Friday, April 17, 2009

Pulp Innovation

Bill, the COO of a large conglomerate, woke that day with a start. The smell of stale cigarettes and cheap perfume wafted through the air. His breakfast - Cheerios and a banana to help watch his cholesterol - was interrupted by breaking news on CNN. His major competitor was on the air, announcing record profits and new products, attributing the success to innovation.

"I've got to get me some of that" he thought.

The phone rang in the reception area. The girl in front took the call and patched it through to me. "Marlow" I said.

"Mr. Marlow, this is Jan, Bill's assistant. He wants to meet with you as soon as possible. We've fallen behind our competitors and we need innovation now. When can you come?"

"Well doll, I'm busy with some brainstorming and scenario planning for another firm this week, but I can meet with Bill on Tuesday, say 9am."

"Oh, I'm sorry, but Bill is booked and can't possibly meet with you for two months. What does June look like for you?"

"I thought you said this was important" I said, clenching an unlit Cuban in my teeth, the taste of Old Granddad still coursing down my throat.

"It is - it's just that Bill has many other priorities. Perhaps we can schedule a meeting with one of his direct reports. I'll have Tom call you to set an initial meeting."


I'm Marlow, and I help firms get out of difficult situations. Not with a gun or a badge, but with innovation tools - brainstorming, idea generation, training and the like. Yes, it's a difficult, solitary existence, but one I like. Always the difficult, dirty work for me, turning around one firm after another after they've fallen off the innovation wagon, gotten too complacent and lost their way. Just like a damsel in distress, running out of options, looking for the quick return to grace.

Tom called and scheduled a meeting later that week.

"We need to get some new, radical ideas that can help us create new products and services" said John, looking slightly shaken after reviewing the stock ticker. "We've lost our edge, and we need help. What will it take to get some disruptive innovation in here fast?"

"No problem. I'll need a few of your best people who can break away from their work for a few months to examine the best opportunities, identify some unmet customer needs and work on scenarios. My team will investigate some trends and together we'll identify the best possible opportunities. How do you feel about cannibalizing your own products, or radically disrupting your market?"

"Mr. Marlowe, surely you are joking. That kind of investment in manpower is reserved only for major crises, and we'd need to be very careful about dramatic change. Can't we run a brainstorm or two and generate an interesting idea quickly? Do we have to make this a big commitment? Can we keep this under wraps from our employees?"

The fear hung off him like a two dollar suit. Cold flop sweat was already breaking out on his brow. I could see it would be the same as before, a joe who needed my help but wasn't ready to face the costs, in time, in dollars or in lives. I lit a Camel and blew the smoke in his face.

"Look buster, don't waste my time. Bill needs the big fix, and he needs it fast. That means people, and risk, and money. You don't get the big ideas by standing on the sidelines. You've got to be in the game, working the ideas. No big risk, no big reward. Are you in or are you out?"

John looked at me, more pale than a waning moon in an L.A. evening. I could see him totting up the costs in his head, balancing the risks and the rewards. I knew what was coming next.

"What if we gave you one or two people, for a week or so, for a few hours a day. Could you come up with something interesting, even radical, but safe and within our current business model? We want the big payoff, but the risk and the change to our business models are too difficult."

"Risk" I said. "You're already at risk. You competitor is stealing your market share like a smiling politician, out in the open. He's pocketing your cash and dating your daughter. Get a grip man. The way to disruptive innovation lies through the dark valley of big change, big investment and risk. You need a guide, a shamus to guide you through. It won't be easy or pretty, but we can get you to the other side."

I could see the doubt in his eyes. Asking a company man, a man used to soft work behind a desk, who never risked anything other than a lunch appointment, to take the news to his boss, well, that might have been too much for any mid level flunky. But the truth's the truth, spoken by a two bit innovation consultant or from the working end of a PowerPoint presentation.

"We'll get back to you, Marlowe. I can see that your approach will require a significant investment and force us to think differently. We'd prefer to use our existing methods and investments. We have our investors to think of, and a profile in our marketplace. Our customers and investors expect certain things from us.

"How's that working for you so far" I asked, already aware that their stock had fallen another 15%.

"It's not a question of how well our processes and models are working, it's a question of changing the culture to face the risk of change." By now the meeting was over. He had a hangdog sort of look, like a man who's been to the gates, peered into the mansion, but will never get to enter. A man who consoles himself living just outside the gates, knowing what it could be like on the other side but never daring to push through. Haunted by what could be, but not brash enough to demand it.

"Tom" I said. "Look at it this way. In a year or two, if you don't change, it won't matter. Your competitors will continue to innovate and your firm will be forced to leave this market or will be bought for cheap. Either way, you'll change. It will just be a question of change that you create or change that's forced on you. Call me when you decide that you want to lead that change".

I walked out of the office, past the gray cubicles where people who were already dead were talking in hushed tones gathered in the hallways. They watched me walk past, their eyes full of longing. They wanted the change, they wanted the risk, but at the end of the day only a few step out into that blind alley, guns drawn and looking for action. Most of the rest go back to their safe homes and comfortable offices, waiting for guys like Marlow to do the dirty work of innovation.

I left and entered the first cheap speakeasy I could find. The look of panic and the smell of fear of change clung to me like mud on my shoes. A stiff drink and a glance at Christensen brought me back to my senses. Building a safe innovation program, I said to myself, the definition of an oxymoron.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:00 AM


Blogger Dan Keldsen said...

Jeff - great work. Next up, innovation zombies!

Are you going to be at the Front End of Innovation next month? Should meet up if so.

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Blogger Prakasan K said...

Jeff, I'm a great fan of "story telling" to express thoughts and make people think about situations. Great one here.
I hope you will continue this approach to share more stories to explain what people are lacking in terms of thinking.

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Blogger Todder said...

Good idea. The "already dead people in cubes" symbolism was perfect! Can't wait to read more Marlowe.

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