start working with Matt on a new client when Susan Johansen dragged me back into the Accipiter melee.

“Sam” she said “Bill thinks it’s important for the rest of the management team to have a presentation on innovation. He wants to educate them on the effort, the costs and the opportunity. We wanted to know if you or Matt would join us for a management meeting next week to present some of the best practices for innovation.”
I had nothing to lose, I felt, so I asked the usual questions. Where is the meeting? What content is expected? What are the likely outcomes if the management team likes what they hear? Susan wasn’t sure what the ultimate decision process was, but felt that Bill could provide more insights. We scheduled a call with Bill later that day.

I pulled some client files and reviewed presentations we’d done to other management teams. This was a typical approach, to introduce an innovation initiative or program and educate the executive team. It was one way to gain consensus or to flush out opposition, and to set expectations very quickly. I thought what Thompson was trying to do was to get a sense of the support or opposition to an innovation program. If there was a lot of opposition or concerns expressed, he could claim that the meeting was exploratory and clearly there was not enough need for an investment in innovation now. On the other hand, if there was little opposition, Thompson might push for a project to move forward quickly. No use, I thought, in leading them down the primrose path. I pulled the standard “educating your management team about innovation” deck from the folder and prepared.
At some point in any innovation program, we’ve been asked to do this. Unlike a lot of other initiatives, innovation attracts onlookers, interested bystanders and turf protectors the way an accident on the side of the road attracts rubberneckers. Anyone who feels compelled to start an innovation initiative is led to educate the others around him or her, mostly to defend against invading someone else’s turf. Anyone not involved wants to watch what could be a spectacular, slow motion train wreck or a great success, and be able to say in either case “I saw it coming from the start”.

Our standard management education slide deck was built in three parts: defining innovation and building a rationale for innovation, explaining the “best practices” and outlining the resources and investments required. We didn’t short-sell the effort. We believed the executive team’s needed to know the kinds of decisions, investments and changes that were necessary to create a real capability for innovation in most businesses, starting with senior management involvement and cultural change.

The phone rang promptly at 3pm.

“Marlow” I said.

“Sam, this is Susan Johansen from Accipiter. I have Bill Thompson with me.”

“Hello Susan. Hello Bill. How can I help you?”

“Sam, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. As Susan has informed you, I’ve decided to include a discussion on innovation in an executive offsite next week. We are meeting at the Excelsior Hotel most of the day, and I’ve included a section on innovation. We’d like to invite you to speak about innovation, to help educate the rest of the executive team. Would you be able to present to us from 3 to 4 next Thursday?”

The Excelsior hotel was the largest and the most elegant of the old hotels in town, with a courteous staff and deep, quiet conference rooms with a hushed sense of dignity. Everything about the Excelsior spoke of old money, old ideas and old ways of thinking. Innovation consultants in cheap suits with radical ideas were rarely seen to darken its doors, although I had spent some considerable time in the Distillery, the bar off the main lobby. It’s primary attraction was a long, dark mahogany bar with a real sense of Scotch.

“Bill, I’d be happy to speak with your team about innovation. We’ve done similar presentations for a number of our customers and prospects. What is the main message you want to convey in the meeting?”

“Sam” he said, taking on the stentorial voice of a senator or congressman on the hustings “we need to help the rest of the executive team understand why innovation is so important, and how we at Accipiter can gain differentiation and increased organic growth using innovation as one of our tools. As you’ve probably guessed, while our CEO wants innovation, there are a number of opinions on innovation and whether or not that’s the right focus and investment right now.”

At this point Johansen jumped in. “Sam, I’ll be arranging Bill’s presentation that is just ahead of yours. Bill’s going to report on the quarter that’s just ended and identify some opportunities, and some real competitive threats that we see on the horizon. We hope to use our results from the last quarter to build some consensus for change, and have you speak about what we could expect from an innovation program.”

“I have a standard set of slides that we use when we talk to executive teams about innovation. Perhaps I should send them over to you for review. Our approach is to introduce the concept of innovation as a sustainable capability, talk about the issues and investments, and outline some of the changes necessary. We don’t pull any punches.”

“Send it over” said Bill. “I’d like to review it and provide you with comments. You’ll only have an hour, so please consider that timeframe and our need to educate the executive team.”

“What’s your ‘end goal’ for this presentation?” I asked. “Are you trying to get approval to move ahead or identify concerns or issues that must be addressed?

“I have the CEO asking for more innovation, and a peer group that has a number of perspectives about innovation. We need to reach some sort of consensus on the timing of an innovation project and the investment we’re willing to make. Also, there are a number of vested interests that will need to be placated or at least addressed. I want to use this discussion as a means to get my peers talking about innovation and expressing their concerns. With that accomplished, we hope to define a way forward, or make the decision to place this on the back burner.”

I told him I understood and concurred, not that my opinion seemed to mean much. We negotiated a small speaking fee for my preparation and my time with them and I made plans to revise the presentation and send it via a courier to his office the next day. With luck I’d have his comments back by Tuesday, and a day or so to prepare for the presentation, which would either create a nice new opportunity for Marlow Innovation, or prove an exercise in gum flapping.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:04 PM 1 comments

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Thirteen

The call, when it came, was both what I expected and what I feared. It came, not from Thompson but from Phillips. Phillips called not to suggest we move forward on an innovation project, but wanting to know more about idea management software.

"Marlow" I answered as Jane patched the call into my office.

"Mr. Marlow, Fred Phillips. We met in the discussion we had on innovation here in Accipiter's offices."

"Yes, Fred. How are you today?"

"I'm fine. I hope you are the same."

Not really. Not when you are expecting a call from the big dog and the guy at the end of the call you eventually receive seems the least interested in what you have to offer. I thought that Matt had probably been right, that Accipiter wasn't in enough trouble yet to recognize they needed us.

"I'm doing well" I said, choking down the last dregs of my day old coffee and shoving the still smoldering butt of a cigarette into the ashtray. Those actions seemed to make my statement somewhat true, if only momentarily.

"I've called you today to talk with you about a particular interest of mine in regards to innovation" Phillips said. "I'd like to know what you know about idea management software."

My stomach, which was already complaining about day old, cold coffee, lurched and I shifted quickly in my seat. So this was the call I had feared, the distraction that could take weeks to recover from.

"Fred" I said "in our business we've worked with a lot of innovative firms, and many of them have used idea management software effectively. However, I think it best to set the expectation with you that most of the firms that have been successful with idea management software have a fairly robust innovation process, and a committed team. I'm not sure that's yet the case at Accipiter, and you may be putting the cart before the horse, so to speak."

In fact if Accipiter started down the software path in the state they were in currently, I'd predict a significant project ending in a perfectly functional idea management software application that no one understood how to use or why to use. The team would generate a few ideas and then watch them carefully, waiting for the idea management software to work its magic. After a few months of little or no activity, the software would be abandoned, not because the software failed, but because there was no sustaining process around the software, no trained teams, no coordination. After a few months the management team would declare that innovation had been a failure, and the firm would double down on Seven Schema to recover from the distraction.

Fred harrumphed at me. "We're simply interested" he said. "All the news about Tyndale points to their use of an idea management solution. If they've been successful using software, then we need to investigate it as well."

"Fred, as I said earlier, we advocate the use of idea management software, but only once a few conditions are met. First, that you have a methodology or process to manage the ideas. Second, that you have clear innovation initiatives and goals established. Third, that you have people who have clear responsibilities for innovation and for the software. Fourth, that you either have a lot of people involved, or a lot of ideas to manage. If these factors are in place, idea management software can be very valuable. If you put the software in place before these other conditions are met, well, we've seen that play before and it doesn't end well."

"Are there a few firms you'd recommend we look at?" he said, not willing to let it go.

"Absolutely" I said and gave him the name of a few firms we thought were both credible and understood the alignment between innovation process and governance and idea management software. However, I feared the worst. Many of these applications are relatively easy to implement and use, and the vendors have great demos. If Accipiter did purchase and try to use idea management software given the lack of corporate commitment, there would be little chance of success. It was akin to watching a person self-immolate, knowing that neither your words nor your actions would matter.

"Fred" I said "If you decide to review these applications, please consider the need for a process to manage the idea generation and idea evaluation, and the people who will be necessary to support both the innovation process and software. Susan Johansen won't be able to do that alone."

Fred seemed oddly pleased with himself as he responded.

"I'm not sure Johansen will be involved in this part of the innovation effort" he said. "Thanks for your time, Mr. Marlow."

"Don't mention it" I said as I hung up the phone. No longer lurching, my stomach had subsided into a dull ache. I walked over to the board where we track our opportunities and marked Accipiter as now 10% probable, with a decision timeframe two to three months out. If Phillips pursued this, on his own or with the blessing of Thompson, Accipiter would be distracted from the real work of innovation for at least two or three months, and at worst would consider innovation a failure within six months.

Matt watched me with that I-told-you-so look in his eyes. "Off the bandwagon and on to idea management software as the solution are they?" he said.

"No good deeds go unpunished" I said.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:21 AM 2 comments

Monday, May 11, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Twelve

A week or so past with no word from Accipiter. Our client at Beletine, Jay Harding, called and was happy to speak to a prospect for us.

"Sam, the work your team did has been very helpful. I think we are turning the corner and will have the opportunity to embed innovation as a core skill. We've moved from thinking of innovation as a last resort to thinking about it as a consistent tool or technique."

"Jay, I'm glad to hear that. And thanks for your willingness to speak to a prospect for us."

"No problem. Let me know when you get something set up."

"Well Jay, you'll remember what it's like to make this decision and selection. It could be a few days or a few weeks before we hear back."

"There's got to be a burning platform, no doubt. It took several weeks just to schedule a meeting with our CEO. But once the conditions were right, we were able to move quickly."

"I hope the same is true of our prospect. I'll call you as soon as I hear anything from them, and thanks again for your willingness to speak with them."

"Happy to do it Sam. Talk with you soon."

Nothing fills an innovation consultant's heart with joy than hearing from a client who is actually implementing the programs we worked on together, especially when those programs are succeeding. Jay had been a tough sell at first - more like Fred than Susan at Accipiter - but once he understood we were focused on the team's success and wanted to help Beletine become more innovative, rather than simply override the existing processes, he came on board as an enthusiastic supporter, and someone with the right connections to get things done.

I still believed that Susan Johansen had the enthusiasm, but I remained convinced that Bill Thompson was going to be the key decision maker at Accipiter. We had followed the strategy that Matt and I had defined - keeping Johansen informed about our capabilities and interest, and providing Briggs with insights into the impact that innovation could have on employee engagement and recruiting. They had both been receptive and apologetic. "I can't tell you how Bill is going to make this decision" said Johansen, telling me in that one sentence all I needed to know about how the decision would get made. "I've continued to document the need for innovation, and I know John Briggs is behind this as well."

"Where do you think Fred Phillips comes down on this innovation program?" I asked.

"Fred is a long timer and is sold out on the Seven Schema program. However, I think he recognizes the need for a more innovative culture and approach. He may support something as long as it does not distract too much from his pet programs."

"And Bill Thompson?"

"I can't say with any certainty. Bill definitely is concerned about Tyndale and our competitive position, but I don't know how he'll react. Bill is from Finance, and has worked his way up the organization managing costs and implementing programs to control spending. He likes easily defined programs that can be executed quickly, with little investment if possible."

"That's fairly contrary to a successful innovation program" I said.

"Yes" she said "do you think you can create a short term highly disruptive product or service that is relatively inexpensive to build and deploy?"

I felt the sarcasm in her voice like a knife in the belly. Fortunately I was meant to share in this insight rather than receive the blow.

"From our experience" I said "every executive wants a "quick win". What we need to do is design a program such that Bill gets a reasonably valid quick win but agrees not to stop there."

As promised I called Bill in a week, and received no answer. I wasn't surprised. Bill was going to talk to a wide range of options to assist Accipiter with an innovation program, and in my experience innovation often took a back seat to other pressing issues. I made a note to call Bill in a week or so to reconnect, and mailed Fred an article on Xytin Corporation, which had a thriving innovation program aligned with a successful Seven Schema program, hoping he'd take the bait and give me a call.

The rest of the week I was committed to another client, reviewing long term trends in several sectors of the economy to prepare a scenario planning workshop to forecast some alternative perspectives about the future of the medical device market in 5 to 7 years. We'd made some great progress and had identified a number of opportunities for investigation. Matt was leading an ideation session for a new client, and we both had to balance existing client work with the opportunities presented by Accipiter, and the work necessary to win them as a client.

As far as Accipiter was concerned, time was on my side. Bill could only research and delay so long before the CEO and the board decided to intervene. I could only hope we'd presented the best solution for his innovation needs, and that there weren't any less than scrupulous firms offering a cheap quick fix.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:20 AM 11 comments

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Eleven

We drove back to the office with the top down, savoring the warm breezes. I gave Matt a brief synopsis on my conversation with Johansen.

"She thinks innovation is very important, and I think she also sees opportunity for her own advancement as well. If she were higher up in the food chain, I'd be excited about the call, but since she clearly isn't the decision maker, I'm not sure how to use the information."

Matt seemed to take it all in and pondered it for a while as we drove.

"The real decision maker there is Thompson" he said. "Phillips won't be a barrier as long as we don't distract or disrupt the Seven Schema investment. We need to demonstrate that innovation is bigger and more valuable than Seven Schema, but that it can also co-exist."

Matt's words rang true. Clearly Briggs saw innovation as a way to increased employee engagement. Johansen was on board. If we could get Phillips behind the innovation effort, perhaps the three of them could join forces to convince Thompson to move ahead on a broad innovation program. We'd worked with several of our previous clients that had investments in Seven Schema to map out parallel activities - continuous change programs that resulted in Seven Schema implementations and larger disruptive programs that resulted in new products or services in an innovation program.

"Matt" I said "we need to introduce Phillips to our successful clients who have implemented innovation programs in conjunction with Seven Schema. I think that can make him more comfortable and an advocate for us."

Matt nodded, but I could tell his mind was elsewhere. While I'd be chained to a desk this afternoon, Matt was scheduled to lead a scenario planning exercise with another client. I envied him that task, and marveled at the insight available to any firm that engaged a serious scenario planning task. We'd been working with the client team for the last six weeks, identifying and tracking technical and demographic trends and competitive products and offerings. Today Matt would start the team on an investigation of these trends and develop several alternative scenarios of the future, which in turn would identify new markets and new opportunities that we could pursue with our client. We both enjoyed leading these scenario workshops because of the energy and enthusiasm they created in the project teams. Too often the participants had been treated as worker drones, whose ideas and thoughts about the future were ignored or discounted, and whose focus was the 90 day drumbeat. Having the opportunity to identify and track trends and develop scenarios was like a breath of fresh air for many of the participants, and they usually took after it with glee. As a facilitator, we had merely to guide and harness the energy of the group, rather than force an uncertain team into new processes and risky procedures.

We arrived at the office. Matt checked his phone messages and prepared to leave.

"Call Beletine Technologies and ask if Phillips can speak with them" he suggested. Belentine was a recent success, having taking on our full consulting program. We'd created an innovation team and program, and made some dramatic changes in the corporate culture, especially where rewards and compensation for innovation were concerned. And we done all that in an organization with a significant investment in Seven Schema.

"You're right" I said, picking up the phone to call our sponsor.

Matt waved and left. I left a message with the Beletine VP who had been our sponsor, asking if she would be willing to talk to Phillips. Then, I turned to the stack of papers on my desk. Calls to return, research to conduct, plans to complete. I would have rather been with Matt.

I made a note on my calendar to call Bill Thompson in a week, hoping I could bring Phillips on board and keep the fires lit with Johansen and Briggs. I pulled an article from a recent business management magazine about the importance of culture in an innovative organization, copied it and sent it to Briggs with my card.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:54 AM 2 comments

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Ten

"Yes" he said, and we both knew what that meant. It meant Juan Changs, the blessed union of Mexican and Chinese that only a city like San Francisco could produce. Not one of those phony "fusion" restaurants that are dressed up for tourists and yuppees, but an honest to goodness Mexican-Chinese restaurant that had been founded when neither food was in vogue.

We slid into a high backed booth and ordered from slightly sticky plastic coated menus. I had the Kung Pao Chicken with a side of tamales, while Matt favored ceviche with hot and sour soup. A cold Tecate helped wash down the frustration from our meeting with Accipter.

"They'll never call" said Matt. "They don't have the discipline or the desire to change their culture enough to be successful at a sustained innovation program."

"Accipter needs new products" I said "and may simply create a short term program to use some innovation tools to generate new ideas. They'll call that 'innovation' but it won't be very successful, since they won't stretch their thinking or take many risks."

"Did you know they were so invested in Seven Schema and cost cutting?"

"I knew they were invested in Seven Schema, but I don't see that as a problem. I think innovation and Seven Schema or continuous improvement can exist, side by side, in the right companies."

Matt eyed me curiously, so I continued.

"Look, there's innovation that makes your firm really interesting and disruptive. That only happens in firms that are willing to change and take risks, and it doesn't happen every quarter. You can't predict disruptive innovation. Then there's innovation that keeps the organization humming along. That's incremental innovation - real changes to existing products and services. Then there's continuous improvement - generating ideas to cut costs or improve efficiency. The problem is that too many executives want disruptive but are comfortable with continuous improvement - they confuse the purpose of Seven Schema with the need for disruptive innovation."

Matt only nodded at this explanation. I think he bought about half of it, and thought the rest was some seat of the booth thinking. He was probably right at that.

"What I'd like to see, just once" he said "is a firm that understands the importance of the culture. When people point to firms like Apple, they think there is some mysterious force at work. I think a significant portion of their success is tied up in the the way Jobs directs the firm, makes decisions and pushes the organization for innovation. You can't work there and not have an innovation expectation."

"No doubt" I said "but many of the executives have risen through the ranks meeting revenue goals and cost containment goals quarter on quarter. That's what Wall Street expects, and that's how they are measured. Most aren't rewarded by taking what looks like a big gamble."

We'd finished our lunches and pushed the plates to the center of the table. A second Tecate was calling faintly to me as the dregs of the first were sloshed around in the glass. Matt stepped out of the booth to pay for our lunches, and my phone rang.

"Marlow" I said.

"Mr. Marlow, this is Susan Johansen -- we met today in our discussion here at Accipter." I wondered if the woman felt I had faulty short term memory. Perhaps all of us innovation consultants seem a bit addled.

"Yes, Susan. We enjoyed meeting you and your team. How can I help you?"

"I want you to know that Accipter needs to hear what you and your colleague have to say. Bill needs to hear it, Fred needs to hear it. We've become so careful and so safe in our decision making, and so concerned about Wall Street that we're failing to work aggressively to ensure the future of the company."

I mumbled some vague and reassuring statements. I was trying to decide what her angle was, especially since I hoped to win some consulting business with her firm. She clearly was passionate, but I didn't think she was the decision maker. Phillips was clearly an influencer, and Thompson would probably have to find the cash.

"I wanted you to know that after the meeting, we sat and talked for close to 30 minutes. I've never had that much time with Bill. Clearly he understands the need for innovation, but he doesn't understand the challenges we face and the investment necessary to get an innovation initiative off the ground."

"If you don't mind me asking, what was Fred's take on the meeting?"

"Fred is deeply invested in Seven Schema, and believes that methodology can be successful for much of what we need, but I think he recognizes that we need new products. Seven Schema won't help us there. Fred's probably not going to do anything to disrupt Seven Schema and the investment we have in that, but I don't think he'll do anything to block an innovation project."

I still didn't understand the purpose for the call, and I didn't want to talk myself into a corner if there was an eventual opportunity at Accipter.

"Susan, I assume that you want the innovation project to move faster. Is that the case?" I was buying time and information like a wealthy man buys medical care in his last days.

"I want this project to succeed, for my own success and for Accipter. I need your help to sell this internally. Sam, we need this, and I need this. If we don't move on innovation soon, Accipter will probably become a takeover target. I see this as the last real chance for change, and I want to grab it."

I agreed with her and begged off, claiming a previous engagement. Johansen was offering to be our inside influencer, but we'd yet to decide if this was work we wanted to win. Having someone on the inside is always helpful, but I'd have preferred any of the other participants. She was clearly the low man on the ladder in the room.

Matt slid in across from me and gave me that quizzical look.

"New developments at Accipter" I said and nodded toward the door. "I'll fill you in while we drive back to the office".
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:18 AM 2 comments

Monday, May 04, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Nine

We'd thrown the gauntlet, so it was our turn to put up or shut up. I glanced at Matt, who nodded slightly. He was in, and so was I, but only if we could convince Accipter to do it our way.

"Bill" I said "we've reached the portion of the meeting where we at Marlow tell you what great innovation experts we are and how we can best help you succeed."

He nodded, so I took that as a sign to continue.

"Marlow Innovation has been in business for the last six years, focused primarily on building innovation teams and innovation capability. There are a number of facets to innovation success, and we believe that the firms that are successful from an innovation perspective have several key factors in their favor. The significant enablers to innovation are what we like to call the three C's: compensation, communication and culture."

Briggs perked up even more at those words. He could tell we felt strongly about influencing the corporate culture. But that was small beer for Marlow Innovation. The real decision maker - Thompson - wasn't convinced. Also, Johansen seemed less than pleased.

"Communication, culture and, what was it, compensation? What do those have to do with an innovation project?"

No. She didn't say that. I tried to interject but it was too late. From Matt's perspective she'd stepped on the third rail, called his baby ugly and asked to do the impossible all in the same sentence. Hard to believe something so innocuous could be so distracting.

"Let's talk about 'innovation projects'" Matt said. "We like to think of innovation as a sustainable capability, that may help create new products and services. When you focus on using innovation as a tool to create a new product or service, that may be a project. However, you can't simply turn on, or turn off creativity and you'll find that once you've asked people for their ideas, they'll want to stay engaged. Thinking of innovation as a project is exceptionally risky, since it suggests you can turn these capabilities on and off, and keep your teams engaged."

Thompson broke in - he could see where this was heading. "Sam" he said "we clearly need help from an innovation perspective. We have some cultural issues, to be sure, and will need help to address those. We also have some significant near term needs that require the development of new products and services. We've got to place the emphasis on the development and release of those new products to maintain our position in the marketplace. I think I understand your three C's concept, but do those factors have to be deployed and worked in conjunction with the development of ideas for new products and services?"

"No" I said, and I saw the relief in his face. "You can focus on new products and services without trying to change the culture." At this point Briggs became very interested and looked very uncomfortable. "However, what you'll find is that the innovation teams won't be willing to create new and interesting ideas. Anything that seems risky, new or uncertain will be immediately rejected. If all you want is one big new product or service idea, call in MacDoman or NorthEast Consulting Team (NCT). They can help from a strategic point of view and will bring back two or three ideas that can become new products and services. That won't require any cultural change, and probably will result in a new product or service."

"You're saying partner with a strategy firm and have them do the research and generate ideas, and present us several product or service ideas, rather than try to ramp up to become more innovative internally" Thompson asked.

I turned to Phillips. "Your firm is a big Seven Schema firm, isn't it?"

Phillips brightened. "Oh, yes, we've deployed it globally".

"Congratulations. Over what period of time did you deploy the methodology, and how many people are trained in it?"

"We've been working with the Seven Schema folks for about four years. We have approximately 100 black belts throughout the organization, and most of the management team has been through green belt training."

I turned to Thompson and could see the tumblers falling into place. "Bill, you've spent years and trained hundreds of people in Seven Schema, which is primarily a cost savings tool for incremental change. Today, you can proudly say that Accipter is a Seven Schema firm and people understand what that means. It has permeated the culture and the management team has demonstrated its investment by attending the training. You've also pointed out that there are some cultural barriers to innovation, yet you don't want to work on the cultural attitudes of the team to generate new ideas. I have to tell you that I think your team will find it difficult to be successful."

Johansen spoke up at this point. "What if we create a skunkworks, and recruit the people we want to that team and compensate them differently? Can we expect more innovation from a team that's separated from the rest of the organization?"

"Yes" Matt said, warming to this subject. "You can isolate a small team and expect them to be more disruptive and more open to innovation. You'll still need to consider their compensation while they are part of the team, and what they return to when the team is finished, but you will definitely obtain better ideas in that model if you won't address the cultural and compensation issues more broadly."

Johansen looked triumphant until I burst the bubble.

"All of that is true" I said "until your team decides to move one of those ideas into product development and discovers that there is no funding, no resources and no one willing to become the product manager for the new product, since none of the rest of the organization was involved. You may create new products in your skunkworks that cannibalize existing products, or that merely threaten existing products. Additionally, your firm, like most, only allocates fund in the annual plan, so more than likely there's no money set aside for completely new product development schemes, especially ones that the rest of the organization hasn't been a party to."

At this point Phillips and Johansen were frowning, Briggs looked perplexed and Thompson was shifting in his seat, ready to go to his next meeting.

"Mr. Marlow" Thompson said "we need to discuss our approach for innovation internally. As we've told you previously, there are several other candidate firms we wish to speak with as well. We greatly appreciate your time today and we'll follow up with you in a week or so, as we make decisions about how to proceed."

"Mr. Thompson, Fred, Susan, John" I said "we thank you for your time. I wish you the best of luck with this project, and want you to know we at Marlow would be happy to work with you."

With that we exchanged the usual pleasantries, performed the ritual card exchange, moved slowly out the door and down the hallway to the atrium. Matt and I returned our badges to the security desk and walked out into the bright morning sun.

"What do you think?" Matt asked me.

"No way of knowing" I said. "Don't know whether the need for new products and services is so acute that they'll be willing to change their culture. Perhaps a skunkworks will work. It may be the best solution for them in the short run."

I slid behind the driver's seat and turned to him. "Mexican or Chinese?"
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:12 AM 2 comments

Friday, May 01, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Eight

Bill looked a bit pained.

"We understand that our corporate culture is probably not as conducive to innovation as it could be. However" he said, glancing first at Phillips and then at Briggs "our immediate goals are for new products and services. We can start an initiative to work on the culture, but real innovation has to take top priority. That's why Susan and John are here, in this meeting."

"By 'new products and services'" I said, "Do you mean incremental changes to existing products and services or do you mean radical and disruptive innovation?"

"Mr. Marlow, we've tried the incremental approach" Bill said, nodding at Fred.

Fred nodded back, clearly uncomfortable with the direction of the discussion but backed into a corner.

"We need some new, game changing products and services, and we need them relatively quickly. Our product development pipeline looks fairly weak and our last few introductions have not been what we'd hoped. Those facts, along with the products that our competitors are releasing, place great pressure on us to get something done quickly."

Ah, I thought, here's the rub.

"What's 'quickly'? From your perspective, when should we have these new products or services ready for market?"

"I'd like something in the market by the fourth quarter of this year. I know that's challenging but we need to respond now."

You could have run the elevators in the headquarters building of Accipter for a week on the raised eyebrows in the room. Johansen, whose fate would rest on the result of this effort, seemed poised to spring right out of her seat. Phillips, on the other hand, ducked his head but had a twisted, half smile on his face. He didn't need to speak his mind, his opinion of the effort and timeframe were written on his face. I decided to deconstruct the problem.

"Bill" I said "give me some sense of your current innovation pipeline. We are late in the first quarter, so based on your request we are less than three quarters away from your goal. Does your team have any really interesting ideas or compelling customer insights that we can explore?"

"Sam" he said "This is the first official meeting of the Accipter innovation team. We are in the process of interviewing several consulting firms to determine our best approach, and we'll need to staff the team up once we select a consulting partner. Other than that, I doubt we have many compelling insights, trends or ideas that can become game changing products in a couple of quarters."

Susan was nodding so vigorously at this point I thought perhaps a session of the DTs had kicked in.

"We'll need to work through an entire innovation program and then move through product or service development, prototyping and piloting then on to the launch of a new product or service."

"When I looked through your annual reports" I said "It seems to me that you have a six to nine month product development and launch cycle, at a minimum. That would be true for new releases of existing products. Would that be about correct?"

Fred nodded. "We've got a fairly well defined "path-portal" process in place. I'm sure you are familiar with that methodology?"

I was and I am. A great methodology for creating a new product or service once the idea has been shaped and formed, but relatively unhelpful for identifying customer needs, tracking trends and generating ideas. So Accipter was constrained by both Seven Schema and path-portal. In other words, a lean, mean product development machine with no insights. Sort of like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. If they only had a brain.

"OK" I said, trying to sum up "Accipter needs new products and services this year, but has no innovation methodology, and a six to nine month product development cycle for proven products. There is little to no customer insight or trend spotting going on, so the idea cupboard is relatively bare. There's significant emphasis on innovation but no resources in place and little budget. Have I summed that up reasonably correctly?"

I got the sense that Bill had overcome his initial shock at my directness, and in fact was actually coming to appreciate my candor. Fred and John, on the other hand, looked a bit shocked as I confronted the naked emperor about his threads. Johansen was waiting and watching, like a prisoner condemned to walk the plank, waiting for Errol Flynn to swoop down and snatch her away from this disaster at any moment. The hope on her face was palpable, yet I got the distinct impression that she wanted to lead this innovation effort.

"I think you'll find we can apply the appropriate resources and will ramp up very quickly Mr. Marlow. Accipter has a great record of rising to challenges such as these, and we'll do so again. Let's shift the discussion from our readiness and capability to what Marlow Innovation can do to help us achieve these goals."

I glanced at Matt and I knew what he was thinking. Thompson was saddled up and ready to tilt. The gauntlet had been thrown. We'd challenged his firm in the ring and he had accepted. The sparring would begin soon. However, both of us knew that we'd have to arrive at a conclusion fairly quickly. Could we shape this project to become something that would be successful for Accipter and for us, or should we take my father's advice and get out of the way of a man on fire?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:03 AM 1 comments