Friday, October 2, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Nine

We innovation consultants have a mantra that we repeat to ourselves and our clients on a regular basis. It has to do with the either/or possibilities of building an organization that can sustain innovation, or just doing innovative work in the face of a resistant culture. Both approaches are dead ends, it is a lose-lose situation. So, on the face of it, there's just one thing to do: "Build the plane while it is flying".

But in this case we were going to have to reset expectations and find a new pilot while the plane was in the air. Clearly Chad was going to have to have a come to Jesus with Brockwell, or we weren't going to be flying at all. On top of that we needed some real momentum to the project, to demonstrate some results in a reasonably timely fashion, and we had not even left the terminal yet.

Susan and I agreed that we needed to do several things simultaneously, and as quickly as possible. First, we needed to reset Chad's expectations and his ability to accept some change and risk, or we need Brockwell to replace him. Chad's concerns and connection to the way things are done now are too deeply embedded and will actively work against the innovation program. Second, we needed to identify one or two significant challenges or opportunities and frame our efforts around those, to generate ideas and kick start the innovation effort. And third, we needed to address the existing culture, and build an innovation process and staff a team that was engaged and excited about innovation. Something like juggling a running chainsaw, a bowling ball and a live baby while riding a unicycle, but much less fun.

We charted our course of action and asked to meet with Brockwell as soon as possible. Of course, Brockwell's calendar was full for the next two weeks, and he was out of town for several days as well. We agreed to waylay him on his way in to work on one of his first days back in the office. Our predicament with Chad was simply too much of a barrier to leave untested for too long. Next, we decided to meet with the heads of several of the business units to understand their biggest challenges or potential opportunities. We felt it was important that we demonstrate we were solving "real world" problems or challenges that one of these individuals could implement as a new product or service. We never anticipated how hard it would be to identify that problem or opportunity. Finally, we made plans to meet with the HR director to discuss how we could begin to change the compensation and evaluation schemes to encourage more innovation, thinking that this was the best way to start to move the culture, along with a series of communications from a respected senior leader. Which led us back to Brockwell, Underwood and Kasamis.

"Probably the most important thing we can do is start communicating our innovation plans and goals. If he's agreeable, Kasamis would be a great spokesperson for innovation. Everyone in Accipiter knows his story. He founded this company from nothing and built it and took it public."

I knew the story, a classic rags to riches entrepreneur. An immigrant with little opportunity wills his company to grow, and builds a respectable business. Through some luck and insight he had acquired a number of other businesses and successfully merged them to form Accipiter. He was riding out his senior years as Chairman, sitting in on board meetings and remaining one of the public faces of the organization. Kasamis understood the entrepreneurial spirit, and probably would get behind the concept of innovation. It was rumored that he was unhappy with the state of Accipiter, which had lost its leadership position and could not even contend for a fast follower position anymore. With his backing, we would have a respected voice advocating for innovation from the top.

Susan agreed to set meetings with the heads of the electronics division and the components division, the two individuals who had appeared the most receptive to our work and who probably had the largest challenges. From them we could hopefully identify several challenges or opportunities we could use to generate new product or service ideas. That work would help us demonstrate short-term, actionable results. Looking back on it later, I suspect that was the biggest failing, thinking that these "leaders" had any insight into where they were leading the firm.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Eight

The euphoria didn't last long. It never does. There's the roller coaster ride to the top of the drop, and the either the fast descent straight down, or the twisting, turning descent that brings you to the same place. In our case it was almost an immediate descent.

Monday, I turned up at Accipiter to meet with Susan. There I discovered we had a new sponsor.

"Underwood is just too busy to work with us on a daily basis, so he has assigned Chad Gillette to work with us. Chad is a good guy, one of Jim's guys, and Jim has assured me that he understands the importance of this effort."

That lurch in my stomach was the first car going over the lip of the descent. We hadn't really started and already there were changes. No matter how close a relationship, no matter how well communicated, Chad would want to place his stamp on the work. It would be another few weeks before we sized each other up and got working in earnest.

Susan recognized my discomfort and added "Look, it's not what I had hoped for, but we have momentum and the opportunity to build a real innovation program. Let's see what Chad has to say."

"In my experience" I said "we need to keep the channels open to Brockwell and Underwood. Those two have given us the vision, and regardless of Chad's responsibilities on this project, we need to set the expectation that we want to meet with Brockwell and Underwood regularly."

Susan frowned but said nothing. There was no way I was going to allow the reporting structures and politics get in the way of achieving what Brockwell and Underwood wanted, because it seemed that everyone else had a different perspective or intent for our project.

We met Chad later that morning. Chad, on the whole, was a bright, earnest young guy, a fast climber who had impressed Brockwell with his hard work and smarts. Chad was a fairly newly minted MBA, which meant in my book that he knew a little about a lot of things, and practically nothing about actual work. Given that he was a finance major and worked in finance, that just compounded the issues in my head. I was convinced all Chad was going to worry about was the money. Boy, was I wrong.

After the usual pleasantries, Susan and I set out an ambitious plan to build an innovation team, encourage incremental and disruptive innovation throughout the organization and start building innovation communities by training high potential people in the organization. It was a very carefully designed program, one she and I had been building for months in anticipation of the approval from Brockwell and Underwood. I made sure to impress upon Chad that Brockwell and Underwood were supportive of our plans and the goals of innovation.

Once we finished our presentation, Chad had a few questions.

"What's it going to take to accomplish all of this work? How quickly can we get some new ideas into the product development pipeline?"

I liked what I was hearing so far. Speed and urgency are so important in an innovation program. Let's get going while we have the ear of the CEO and some momentum.

"We can start generating ideas in specific product groups in just a few weeks" I said. "Clearly we won't have a chance to train the teams on innovation processes, but Susan and I can work with them to identify key opportunities and issues and start generating ideas."

"Great. Do you think we can have new products in the pipeline so we can get budgets in place during the annual planning cycle?"

The annual planning cycle, that recurring monster better known to innovation experts as the idea killing process. Perhaps as welcoming to innovation and new ideas as a place of execution, a place where great ideas went to die. Every large business basically shuts down to re-enact the development of next year's plan, which comprises a set of presentations where the numbers move slightly from last year's plan. A rigid, microscopically managed process with no ambiguity and no room for error.

"Yes, but I think we'll need to consider how to acquire funds for the idea within the annual plan, as well as outside the plan. Our experience is that new ideas seldom have much success in an annual planning cycle. Additionally, we may have good ideas that should be launched before the planning cycle, and may need to find the funds for those ideas instead of waiting for the plan."

You'd have thought I'd questioned the validity of the Black-Scholes equation or burned a tract on financial theory of markets to see the disbelief in his eyes. There was no consideration for funding outside of the annual plan from his perspective. And that's the way the rest of the morning progressed. We'd recommend changes to the way Accipiter worked, to further an innovation goal, and he'd reinforce the existing processes. What I came to discover, very quickly, that while he was in finance, he was actually much more invested in the existing processes and methods. He understood the need for innovation and different results, he just didn't seem to understand that new thinking and new ideas might require different processes, people with new skills and changes in the way Accipiter worked.

It was odd to see such attachment to a dysfunctional corporate process and culture by someone who had not served much time within Accipiter. From a corporate lifer I would have expected the adherence to the existing order, but not from a fresh-faced MBA. Yet Chad battled us on every recommendation, trying to water down our approach and align the approach to existing methods and processes, intent on keeping the work as close to what Accipiter already did as possible.

By the end of our first meeting I'd reached the bottom of the roller coaster. My stomach didn't lurch so much as heave. Just on the brink of success, we were being pulled back into the existing order. Even though we had open channels to Brockwell, I didn't think it would matter. One of us would have to go. Either Accipiter wanted to move forward with innovation, and was willing to change, or Accipiter wanted to act interested in innovation while reinforcing the status quo. I wasn't going to stick around for the second option, and Chad seemed unwilling to commit to the first. I wondered why Chad, and several other executives before him, were so wedded to the current structures and so afraid of change.

At the end of a completely frustrating meeting, where Chad and I had increasingly talked past each other, and both recognized the futility of further discussions without clear direction from the top, we broke the meeting. Susan had been relatively quiet for a while and had a pensive look on her face.

"OK, we go back to Brockwell and tell him the fair haired boy doesn't see eye to eye with him, and find another person."

She shook her head, not saying no, just in resignation and disbelief.

"I didn't realize how powerful the status quo really is, and how difficult introducing innovation as a sustaining capability was going to be."

It's not a hopeless cause, I thought, but we need a burning platform to get the company's attention.

"What would draw significant attention to this issue and get everyone on board?" I asked.

"I've been thinking about that myself. Perhaps we should pull in Mr. Kasamis."

"Doug Kasamis, the chairman?"

"Yes, he was the founder and a real entrepreneur. He is still very respected within the organization. If we can get him as a spokesperson, if he is willing, he could rally most of the organization to a significant change."

We knew what to do. Meet with Underwood and Brockwell, explain the gravity and urgency of a clearly communicated message, and recommend that we deploy the heavy guns.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Six

Life is full of false peaks. Just as you scale those final few feet, ready to plant your flag at the top of the mountain, you realize there's another peak ahead. All the work you do merely positions you - gives you the right - to attack the next peak.

We'd been to the mountain, and in some ways the mountains had come to us. Now we were confronted with the actual work - creating and executing a plan that would make Accipiter more innovative. It was at once an overwhelming and exhilarating task. Susan seemed a bit stunned by the meeting, and I was chomping at the bit, ready to go.

All Brockwell wanted at this point was a logical plan, and fortunately I could pull samples of work we'd done and the plans that supported that work off the shelf. I had come somewhat prepared, assuming our next step would be to develop the plan to ask for the necessary resources. Susan and I sat down side by side at the conference table once Underwood departed. She seemed a bit out to sea.

"I'm not really sure where to start" she said. "There's so much to do. What should we do first?"

If there's one thing I think I'm good at, it's cutting through all the fluff to get to the heart of the issue.

"Look, nothing really matters until we develop a plan and cost that plan out for Underwood and the executives. We need to focus our attention on developing the plan that outlines how we make Accipiter more innovative, and cost out the effort. That's all we need to focus on over the next few days. Fortunately I've got some plans we've used with other clients in similar situations. What we'll need from you are the internal costs, especially in terms of resources."

Susan warmed to the task immediately. I've found that innovation work can be daunting, especially since there are so many ambiguities and gray areas within the work. Helping a client find the bedrock tasks and focusing them on these familiar actions is the best way to get started.

"OK. What do we need to do to modify these plans?"

"One of the first things we need to do is set up a couple of interviews with Brockwell, Underwood, and the other business line leaders. If we are going to implement an innovation program, we want to get their input as to the shape, size and scope of the program. Should we be focusing on disruptive innovations or incremental innovations? Should we create external innovation communities or rely on internal insights? Should we innovate existing products or create new products and markets? We need to gain a good understanding from them about how innovation supports their strategies, and how much risk and change they are willing to introduce. In my experience, it may be difficult to get this from them, so we may have to work up a draft outline of the program and have them say grace over it."

"All right, that makes sense. I think it will be difficult to get a clear picture of the strategies from them, but we can do our best. What else?"

"Once we understand or at least document a strategic scope for the innovation program, we can estimate the size of the team necessary to support our efforts, and begin to define the people we'll need on a part-time and full-time basis for our project team. That will include you and me, and Underwood as the executive sponsor, an HR person, a communications person and probably three to five representatives from the various business lines."

"I've already spoken to George about the communications person. It was clear to me that we'd need help active communicating our goals and the intent of the program. After our talk with George and Jim, George asked me to speak with the VP of HR, and we've identified a person in her organization who can assist us with the project."

"OK, then we need to identify a couple, probably no more than five, people, who can work with us and represent the various insights and interests of the organization from the various business lines or product lines. Best to ask for volunteers."

"Why volunteers? Why not simply have their managers assign a person?"

"A couple of reasons. First, regardless of the assignment, the folks we get are going to keep their hands in their "day jobs" because this project won't occupy them forever. They'll want to keep current in their regular jobs even if their commitment to us is 80-90%. Since they are going to be continuing some involvement in their regular jobs, I want people on the team who are willing to work extra hours because they believe in change and innovation. It's tough enough to implement any change, but the kinds of change we'll create will take real passion. People who get assigned to this will look at it as just another task on their plate. I want more than that - I want the malcontents and true believers. They are the ones who will be here late, and won't get disappointed or frustrated when we encounter setbacks."

Susan seemed unsure of my staffing philosophy. "It's not that I disagree with your approach" she said "but the managers may have a lot of concern about their staff volunteering themselves for extra work. After all, they do have a business to run."

"Yep, and you've pointed out another reason I want volunteers, and we need to reserve the right to accept or reject people from the team. This project is too important to be a dumping ground for people who aren't cutting it or up to snuff, or who don't believe in this work. We need, as much as possible" I said this waving my hands, trying to tamp down the fires" to make this an elite, conspicuous team. If this becomes just another "flavor of the month" team, everyone will recognize it for what it is and ignore us."

"With the strategic framework in mind, and the resources identified, I suppose we build a project plan next?"

"Yes, and that will help us arrive at some cost estimates for Brockwell."

"We've got until Friday. Let's get to work."

From altitude to bedrock in just over an hour. Now it was time to start climbing the next mountain.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Six

Six am on a Monday. The sky still pitch black, at least the sliver I can see from my window. The alarm is insistent, my head is pounding and there's a cottony desert in my mouth. It appears that two wrongs don't make a right after all.

Confounded by the mixture of apprehension and elation. Filled with questions - what if, what if. Head aching, stomach churning. And I still am in a horizontal position, with one eye fixed on the clock. Six oh one.

In my mind's eye I could see Brockwell, who probably sprang out of bed at 4am each workday morning to sweat to the oldies on his elliptical machine, and was bright eyed and ready to go at the office by 5am. Even now he was sitting at his desk, planning his day, consulting his calendar. Preparing for our meeting. Hale and hearty, in fighting trim. The mind reels.

Somehow I managed to take a long cold shower, which relieved my head and jumpstarted my heart. Dry toast, bitter yesterday coffee from the bottom of the pot and a rumbled black suit. At 6:45 I took one last glance around the apartment, grabbed my keys and left, headed out to a celebration or an execution. Moving down the hallway to the stairwell I thought of Sean Penn in that movie. Dead man walking. Maybe so.

I can't say I remember the drive to Accipiter. It was cool that morning and the traffic wasn't too bad. I actually arrived early - a first for me. By the time I got to the parking lot I had settled down, ready to plunge in or back away, promising myself that if Brockwell managed to create yet another excuse for putting off the project I was going to immerse myself in the projects that Meredith and Matt had underway and leave Accipiter to its own devices.

At 7:15 there was no one at the main reception, so I rang Susan and got her voicemail, then settled in to wait for Susan or Brockwell, or the reception team. Promptly at 7:30 Brockwell himself turned the corner, called me over and started back down the hallway. As we walked together, my stomach began to lurch again. I was expecting the worst. Susan had not come to greet me.

"I did a lot of thinking over the weekend, Sam" and I felt a cool sweat break out on my forehead. "This innovation effort isn't easy." Still non-committal.

"It never is, but it is usually worth the effort" I said, with a grin that started and ended at my lips. The eyes, cheeks and forehead had already surrendered. I probably looked like a death mask, but couldn't make eye contact.

"Yes, well that's what I wanted to talk with you about. How much effort will be involved to create an innovation team and spark some real innovation here at Accipiter? Jim and I talked over the weekend and we are both convinced that Accipiter needs innovation as a core capability. We simply can't survive in our market without a radical increase in new products and services."

This wasn't the music I had expected to hear. Rather than a sweet sad melody, I was getting Happy Days are here again. But I know enough to never interrupt an executive when he or she is expounding on their own vision.

"We've decided to make this a strategic focus this year. Jim will ask the board to approve several new positions and we'll find the funding for a significant investment in consulting time. We understand this is a big change and we want to do it the right way - and come out of the effort with the skills and knowledge, and cultural change - to innovate well into the future. You look a little pale. Feeling OK? Want a glass of water?"

No. I was feeling fine. In fact, never better.

Susan met us in the conference room, clearly excited but strangely subdued as well. Brockwell opened the discussion.

"I've told Sam about our intentions to make innovation a strategic priority this year." He glanced at Susan, who met his eyes and nodded. "The two of you need to give me a plan by the end of the week we can take to the board, to approve any new headcount and funding. I want a three year plan. Our goal is to create within Accipiter a culture that support and expects innovation, and a team that is responsible for managing innovation across the organization."

"Can we get time with you and other executives to define the scope of the effort, to ensure we have good estimates about the costs and investments?"

"I can give you time, and I suggest you talk with several of the business unit heads, Fred Phillips in particular. From reading your previous work for Accipiter I found that you suggest including human resources in this type of effort."

It was a statement framed as a question, so I simply nodded.

"OK, then I'll clear it with Marjie that you can get time on her calendar this week. Speed is of the essence. Interview the people you can, and document your assumptions if you believe information is missing. I need that project plan and estimate on my desk by end of day Friday so we can present it to the board. If you are in doubt, estimate upwards, don't be conservative. We'll manage the costs downward later. Any questions?"

None from my side. I was ready to get started. I knew that Susan had one.

"I'm in a strange situation. I report to Bill. Has he OK'd my involvement?"

"Actually, for the next few months you'll report dotted line to me. We believe that this effort will need a committed head of innovation, and this is your chance to audition for the role. Do well, and it will likely be yours." He left the alternative unsaid, but it hung there.

It would make for some uncomfortable hallway meetings I was sure, but Susan had gotten what she wanted. Now the question was - could we make Accipiter an innovation success?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Five

The weekend past in a blur of anticipation. The clock couldn't move fast enough, the days seemed to drag along. Even the attractions of sunny southern California didn't hold much appeal. I longed to be walled up in a noiseless, sterile conference room, surrounded by executives in suits making decisions about the future of their company. June called on Saturday and I took her to a prefunctory dinner, and we went dancing, but my head and my heart were elsewhere. She could tell that I was disengaged but I doubt she would have realized that it was Accipiter, and not another woman, that occupied my brain cycles.

As I walked her to her door, she turned and said "I hope she's good to you. I won't play one of those Hollywood heroines and tell you I'll always be here for you."

I put my hand on her door and closed it before she made the rapid getaway.

"We've meant something to each other for a long time" I said. "There's no other woman in my life right now. I'm just really occupied with a potential new client and trying to reason out the best way, no, the right way to do the work. It's been haunting me all weekend. I'm like the greyhound in the box, eyes on the rabbit but the bell hasn't rung yet. All nervous energy and playing out a bunch of scenarios in my mind. I'm sorry I wasn't the best date tonight. I know it and if you'll let me, I'll make it up to you."

She looked at me, not really buying the story entirely but seeing the truth that was in at least part of it. I knew then she was a terrific woman and I should make the right moves here and focus my attentions for at least a few hours on my personal life, rather than become so overwhelmed with Accipiter that I lost myself in my work.

"Can I buy you a drink?" I said, hoping she would ask me in for a nightcap.

"Sam, not tonight. If what you say is true, then give me a call when you are ready to focus on me, on us. I think I believe you, but I need to see more from you than an hour or two. Good luck with the new client" emphasis on client "and when you've decided that I'm as important as some company, then give me a call. Maybe I'll answer."

With that she glanced at my hand on her door, which slid away and she slipped into her apartment, without a glance back at me. I'd managed, in less than a few weeks, alienate my partner, my co-workers and my sometimes girlfriend all to win a new client that I wasn't even sure I wanted. The work was almost too personal.

I relieved my sorrow in the usual way, one shotglass at a time that evening and slept in on Sunday. The hours seemed to tick by even more slowly, so I left the apartment and went to the office, to catch up on all the work I'd left undone during the Accipiter sales efforts. Yet at the office I was unable to concentrate, still spinning the Accipiter opportunity around in my mind. Forms, bills, receipts were scattered around my desk representing tens of thousands of billings, but I could not help but play out all the alternative outcomes for Accipiter. I could imagine arriving on Monday to be told that over the weekend, Underwood and Brockwell had had second thoughts and were postponing the project, or that the board had decided to halt the project and hire a big name consulting firm to examine the strategic consequences of innovation and report back in six months. There were so many opportunities for any innovation project to go astray, and so few chances for one to succeed. I had a lot tied up in this one, and it had me tied up as well.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Four

Matt eyed me warily that Thursday morning. He seemed uncertain about my presence in the office, as if I were an unexpected bill collector.

"You look a little surprised to see me."

"I am. I thought you had taken permanent office space at Accipiter."

Close to it I thought.

"We got the go ahead from Underwood, the CEO, yesterday. I'm working with the project manager and their CFO to pull together a project plan on Monday. Could be a good, long term client."

That seemed to bring me back into his good graces a bit.

"Meredith won a new research project at Cantide last week, and I'm continuing our work with Johnson Industries. Things are just busting out all over."

"Look, I know I got in a little deep with Accipiter, and I appreciate the fact you've stepped up to take over the work. There was something about this client - I just had to win this work."

"Something about Accipiter, or something about the project manager, that made you want to win the work? And since when do we make such a large bet on just one firm?"

Matt was right, but I wasn't going to lie down and let him walk all over me.

"Accipiter has the potential to be a very large client, and a successful client. I made the decision to spend my time on that account, and I don't have to justify it. I know I've been less than attentive to the firm and to our other clients, and I'll make it up."

Matt wasn't mollified by the answer but didn't pursue it any further. He and I both left the issues with Susan fall to the wayside for the moment.

"What's the work going to look like at Accipiter?"

"They need a complete overhaul of their product development process. They are too inwardly focused and haven't created a compelling new product or service in years. The culture is very comfortable and safe, so we'll need to do some revamping of the culture and the compensation systems. They have been a slow follower, and need to get out in front of their competition. I'd like to see them conduct some scenario planning and ethnography to understand where the market is going. There will be opportunities for your skills as well as Meredith's at Accipiter. I can see at least a year, perhaps more, of work for us there."

His eyebrows almost merged with his hairline and I think I had his attention and perhaps a bit more. One client of the size I described, in combination with our existing clients and prospects, could mean a good year, and perhaps another staff member or two.

"How certain are you of that forecast?"

"Not counting any chickens yet, especially after all the false starts. But I think we have a real sponsor who is committed to doing something dramatic. I'll know a lot more next week after we put the plan together and define the costs."

"So, in the mean time, do you think you can help me review some of the Cantide insights and meet with them tomorrow to lead some ideation?"

It was the least I could do, given how much of the load he'd carried the last few weeks. Or probably months.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Three

It was one of those moments we'll look back in time and wonder what happened. It had a Rashoman-like quality, creating a different perspective from each of us that was in the room that day. While I had been a part of a number of discussions with senior executives, I'd never seen a CEO pushed into a corner by a compatriot. Underwood was cornered, and cornered executives, like cornered animals, were unpredictable things.

I gasped slightly and realized I'd been holding my breath, waiting for Underwood to respond to Brockwell's challenge. As I considered it, though, I was certain that Underwood would play his ace in the hole, the card every executive puts on the table when they don't want to, or can't, make a decision. Underwood was going to ask us for more information, more research, more cost estimates. Anything to keep from having to make the decision right now.

Underwood glanced from Susan to Brockwell, studiously avoiding my gaze. My eyes were fixed on him, an intentional challenge. I was willing him to have the backbone to support the innovation efforts he had championed earlier. He cleared his throat like a gun shot, and I couldn't tell which shoe would drop.

"You are right, George, that I have been advocating innovation, and I believe it is something we absolutely need to do." My heart rose. "However.." My heart sank while he held up his hand to stave off any immediate reactions "However, I don't have the time to get as involved as I suspect the team will need me to be. I have a suggestion, however." My heart was pounding - was there a light at the end of this tunnel, or just a train approaching? "I'll fully support you taking the lead on innovation, if you are willing to take on the work. You'll have my full support and can act as the head of innovation for Accipiter, at least until I complete some other activities the board has asked me to complete." He shot a conspiratorial glance at Brockwell, who decoded it and recognized what he was talking about.

In this game of pass the ticking bomb around, now Brockwell had it securely in his lap. There was no one else to pass it to in the room, as we all knew a senior executive would have to sponsor the initiative. He couldn't pass it to Susan, and certainly not to me, and, as they say in the military, excrement rolls downhill, not up. You could almost see the mental abacus working behind Brockwell's eyes as he weighed the alternatives. There probably wasn't another executive who would push as hard as he would. Thompson had already proved unreliable. If Brockwell backed down, there'd be no reason to go forward. If he agreed, he'd take on another significant initiative just as Accipiter was heading into the yearly budgeting cycle.

Susan was carefully studying the nap on the rug in Underwood's conference room, like a scientist trying to read ancient hieroglyphics. She was not making any eye contact, hoping like a kid at bedtime that Mom will overrule Dad and let her watch the late movie, there, but pretending not to be involved in the decision. Even so her face was flushed, and she was breathing rapidly. It was evident that this meant a great deal to her.

Brockwell finished sliding the virtual beads around and locked eyes with me. I knew what he would say before he opened his mouth.

"Let's do it" he said. "I'll delegate some of my responsibilities to Aaron" this he said with a glance to Underwood, who nodded "and I'll need to round up a few strong managers to help us make this project go forward" Again, Underwood nodded. I wondered what this would cost him.

Underwood stood up, signaling his part of the meeting was done. "Good. I'm excited about the project and about your role in heading it up. Sam, Susan, excellent work. I can't wait to see the new ideas start flowing." And with that he left the room, on to another meeting.

Susan looked a bit stunned. "What just happened?"

"We're on, and moving the project forward. I'll be the executive sponsor. You and Matt have convinced me. I'm sticking my neck out a bit, but don't worry, there's something in it for me, as well as for Accipiter. Now, let's get the plans finalized and get started. Matt, do we have an agreement with your team?"


"OK. Susan and I will walk the vendor agreement and services agreement through purchasing, otherwise it will be another six weeks before we can get started. I need a day or two to clear up my calendar and bring a few other people on board. What say we kick off this project next Monday."

I was excited but didn't want him to think we came cheap, or easy. I pulled a small appointment calendar from my pocket and made a show of checking my availability.

"I can do that. Will we meet here, say at 9am?" That was one of the first of my assumptions that would prove to be incorrect.

"9am? By god man, by 9am I'm half way through my day. Let's compromise and kick off at 7:30 next Monday." Susan shot me a glance that said just shut up and say yes, so I did. 7:30? That put me feet on the floor in my apartment at 6am. Was the sun even up at that hour?

We left the meeting and Susan and I thanked George and walked over to collect our things. She escorted me to the front, her excitement bubbling over.

"Can you believe it? I thought we'd lost our chance when George asked Jim to take on the executive sponsor role. I was ready to quit. And then George agreed to sponsor it. We finally have someone who will back us and support us on this project. I can't wait for Monday."

My emotions were boiling as well, but I tried to temper her thinking. "It's good George said yes" I said "but we need to be sure we understand his goals and priorities. He may have different objectives than we do, so one of the first things we need to do is to talk with him, and understand how he sees the world."

"You're right, but I'm still excited."

I turned, shook her hand and made to offer her my security badge. To my surprise, there in the middle of the reception area she threw an arm around me and hugged me.

"See you Monday" she said.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Two

We'd worked for four days, examining every angle, talking to every influencer and building what we hoped would be a bullet proof case for the innovation efforts we felt were best for Accipiter.

Sitting in the assistant's office, waiting for Underwood to finish his meeting, I felt for a moment like a man on trial, waiting for the jury to come in and read out my sentence. I was entirely too invested in the success or failure of Accipiter, a prospect that had yet to pay me a dime of revenue after six months of business development. I had an uncertain and awkward relationship, both personal and business, with the project manager and had been so consumed with Accipiter that the rest of my business had been pushed off or ignored. Thankfully Matt was capable and Meredith had come up to speed more quickly than we'd anticipated. If I took a hard, objective look at the meeting I could see that if Underwood didn't want to invest in an innovation effort and shot us down, I'd have plenty of other opportunities and would quickly recover professionally. It wasn't clear to me yet why I had turned an ordinary sales effort into the hunt for the white whale, but there it was, and here I am, sitting impatiently like a kid on his first date, waiting for the new girlfriend to come down the stairs while I passed the time with her father.

Susan, on the other hand, seemed very optimistic. I think she had some inside information that had led her to believe that this meeting was a formality. We thought we were going to get the funds, and perhaps a real slap on the back as well. Who knew? Who can read the corporate tea leaves?

We were well prepared. We had a slide deck, examples of work Marlow had done for other firms, examples of innovative new products from Accipiter's competitors. All of this would be compelling, but only if Underwood felt the urgency and was willing to place a lot of emphasis, and a lot of his time, on innovation. And on that score, I had done my own homework. Underwood was a company man, having worked for Accipiter for almost his entire career, joining out of graduate school and working his way up through the financial organization. Not a promising track record for an innovator. Brockwell had assured us that while the numbers meant a great deal to Underwood, he was interested in placing his own stamp on the company and felt it had to change to be successful. We'd know in a few minutes.

The door opened and a number of Accipiter executives exited the conference room adjacent to Underwood's office. I'd been in and out of Accipiter's offices so frequently that I knew many of them, at least in passing, and several nodded in my direction and spoke to Susan. Brockwell walked over with Underwood and introduced me.

"Sam, this is Jim Underwood our CEO. Jim, Sam Marlow of Marlow Innovation. He's been a key contributor to the work we've done so far, and will be working with us if you give the go-ahead."

I'd seen Underwood's picture on the annual report, and he did not fail to impress. Every CEO looks like a television evangelist, not a hair out of place and crisp shirts with dark suits. Underwood was medium height, salt and pepper hair cut trim and carried himself like an athlete. One could easily imagine him walking off the golf course or the tennis courts.

"Sam, good to meet you. I've heard a lot about your work with our company, and I know it's been quite a while since you first started talking with us. I'm interested in changing the dynamic at Accipiter and encouraging much more innovative thinking and new product development. I'm interested to hear what you and Susan have to say."

Interested, but not yet committed I thought. It was better than a sharp stick in the eye, certainly.

We made our way into the conference room. Susan and I set up our presentation while Brockwell and Underwood took their seats. Susan made introductions and gave a brief overview of the proposal we'd developed, and then we settled in to present our thinking.

We had decided to recommend the whole kahuna - a centralized innovation team to facilitate innovation throughout Accipiter, to develop an innovation process and methodology and to act as a coach or facilitator for teams throughout Accipiter doing innovation. The central team would also take on trend spotting and scenario planning and would generate ideas for "white space" or "blue ocean" concepts, while the product lines retained responsibility for incremental and product innovation. We identified how the team would work, staffing requirements and investments for a three year period. It was a well thought out, well designed program but was reasonably expensive and definitely different from anything Accipiter had done before.

"This is a larger effort than I had anticipated" Underwood said once we were done. We'd intentionally asked for everything, assuming we could get some, if not most of what we thought was important. Ultimately for us we wanted 3 full time people in the innovation team and perhaps $500K to $1M dollars for innovation efforts by the team.

"When we spoke with George we felt the best course was to show you a true innovation program and what it would take to build and support such a program. This isn't a short term solution or a "toe in the water". What we've shown you, and what we think is the best chance for success, is a full immersion." Susan was hitting her stride. I think she was fully committed to an innovation program or finding a new company to work for.

"I didn't say I was opposed - just surprised." I think Underwood caught Susan's passion and conviction. "We need something like this, there's no doubt. George, what are your thoughts?"

That was a good sign to me. Brockwell was a supporter and felt the innovation program was a good way to drive new revenue.

"I brought these folks to you because they convinced me that innovation was necessary to do what we need to do to change Accipiter. I'm on board for the people investment. We'll need to do some work to find the funds. But what Sam and Susan have also told us is that this program needs your investment as well. Jim, can you spend the time and the energy to build some momentum for this program?"

How much did he really want it, and what was he willing to do to make it successful?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty One

Nine thirty sharp the next day my phone rang.

"Marlow" I said, wiping coffee grounds from my tongue.

"We're in" she said.

"OK. What day?"

"Next Tuesday, 9am. We'll have an hour. Just Underwood and Brockwell. We make our recommendations and ask for funds and resources."


"Can you come over today? I want to get started on the presentation as quickly as possible. I'd like to have a draft to Brockwell for his comments by Friday."

I pushed some papers off the desk blotter. Normally they'd have my full attention, since they were the project plan that Meredith developed for Cantide. We'd been asked to conduct some ethnographic research to identify new products. It was Meredith's first project start to finish. But right now cracking the Accipiter nut was simply too compelling. Around the ring marks and smoldering ash, underneath the sticky notes and assorted flotsam and jetsam of my desktop I found my calendar. September 12, 9am. Noting booked for that day. Good. Counting back. September 7, today. Matt had scheduled a meeting with Goine Technologies to present some early idea concepts. He had asked me to attend weeks ago. Goine was a paying customer, while Accipiter was still in a sales process. Matt was going to have to go it alone.

"I'll be there in an hour" I heard myself say, and I rung off. I trusted Matt to get the work done well, and I knew Meredith had it in her to design the work at Cantide correctly. We'd finally climbed the ladder at Accipiter. There was no going any higher. With luck we'd walk out of that office on the 12th with the funds to do the work the right way.

I gave Meredith's plan the once over, marking up a few tasks and adding a recommendation or two and left it on her desk. I left Matt a note explaining the situation. I told June I'd be at Accipiter the rest of the day and left the office. It wasn't clear to me anymore if I was going for the client, for the project, or for Susan. It felt as if we were both captive to the project, and to a certain extent the work was running us, rather than the other way round.

I drove to Accipiter in a fog, arriving without recalling the drive. It was only 10:15, but I felt I'd been up all day. I resolved to myself to set priorities. Marlow Innovation had my name on the badge. It employed a number of interesting and dedicated people. I was the leader, in name and in practice. I had to balance the importance of Accipiter to the firm, and to me, and I had to be willing to move on as well if Accipiter didn't progress the way I knew it should. My feelings for Susan were confused - not love really, more like the way two people in a lifeboat cling to each other for assurance. We were like two kids who finally get to see Santa, and realize that perhaps it wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

Susan met me at the reception desk, with a wary look in her eye. I think we both were confronted with the reality that Tuesday would make, or break, whatever relationship we had. Perhaps it needed to be defined first.

"Susan, Accipiter could be an important client to Marlow Innovation" I said, "And I'm working hard to win this business. On Tuesday, Underwood can make us both very happy, or he can decide to forego innovation. I'll work my other clients if that happens. What will you do?"

It hadn't come out the way I'd wanted, but my my thinking wasn't clear. We were on the brink of something big, but the work felt crowded by the possibility of a relationship between the two of us. What would happen if we won this project? What would happen if we lost?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty

The line between commiserating and celebrating is a very thin line. A few weeks ago we'd had a beer together to commiserate the fact that nothing we did at Accipiter seemed to go as planned. We'd sat at the same bar, had the same drinks and we'd consoled each other over our hard work and lack of progress. Today, the beer was just as cold, the wine just as tart, but we were sitting in a nether world somewhere between shock and celebration. George Brockwell, probably the most unlikely candidate to improve our innovation chances, had broken the log jam and offered to take our proposal straight to the CEO. Given that Brockwell, was the right hand man to Jim Underwood, and the heir apparent, we believed this meant our project would finally gain some momentum.

Immediately after the meeting, Susan turned to me and said: "O'Malley's. Five thirty." And had gathered up her things and left the conference room, never acknowledging Bill Thompson or anyone else in the room. I was sure if it was relief, emotion or some other factor that caused her to flee the room.

I hovered, slowly gathering my papers and re-arranged my bag. I wanted to speak to Brockwell alone, away from Thompson and some of the other executives who'd been part of the innovation program all along. Slowly, one by one, some of the executives left the room, leaving me, Thompson and Brockwell. It was fairly clear Thompson wasn't going to leave me alone with Brockwell, so I made my move.

"George, just want you to know we appreciate your confidence in our proposal and look forward to meeting with you and with Jim."

Brockwell looked at me curiously, as if he had a bad taste in his mouth and was trying to clear it before speaking. His eyes never left mine.

"Sam, we are under attack from many sides. We've researched, and investigated, and piloted, but we have no compelling new products to release. In my mind, we have no alternative but to innovate, and quickly. I can't for the life of me understand why it has taken this long to reach an agreement on this project."

Thompson stiffened visibly but said nothing. I was on very thin ice, since Thompson was Susan's boss, but Brockwell clearly held the whip hand now. My hand was flush, but I needed to know what cards he held.

"In my experience" I said "these projects always take time to approve, since the work requires a different approach and perspective than the existing culture is comfortable with, and introduces a lot of risk and uncertainty. I'm just glad we are moving ahead with you."

If a glance could cut diamonds, I'd have ten or fifteen facets by now. I could feel Thompson glaring at me but did not bother to acknowledge his presence. Brockwell shot holes through my chest but didn't take his eyes off me.

"Hmm. Yes, I suppose these projects do take more time and discussion. Call me tomorrow and let's set a time to see Jim."

"Glad to. I'll get with Susan and we'll work with your assistant to get on your calendar and then find a convenient time to talk with Jim. What do you want to accomplish in the meeting with Jim?"

At this point, since neither of us had acknowledged his presence, Thompson stood, gathered his papers and left. He'd heard what he needed to hear.

"Sam, I want you and Susan to present the same material to Jim. He is passionate about implementing change and wants the organization to innovate. Frankly" he said, glancing at the open doorway "he's frustrated that this hasn't moved over the last three months, and has made clear to me that it needs to move faster."

I could take the hint. Thompson, for whatever reason, had been stringing us along, not intending to do more than absolutely necessary, while Underwood had wanted more. I never understand why CEOs allow their plans to be held hostage by their subordinates, but that's another story for another time.

"Susan will be ecstatic to move forward more quickly" I told him. "I'm sorry she had to leave so quickly once the meeting ended."

"No worries. Just talk with my assistant and get the meeting set with Jim."

I thanked him and left. I walked to my car with the lightest step I'd had in weeks, and pointed the convertible to O'Malley's. I had a beer at the bar and read the paper, waiting for Susan to arrive.

Promptly at 5:30 she pushed the door open and glanced around. I waved at her and she came over, sat down and made eye contact with my waiter. She ordered a Chardonnay.

"Sorry I walked out so quickly. I was afraid I'd say something to George or Bill that would end my career, so I felt the best thing to do was just leave."

"You were definitely in a no-win situation. I know Bill's your boss, but what game has he been playing?"

"No idea. I had no idea that Underwood felt so strongly about innovation. Bill has been parsing out information to me, and I thought perhaps someone above him was pulling back on the reins. Now I feel like he's misled me for several months. What do you do when you can't believe your own boss?"

I told her about the conversation I'd had with Brockwell after the meeting ended. Her spirits rose as I told her that Brockwell was stepping in and clearing the way for us to meet with Underwood as quickly as possible.

"What could Bill have been thinking?" I asked. "Clearly Underwood wants more action around innovation."

"I really have no idea" she said, signaling the waiter for another glass. "I was led to believe that Underwood and some of the other senior executives were reluctant to move forward. What am I to do now? Bill won't be happy that we are moving ahead quickly. I wonder what he'll do now."

Thompson didn't strike me as particularly vindictive, and he'd been the bottleneck. It seemed strange to think that he'd continue to be a fly in the ointment now that Underwood was stepping in, but who knows how things work.

What was important to me just then was that very soon we'd be meeting the CEO of Accipiter to pitch him on our plans for innovation.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty Nine

My head was spinning and I was glad that Susan had offered to kick off the presentation. I was still trying to recover from the coldcock blow that announced that the CFO was the new "sponsor" for innovation. Now, I'd worked with a number of firms on innovation, and I'd had sponsors that ranged from the expected (product management, marketing or business line lead) to the unexpected (a human resources director) but the last person I thought I'd ever see as a sponsor for innovation was the CFO. But, there he sat, paying close attention to Susan's introduction.

I was pulled out of my funk by Susan introducing me and the transition to the next slide, which introduced our vision for innovation at Accipiter.

"Pardon me, Susan, but before Sam presents, can you tell me how long you've been working on the innovation effort to date?" That from Brockwell. It was probably an innocent question, but my heart sank to my knees. I'd be involved with Accipiter now for at least six months, presenting, talking, cajoling and we still didn't have an active project. Susan had been at it far longer. It wasn't her fault that we weren't further along. It wasn't anybody's fault. So far there hadn't been any reason for the project to succeed.

I glanced at Bill Thompson, but there was no joy there. He wasn't willing to step out on the ledge with us. If Susan was going down, she would do so publicly and alone.

"I've been working on developing an innovation capability within Accipiter for about eight months. I took the position in September and had to transition some of my other responsibilities. We've had, frankly, some starts and some stops along the way."

"What's the barrier?" Hmm. Things could get interesting. Could Brockwell actually care about innovation and want it to move forward, or was he just scratching a rhetorical itch? And, how far out on the limb would Susan be willing to go?

"Well, George, Accipiter's culture doesn't lend itself well to this kind of change. That's actually why we decided to take a step back and get agreement on a vision for what innovation could do for us. It was pretty clear there was a lot of concern and little interest in some of our initial efforts, so we decided to see if we could get buy in with you, the senior executives, and start to push the concept of innovation through the business units."

George was nodding, but not giving too much away at this point. It still wasn't clear whether he was agreeing with Susan or just taking it all in. He definitely was playing his cards close to the vest.

"Please continue with the presentation" he said.

That was my cue to start.

"Susan and I have spent the last few weeks thinking about innovation and what it could mean to Accipiter, and what Accipiter needs to be successful if it commits to an increased focus on innovation. Over the next few slides I want to show you the vision we've defined and discuss the opportunities and challenges we see in relation to that vision. As we progress through this, I hope you'll find that we've defined the opportunity well, and that you'll see the importance of senior executive commitment to this effort. As Susan has already pointed out, no significant initiative is going to be successful without your buy in and continuing support."

"We've identified three significant strategic objectives that Accipiter is pursuing. These are: Organic growth in key markets, entry into new product lines or areas where Accipiter does not have an offering today and entry into international markets. We believe that a focused innovation effort can support and accelerate the first two strategic goals, and this is our first supposition. Innovation is not a strategy, but an enabler of key strategies and goals."

So far, so good. We'd taken the strategic goals we could identify, which hadn't been easy, and identified the ones we felt we could support with innovation.

"If we seek to innovate around these two strategic goals, we can decide whether we seek incremental or disruptive innovation. Making these choices will then determine what kinds of innovation activities, processes and goals we'd implement, and the amount of change we'd require for Accipiter. Our recommendation is to pursue incremental innovation in new markets for organic growth, and pursue disruptive innovation in new products. This recommendation means that we'd form programs to assist the existing product groups with incremental but intentional innovation, seeking new ideas for new products and services that are aligned to existing products for organic growth. We'd also work to set up more radical or disruptive innovation programs to identify new product or service opportunities or "blue oceans" where Accipiter can be the first to offer a new product or service."

"You'd suggest doing both, simultaneously?" Brockwell seemed a bit surprised. It was becoming evident whose meeting this was, as no one else had offered a suggestion or made any commitment. Thompson, who had been our sponsor and conduit, seemed to shrink even further in his chair. I wasn't sure if he was preparing to duck the bullets, or if he was losing stature in the hierarchy.

"Yes. Both require different commitment and different tools and techniques. The incremental work can start quickly and will identify new ideas in fairly short order, which allows us to get to the proverbial 'quick wins'. The disruptive work will take longer but will create more interesting and valuable opportunities. So the incremental work creates momentum and new products and buys time for the disruptive work, which will take longer but have more potential impact."

Brockwell's eyes widened. I'd really stepped in it this time.

He turned to face Thompson and Phillips. "Can we take on two simultaneous innovation projects?" He wanted them on the record.

Phillips hemmed and hawed, but allowed that Accipiter could probably manage both. To him it wasn't an issue of dollars but an issue of resources.

I responded. "Yes, in our experience innovation is almost always bounded by people more than costs. We will work with you to define the appropriate team, and we'll keep the requests to a minimum, but there will be demands on resources - and they'll be on your best people."

Thompson still hadn't responded, and Brockwell looked at him curiously. I was beginning to sense that Thompson had never intended for things to get this far - perhaps all he had ever wanted was to look like he was making some efforts around innovation. Well, he was soon to be hoist on his own petard. He'd have to come down one way or the other - either he'd been stringing Susan and I along for a number of months, or he'd grow a spine in the next 30 seconds.

"I don't think we can afford to do two simultaneous initiatives" he said at last, refusing to look at us. He busied himself with rearranging some papers in front of him. "I think the best we could do would be to focus on the incremental innovation for the product groups." Once again choosing the least risky approach.

Brockwell took that all in, nodding all the time. He was beginning to remind me of the bobblehead tchotchkes you can pick up at the ballpark on souvenir night. Then, he said something that I'll never forget.

"No, Bill, I think we need to do them both. What's the point of only doing the easy, incremental stuff? We already do that occasionally. Accipiter needs more, and we need to challenge it to do more. Susan, you and Sam plan to see me tomorrow. Call my assistant and set something up. I'll look at your estimates and see what we can do for the funding, then we'll take our proposal to Jim."

Jim. The CEO. George was overruling Bill and taking us straight to the CEO.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty Eight

Three days. That's a long weekend to some people, and a lifetime to others. Three days could make or break a quarter for a large organization. Three days is longer than most women get to be in the hospital before, during and after the birth of a baby. Three days can seem like a lifetime when you are on the receiving end of a software vendor pitch, trying to understand fact from fiction and watching screens and functions fly by at a thousand miles an hour. There was nothing to it, however. We'd asked for the demos and then we'd been unable to provide clear guidance about what Accipiter wanted to do with the software. Without clear direction and a defined set of needs or processes, all the software vendors could do is walk us through their standard dog and pony demos. After three days of watching these demos, I could tell you which ones had the nicest colors and which used fonts I liked, which offered features and attributes I thought were useful and which firms I'd want to work with or avoid based on the sales pitch. But none of that really mattered. What mattered after three days of demos, and after several weeks of work developing the innovation vision, was that we'd finally get an audience with the senior executives to get approval on our vision or clarity on the purpose and goals so we could reshape the vision. That meeting, finally, is scheduled for today.

Over my third cup of coffee I reviewed the requisite PowerPoint slides and pondered what the reception would be to our proposal. We'd tracked down as many of the executives as we could get in to see to brief them on our thinking and listen to their ideas, fears and concerns. The reception had been modest but polite. There were no overt concerns voiced or significant discomfort displayed by the executive team, and several interesting and valuable suggestions. One of the things we'd hoped would come out of these briefings would be a volunteer, someone so interested in innovation and trying out the process that the executive would volunteer his or her line of business, product group or geography to go first. In seven meetings we'd had only one taker, an up and coming hotshot who was interested in changing Accipter who ran one of the product groups. Mike Stimson is a real mixed blessing. Mike is clearly a comer, and is one of those guys who is fully committed to change. Stimson has implemented a number of new methods and processes in his team, some of which have worked well, and some of which have failed or managed to piss off the people around him. Stimson, while a climber, has a bit of a deaf ear when it comes to working well with his peers, and he is covered by Fred Phillips of all people, who is acting has his mentor and sponsor. Having Stimson as our first trial would mean that he would be fully engaged, and his team would be on board, but could damage our results in the eyes of other executives. We'd need to tread cautiously during the pilot.

Susan walked in with the final, updated deck. At this point I could have recited the contents of the deck blindfolded, drunk and hanging from my heels over an abyss. Strangely, that what I was sure the meeting would be like as well. Susan had dark circles under her eyes, the stress emanating from her fingertips like small sparks of electricity. She seemed perfectly composed except for around the edges, like a painting the artist was too busy to complete, fading off around the edges.

"You ready?"

"I'm ready. I was up early this morning reviewing these slides" she said. "There really shouldn't be any surprises. Everyone has committed to the meeting and we've briefed the deck with about 80% of the attendees. Bill has committed to me that the CEO will cover us if necessary. I don't see a big concern, other than perhaps the IT guys."

"They won't scotch the request."

"No, but if they aren't on board they can extend this project until you and I are comfortably rocking ourselves into retirement on a porch in Modesto."

"I'm not retiring in Modesto. When the time comes I'll push off in a little boat and go fishing like the Old man and the sea. Just float away and not come back."

"Ok, whatever your choice of oblivion. They can delay, obfuscate and pilot this thing to death. I think we've got Frank on board. Let's just hope he stays there."

"You'll do the presenting?"

"I'll kick it off and handle the first two sections. I'd like for you to cover what competitors are doing and what you see as the best going in concepts for our vision and innovation expectations and models. That will come better from an outsider than from me."

"So you can blame the consultant later?"

Her eyes tried to smile. Her voice was tired and wavered a bit. "I don't think you have to worry about that. If this goes down, or even gets significantly delayed, I'll be looking for something new, and you'll find another innovation executive to start a beautiful friendship with."

Darn tootin. But I'd put far too much into this to see it fall apart, or lose momentum, or run up against an executive team with too little gumption and too much fear of change. Come hell or high water, we were going to leave there with an approval, or something was going up in flames.

"I'm with Cortez on this one. We've landed and we're burning the boats. There's no easy way out, no easy way back."

Now her eyes smiled, and so did the rest of her face. I didn't realize it until then, but she was a wreck. The weeks and months of living in limbo, never sure if we were moving ahead or killing the project, living in a half-alive, half-dead no man's land had taken a lot out of her. Admirable that she was keeping it together. Frayed around the edges but still solid at the core.

"It's time" she said, sounding like the executioner leading me to the guillotine. "Let's go."

After six months of uncertainty and misdirection, headfakes and management gibberish, we were finally going to bring this to a head.

We entered the conference room and I spotted many of the usual suspects, most of whome we'd managed to brief before the meeting. Frank was there, of course, representing IT. Fred Phillips was there, and of course Bill. George Brockwell was a surprise addition. George, the CFO of Accipiter, had expressed little interest in the innovation program to date. A few other sundry executives, most of whom we'd met before, completed the cast. The only outlier in the room was George. His presence made me uncomfortable since I didn't have any sense of his agenda or purpose in this meeting. The vision we were proposing and the innovation community we'd scoped weren't large and certainly weren't expensive, and George as the CFO didn't seem to have a dog in this fight. As Susan and I arranged the PowerPoint decks and set up the presentation on the projector, I managed ask her, very much under my breath, why George was there.

"He's just been named by the CEO as the new sponsor for innovation" she said, eyes pleading for me not to blow my stack.

"What?" I shouted that whisper.

"I just found out this morning. The CEO values George's opinion and usually follows his advice. George is probably here to act as an impartial reviewer of our proposal."

Like a funhouse, the surprises never end.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty Seven

As should be evident by now, I'm not a morning person. My sleep patterns and rhythms mirror vampires in this regard - we both abhor the rising sun. This morning, however, was going to require me to be on my feet, awake and alert very early, to recap the work Susan and I had completed last night and present it to Bill and his colleagues before the next software demo. If we could frame the innovation community more effectively, we could ask more relevant and insightful questions and understand how the software might best work for Accipiter and achieve its goals.

So that morning, the sun peeked over the eastern horizon and slanted through the shutters like a laser beam, and bathed me in strange orange-yellow light. As the sun poked through I raised my fourth cup of terrible, lukewarm, bottom of the pot coffee, hopefully left over from yesterday. I reviewed the writeup from our discussions and tried to encapsulate it in a format that the management team could quickly absorb and understand. Since Charles Schultz was no longer with us, that meant I'd need the oldest presentation crutch in the business world - a PowerPoint presentation. There's simply no better way to present three points on a slide, six slides in a presentation than PowerPoint, and it has the added benefit of being the linga franca of the executive suite. So there I was, bright and way too early, putting the finishing touches on a 44 point font to complete the presentation. If all went well we could present our thinking to the steering team at 8am and kick off a demonstration at 8:30. By 9am or so my brain would start working, just in time for the end of the demonstration.

My phone rang, which was strange, since anyone who knew me well enough to call me knew I was never up this early, and even if I was, I wasn't in the office.

"Hello Susan" I said into the phone.

"How did you.."

"How did I know it was you? No one else would be calling me this early. No one I usually work with would believe I was in the office before 9."

"Sounds reasonable. Quickly, two things. First, I wanted to thank you for dinner last night. I enjoyed a chance to get out and talk about Accipiter and innovation away from the office. I hope that you'll understand our conversation is confidential. I wouldn't want everything I said last night repeated in the office."

"No problems. Your secrets are safe with me."

"OK. Second, how's the presentation shaping up?"

"Just finished. Hold on and I'll send it over to you."

I emailed the presentation while we held the phone.

"OK, got it. Any significant issues or points from your perspective?"

"I think I captured everything we discussed last night. I think you should present this - I think it would be better received coming from an Accipiter employee."

"Hmm. Could go either way. They might like this very much, or feel like we are stepping on their toes, defining strategy. I'll present it, but I might make a few changes."

"Fine. Have at it. I'll see you there at 7:30."

"Thanks Sam."

"Talk to you."

I felt almost human after the short drive to Accipiter. It turns out that before 7am the highways have much less traffic, and the cool morning air flowed nicely over the convertible. At one point I felt my arm dangling out the window. One could almost get used to this early morning thing.

Another benefit to early arrival - the choice of parking spots right out front. I picked one that I knew would be shaded later as the sun got hot, and walked up to the front doors. This early, there was no one at the reception desk, and I'd need to go in with Susan or another Accipiter employee. She came out through the lobby a few minutes later, waving at me with a stack of papers in her hand.

"Sam, I think we're ready. I've made a couple of changes to your presentation and I think we can get Bill and the steering team to buy in to our vision for the innovation community. We might just get the kind of vision document we need to scope the work, and help shape the software demonstrations to be more valuable for us. Come on, Bill and the team should be ready for us."

When we got to the conference room, Bill, another executive I'd met but couldn't remember, and Frank were there. Bill made apologies for two other executives - they had been called into another meeting and could not participate in the discussion or demo this morning. I waited for the other shoe to drop.

"Since we don't have a quorum, I think it will make sense to hold off a couple of days on your vision document. We should still take time to see the software demo since we are here and it is scheduled, though." I think this is called throwing water to a drowning man.

Susan looked visibly deflated. I wasn't really surprised. I've seen the management two-step done before, and climbed enough mountains to know a false peak when I encounter one. This is just another hurdle to climb, and losing momentum or faith now wasn't interesting or practical.

"Bill" I said "can we have your assistant schedule a meeting with all the necessary team members at the first opportunity, so we can finalize the vision document?"

"Sure" he said "Carol can take care of scheduling that meeting and we can press ahead with the demonstrations." He knew, and I knew he knew, how valuable that vision document would be to our discussions with the software vendors and for the success of the team. But there was nothing to be done for it.

We were doomed to another dog and pony show from another software vendor, since we didn't have any prioritized needs or documented workflow. All we could do was watch a litany of features and another software wizard flip through screens in a mind numbing pace.

I looked at Susan, who looked a bit defeated and said, softly, under my breath "We'll get there."

Monday, July 27, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty Six

Susan and I worked late that evening, trying to develop a strategic document for Bill and the management team to review and approve. We needed to frame for the executive team the rationale for an innovation program and community, and we needed to ensure that the program linked into key strategic goals. In other words, we were trying to build a document for them to approve, that in all reality they should have given us to use as a foundation for the project. This wasn't cart before the horse kind of stuff. It was pull your head out of your.. well, get on with doing the work of managing your firm so I can help you innovate more effectively.

By eight or so we'd finished a rough draft that Susan could leave for Bill to review the next morning. That document wasn't going to help us manage the next software demonstration, which was going to kick off in a little more than 12 hours, but at least the two of us felt we had a good scoping document. If Bill could review it and run it up the flagpole, we'd see whether everyone saluted or if it came back down shot full of holes. At this point, I had no good insight and either option was likely.

"I'm going to head out and get some dinner" I said. "Care to join me?"

To date, Susan had been very professional, very correct and I had little knowledge of her personal life. On her desk I'd see the usual shots of family and friends, usually taken in those partially posed settings when you "catch someone by surprise". Everyone taken by surprise in these photos had perfect hair, perfect teeth and seemed to be smiling in a bucolic setting. Other than a few glimpses of those shots however, I knew very little about a person who might be joined hip to hip with me for the next six to eight months on an important consulting assignment.

She glanced up and shifted her head in a way that reminded me of a puppy trying to reason out what was going on.

"Dinner. You know, a restaurant. With food. Sustenance? If it makes you more comfortable, we'll call it a business meeting."

That seemed to call her back to the here and now.

"I'd like to eat, yes. I was thinking about whether or not I needed to go home first. I have a dog and he needs to get his exercise and get out, otherwise the condo will be a mess. Could we meet somewhere in 45 minutes or so?"

"Sounds good. Do you want to meet somewhere close to your place to make it easier for you?"

"Great. There's a good sushi place on Johnson and Vine called Ijami. It's one of my favorites. Do you eat sushi?"

You might think a hard boiled innovation consultant known for sleeping in his suit clothes who favors Old Granddad as a nightcap would be less than interested in raw, cold fish. However, Matt had adjusted my thinking years ago about sushi, and I had come to enjoy the food and the rituals.

"I've come to enjoy it over the years. I used to think of it as bait, but now I have a real appreciation for it. Should I meet you there at 9?"

"That's good. That will give me time to walk Homer and freshen up and meet you there."

"I'll see you there."

I left her in her office and walked out. It was a nice evening and I could use some fresh air, so I went to work on the convertible, putting the top down and securing a number of loose items that would fly around like confetti otherwise. I knew where Ijami was located, not too far from Accipiter's headquarters, and a long drive from home. I decided to drive over to Ijami and have a drink before Susan arrived. It made no sense to go home.

Ijami is set in a small shopping center, a relatively non-descript setting with a neon sign out front. I walked into the lobby, and the change was rather dramatic. Once inside, Ijami was fully Japanese, from the hostess and waitresses in kimonos to the low tables and bamboo floors. I asked for the bar and was directed to a small bar in the corner, where I ordered a bourbon on the rocks and contemplated levering myself down onto the floor to eat from the low tables. I like to think of myself as in relatively good shape. I jog and swim occasionally, and try to watch what I eat, but as I get older I notice that my flexibility is almost gone. I wake each morning with achilles so tight you could strum them. I'd need at least one bourbon, and perhaps two, to get that far down to eat.

Susan came in about ten til 9, and we were seated. With some maneuvering and a complete lack of grace, I made it under one of the small tables. She seemed to glide right in, with no problem at all.

"Thanks for meeting me" I said. "Otherwise it was a hungry man frozen dinner at home."

She laughed. "Lean cuisine for me."

"How's Homer?"

"Homer was very anxious to leave the premises and complete his business in the yard. I feel bad for him, cooped up all day but I haven't found a good place to leave him, and I'm not comfortable with dogsitters coming into my place."

"What kind of dog is he?"

"A cocker spaniel. He's pretty much all that is left of my last serious relationship. You know, get a significant other, and then test the waters by getting a dog together."

"Hmm. I've never gotten as far as the dog."

"Well, the dog wasn't the issue. Turns out we both wanted different things. But I didn't come to talk about that."

"Sorry, didn't mean to pry."

"You didn't. Just still a little ragged around the edges."

"Should we talk about Accipiter instead?"

She laughed. "Talk about ragged around the edges."

A sense of humor and she could see through all the noise around this project. Maybe this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty Five

We'd assembled a team of Accipiter executives to sit in on a software demonstration from three software vendors. In this we followed the usual software demonstration mantra, which is to tell the vendor as little as possible about our needs and goals, and invite a number of corporate executives to watch software black belts demonstrate the ten thousand things their software could do exceedingly well, whether we needed it or not. Then, we'd decide which software we liked based on the colors of the screen or the lowest price. In other words, we'd failed to gain consensus on what the software should do, so rather than script the demo for the software vendors, we simply asked them to show us the software they had for innovation communities.

Don't get me wrong, I think the software guys were very enthusiastic and doing what we asked them to do. They trotted out their wares and demo'd software like a Benihana chef at a hot griddle. Some Accipiter executives seemed vaguely uncomfortable during the demos. I suspect it was motion sickness from the speed with which the screens flew by. Since we couldn't offer any specific instruction about what we wanted the community to do, we gave carte blanche to the software guys to strut their stuff. And did they ever.

After the demo was over, several executives hustled out to another meeting without a backwards glance. I suspect they weren't sure why they were there in the first place, and were making a quick get away to keep from having to submit an opinion. All remaining eyes turned to Frank and Thomas, the token IT representatives. Bill fired the first salvo.

"Well Frank, what do you think?"

Frank, as the CIO, had a number of opinions about software, mostly related to the challenges he faced with existing infrastructure and trying to keep the number of technologies his team had to master under control.

"Bill, as we've discussed before, we can support any Java-based application that is deployed and uses IIS and SQL Server. Those are the baseline requirements. It would be great if the application can link to Active Directory so we reduce user management issues. Whatever your team decides to implement will need to go through a validation test, and I'd suggest a short internal pilot. Other than that, I don't know that we have a strong opinion about these applications."

"What did you think of the functionality? Does it appear to be something that would be easy to maintain, and easy for the team to learn and use?"

"That's really a question for your users and your trainers. Most of these applications are relatively simple to configure, and seem to have enough APIs and extensions to allow us to link this to our intranet or perhaps share data with other systems, but I don't know if that's important to your team."

"OK, what if we want to invite customers or business partners to use the application?"

"Again, I can't speak to the functionality - all of these applications seem to allow internal or external users to enter ideas, rank them and comment on them. I guess my chief concerns when we talk about external users are user management and data security. How many users are we talking about? What requirements do we place on them? How do we ensure that they don't submit a Trojan Horse or try to inject a virus on the community? If you are going to invite external customers or users to the system, then we'll need to consider carefully where we host this - it will probably need to be in the DMZ, outside of our firewall."

"That's to protect other internal systems?"

"Yep. If we allow external users inside the firewall, we place all of our IT resources and data at escalated risk. Also, you're going to need to think carefully about monitoring the community, to ensure we identify and eliminate flames, derogatory comments, foul language and so forth. We may even need to identify and block individuals or certain IP addresses if we suspect they are trying to penetrate the system or are simply disrupting the community."

"OK. Anything else?"

"Who is going to maintain the community?"

At this point Susan jumped in. "I will be responsible for day to day maintenance and engagement with the community" she said.

"How many users do you anticipate? How many ideas? We need to get a sense of the usage and the anticipated growth of the system."

Susan turned to me, and I gave her one of those one shoulder shrugs which signals that I don't know and you're on your own. She frowned.

"We don't know that yet. We still have to decide the overall purpose and framework for the community and who we'll invite. That will drive the number of users and potential growth."

"So right now you don't really have a set of requirements for the community, other than it must be hosted internally and incorporate external customers or prospects who can submit ideas?"

Now it was Susan with the one shoulder shrug. "That's about it so far."

"OK, that explains the dog and pony we got today. Could I make a suggestion?"

"Write up a script to have them demo exactly what we want to do?"

"Well, yes."

"We're working on that. To a certain extent we are trying to learn about communities as we see a number of them demonstrated to us. Once we've seen a few and what the vendors can offer, I think we'll be more intelligent about what we want."

I think she almost believed that, but she fell on the sword nicely. Bill had suddenly become preoccupied with his notepad and Frank understood what he had stepped in.

"OK. When's the next three ring circus?"

"We have another demo tomorrow at the same time. We can use this conference room."

Frank and Thomas rose to leave. "We'll be here. I'll have Thomas draw up a set of minimum requirements for the software to help us rule out any that conflict with our existing investments or require learning new technologies."


It was down to just me, Susan and Bill at this point. Bill glanced around, looking as sheepish as it is possible for one to look who is also the COO of a Fortune 500 corporation.

"I see we need to do a better job of defining what we want the community to do. Sam, Susan, draft a 'going in" position that defines the community as an open community that any customer or prospect can use to submit ideas. We'll want to categorize the ideas and align the categories to our lines of business or products. That way we can link the ideas to our product lines. We'll need a way to communicate with the submitters, so we'll need an email address. We'll also need to think about reporting, and rewards for those who submit ideas we accept for further investigation. Draw up a short presentation and have it for me to review by Friday."

Having heard, reacted and commanded, he rose to his full height, turned quickly and left the room, never admitting that we'd be right all along. I guess some of the criteria for rising to his level was recognizing but not admitting you were wrong, and quickly correcting the error before anyone else discovered it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty Four

We had that cup of coffee, or perhaps two or three. I had been so preoccupied with Accipiter that I'd forgotten what a great hire Meredith was, and what a great team member she was likely to be. We spent an hour or so getting reacquainted, talking about her skill set and our client base, and thinking about how to incorporate her skills into our offerings. Meredith was not the least bit flustered that we weren't as prepared as we should have been for her to join. In the coming weeks she jumped right in and won a new project from one of our existing customers, helping them use ethnography to find new customer insights which eventually led to a new product release.

We were fortunate, really, looking back on it, because Matt took Meredith under his wing and she came up to speed quickly. I failed her at first, because after that coffee and a quick review of our existing clients and their needs, I hurried back to the office to dive deeply into the Accipiter situation. We were on the crux of something big, I felt, and I was on the hunt, not to be distracted by a new employee.

Meredith brought something else to the office with her. She brought a sense of humor and balance that was lurking under the surface but was often expressed with sarcasm. Matt and I had been together so long we knew each other's moves and punch lines. Meredith confronted that thin veneer of weary humor and cleaved it in two, demonstrating insight and empathy that I hadn't expected. It was really her skills, patience and knowledge that held us together as a team while I piloted the ship after the elusive white whale. Matt and Meredith gave me the rope, and I hung myself on that lanyard that summer and fall.

Not long after the coffee with Meredith Johansen called.

"Sam, have you identified some software vendors that will license their software to us to install internally?"

I had the list - a short one but with several viable firms.

"Yes. It should be on your fax machine from this morning."

"Great. Can you arrange some short demos with them?"

"Of course. Who will need to sit in from your side?"

"Oh, well of course we'll need Bill and Fred, myself, and someone from IT. I'll ask Frank to assign a resource."

"OK" We worked out some available times and I set to work, lining up demonstrations of innovation software for Accipiter.

At the same time we were pushing hard to understand the goals of the innovation community so we could structure it accordingly. Susan and I lined up a call with Bill to better understand his vision for the community.

"Bill, for us to build an innovation community that meets your objectives, we need to understand what Accipiter wants from a community. Are you interested in radical or disruptive innovation, or incremental innovation, or both? Is it OK if any customer or prospect submits ideas, or do you want to invite specific individuals or companies? Do you want them working on topics that are defined by us, or simply entering ideas they think are important? There are a number of attributes that we need to define for the community, in order to shape it effectively and achieve the outcomes you want."

Bill shifted uncomfortably in his chair. In the back of my mind I was relatively convinced that he'd received a very vague directive from the CEO, and wasn't sure what the real goals or outcomes were. It looked like we were going to have to break this down, step by step, line by line, to get to an answer.

"Sam" he said "we're interested in innovation and want to learn more about what it takes to be an innovative firm. We recognize we are lagging many in our industry. Whit, our CEO, has asked us to create an innovation community, mostly I suspect, because several of our competitors have one. I'm thinking the best thing to do is have you and Susan recommend the structure of the community, making the assumptions you need to make, and we'll present it to Whit when you are ready. My thinking is that we should start carefully, so our intention should be incremental ideas at this point. Since we don't have clear direction, we'll let our customers suggest new ideas rather than try to direct them to specific problems or issues."

This was better than I had expected. While not the best approach for a community, at least Bill was able to help us shape it so we could achieve his goals.

"What about downstream, once the ideas have been submitted?"

"I'm not certain I understand you" he said.

"Once a number of ideas have been submitted, Accipiter will need to demonstrate that you are reviewing and evaluating them, and selecting some for further investigation. There's no process or team to support that today."

He looked at us and smiled. I suppose you could call it a smile. The teeth were exposed, slightly, and the eyes danced in a way that was either a threat or a grimace. "You're looking at the team in the short run" he said, gesturing at me and Susan. "There's no budget for this, what we like to call an unfunded mandate."

"You understand that.."

He waved me off. "I understand that we'll need to demonstrate some action on the ideas. The two of you will need to run this for at least a quarter or more, until we demonstrate some success and gain more knowledge. Structure the program the way you feel is best, document the process and your assumptions and present the solution and your cost estimates to me. Can you have that to me by Friday?"

Sure. Sure I could. The cost estimates were easy. It was the sense of signing up to a program that seemed doomed from the start that left me apprehensive. I think for just a moment I knew how kamikaze pilots felt, but I think they flew to defend their homeland. I wasn't sure anymore why I agreed to this effort. This was becoming an elaborate, inexpensive experiment that could fail miserably or succeed slightly. It was quite possibly the worst of both worlds.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty Three

In later years I'd look back and call her Ishamael, since she joined us while I was in pursuit of the great whale. Accipiter sucked me in and caused me to lose focus on anything other than Accipiter at that time, but we survived, mostly because Matt and Meredith were able to keep our other clients engaged and happy.

While I was struggling to define the requirements for Accipiter's open innovation community, Meredith came aboard. I'd been so focused on the Accipiter account I'd started dreaming about innovation communities. The recurring image was an old fashioned switchboard operator, connecting a caller from a local line to a long distance trunk like, completing one call and moving on to another. Yet in my dream the trunk lines were always dead. There was no one on the other end of the call. Where was Freud when I needed him? No matter, even I, a lowly innovation consultant, could interpret these dreams, and they had nothing to do with oral fixation.

June opened the door that Wednesday morning, peeked around at me as if I was likely to remove parts of her anatomy for merely glancing in my direction and waited to make eye contact. I knew she was there yet I stubbornly kept my eyes focused on the document I was drafting, not wanting to hear about another client or a late invoice. June waited me out, gradually sliding through the narrow door opening - almost using the door as a shield to ward off my evil temper. I could almost imagine the visible waves of frustration I was sending out, like a lump of radioactive material slowing decomposing before her eyes. She seemed to gain some strength, or perhaps was just angry that I ignored her.


"What?" I said, surprised and embarrassed.

"Meredith is coming in today for her first day with Marlowe Innovation."

Now, I hate that phrase "stopped me in my tracks". I like to think of myself as someone so worldly, so experienced that little will surprise me, especially after the things I've seen done in back alleys and in conference boardrooms. But this did stop me, at least momentarily. I'd been so engaged and absorbed by Accipiter, attempting to nail the jello to the wall that I'd completely forgotten about Meredith. I slid some papers, pencils and flotsam from my desktop to glance at the calendar blotter. Sure enough, there it was, circled in bright red. Meredith starts today. Fortunately Matt and I had brought in a new desk and chair, so it wasn't as if we weren't at least a little prepared.

I glanced at June, who took it all in.

"What can I do to help?"

Why she puts up with me I'll never know. Perhaps it's the excitement of an innovation project well done, or the interesting and varied set of clients and challenges. It certainly can't be my good looks or the compliments I pay her. Matt is the suave, debonair one. I'm the nose to the grindstone, work/drink/sleep type. Yet she seems to come through just when I need her most.

"June, I think we have her desk ready. The real question is getting her up to speed quickly on how we work, and what we expect of her. What do you have in mind?"

I knew June would have some opinions, because I only hire people who have opinions. I'd rather work with people who have strong, different opinions than mine than to ever work with some complacent slouch who just goes along with the flow. There is absolutely nothing interesting or compelling about such a person. With a person who has an opinion, you get the chance to have a debate, or perhaps someone you can assign a task to who has a sense of how they want to do it.

"I'd like to walk her through some of the older client files, to give her a sense of how we work and our methodology" she said, as if that approach were handed down on stone tablets from Alex Osborne himself. "Then interview her to understand her skills and capabilities and update our marketing materials to include ethnography and customer research. Then, perhaps you and Matt can take her to lunch. If you think you can be civil today."

Civil? I was never civil, but I was frequently found eating lunch. It was only 9 o'clock, but lunch suddenly sounded very good.

"Perhaps I'll take Meredith out for coffee, to welcome her to our office while you prepare to walk her through some of our client work" I said, relishing stepping away from Accipiter and its innovation community if even for just a short period of time. "When is she due in?"

"She's in the reception area. Grab your coat and I'll have the files ready when you return."

"June" I said, but she'd turned and slipped back through the door. I needed to remind myself to give her a raise, or at least bring flowers back from the florist downstairs.