Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Six

John Briggs walked back into the room and sank into a chair, still wheezing slightly after choking coffee down his windpipe. He seemed to deflate just a bit, come to some internal decision and sat upright.

"I'm responsible for talent management at Accipter. I work for the VP of Human Resources. We've determined that we need to increase employee engagement, and I was asked to head up a small team focused on innovation and employee engagement. The reason we called you, Mr. Marlow, is because we read a short piece you published on innovation and employee engagement."

"So you've recognized that the cultural aspects of the organization may present challenges to innovation, and you believe by increasing employee engagement you may affect the culture and gain more innovation?"

"That's our thought - it's something we hoped to discuss with you today."

I had to admit the goal was reasonable, even if the means were a bit questionable. Most firms we'd worked with observed increases in employee engagement once innovation had been demonstrated as a successful initiative in the organization. At this point I wasn't sure which was the cart, and which was the horse, or if it mattered which was out in front.

"So" I continued, "what's the ultimate goal here. Is Accipter seeking more innovation, or more employee engagement? Which is the driver?"

"Frankly" said Susan "that's what we are trying to determine. John and I have different responsibilities but are working on projects that may overlap or intertwine. The outcomes of one of our projects may support or enable the other, or they may simply get in the way. John found your firm based on your publication, and I asked to sit in on this meeting to understand what help you could provide from an innovation perspective."

This topic was really more of Matt's bailiwick than mine, and I could see him becoming more interested and involved in the conversation. Matt should have been a human resources guru - probably was one in a previous life. He simply loved the interplay about people, compensation and motivation. He joined the conversation at this point.

"What we've found in our innovation work at Marlow" he said "is that innovative firms often have very engaged employees, and a lack of engagement is often, but not always the case at less innovative firms. Engagement stems from excitement and strong belief in the firm, its products and its direction. Innovative firms are self-reinforcing - they create products and services that energize the employees, who then contribute more ideas and more of their time and energy into the business. These are definitely cultural attitudes, but they can't be attained in a short time period. Again, our experience shows that it can take several years of innovation before the organization becomes fully engaged and you see the changes in the corporate culture that you are interested in."

I winced at that last statement, ready to duck and cover. For most firms, 90 days is an eternity, Rome was built in a day and the earth itself was fully formed in no more than a year. To talk about a two or three year transition in most firms was to be laughed out of the room. I glanced first at Phillips, who was frowning and shifting in his seat. A pure Seven Schema guy, I suspected, looking for the "quick wins". I made a note to ask him later how long his firm had been working on Seven Schema and how long it took to take root in the organization. Briggs, on the other hand, looked at peace - almost as if Matt had removed his fears. Johansen, on the other hand, simply darted glances between Phillips and Briggs, a little uncertain of the politics and power play underway.

Briggs broke the silence. "Matt, you've confirmed some of our thinking, in terms of engagement and the time my team believes it will take to adequately change the culture. Bill believes we need to step up our innovation efforts and achieve a more engaged workforce, however I'm not sure the board or the management team is on board yet for such a long implementation and deployment effort. What we're going to need.."

"Are some quick wins" I broke in, having lived this role in a hundred plays before.

"Yes" Both Briggs and Phillips said simultaneously.

Phillips continued "We know, at the management team level, that we need to increase our growth rates and create new products on a more effective basis. We are at risk of losing our position in the market, versus Tyndale and other firms. We need new products out in the next few quarters. We may want employee engagement, but we need a steady stream of new products to recapture our share and gain more visibility in the market."

So, here is was, the classic confrontation of the dissonance of innovation. A firm needs change, needs new products and services immediately, needs to overhaul its corporate culture and needs to engage its employees in a new and meaningful way. It needs to quickly regain market share, do a much better job identifying customer needs and converting those needs into new products and services, and continue to meet aggressive quarterly projections. If I could solve all of these problems simultaneously, I wouldn't be an innovation consultant with a fifth of Old Granddad in his hip pocket - I'd be King Solomon, offering to slice babies in half to resolve dilemmas.

"Ok" I said "we're still waiting for Bill to join us. I've got a good picture from Mr. Phillips, and Ms. Johansen, and from you John, about the needs from an innovation perspective. What's Bill going to tell us that we haven't already heard?"

Phillips nodded at me and said "Right. Bill's going to help us decide which of these initiatives is most important. We don't have any money budgeted for this work and few people who could quickly tackle any one of these challenges. We need to understand his priorities and the investments he's willing to make."

Both Matt and I slunk a little lower in our chairs. The work sounded promising but there was no budget associated with the requirements, and staffing was certainly going to be a challenge. I had a card up my sleeve however, a real fire starter that I had brought along for just this objection.

"Did you read the business section of the Times today?" I asked, pulling it out of my briefcase.

I pushed the newspaper down the table, and recapped the key story. Tyndale had made a takeover bid for a small but fast growing UK firm that promised to chip away even more market share from Accipter. If Tyndale was successful, several of Accipter's product lines which were already lagging would come under even further pressure.

Phillips grew fairly pale while reading the article and sat back, a man at conflict with himself. Johansen seemed energized by the article, like an athlete in the zone just before an event.

Briggs said "Bill needs to see this."

At that point, 45 minutes late, Bill Thompson entered.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:54 AM


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