Friday, June 26, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Thirty Four

The alarm was rather insistent, and I rolled over and shut it off. Clearly, based on the sunlight arching through the room, it was time to get vertical. I opened my eyes and ran my tongue over my teeth, tasting the remnants of Irish whiskey and stale cigarettes. I never claimed to be a morning person, and I'd left the corporate scene for several reasons, one of which was a kindly persistence on the part of my management to see me bright and chipper by 8:30am most days. That was simply not part of my social contract.

As an innovation consultant, I was expected to be a bit unpredictable and to have a bit of whimsy. Who wants a boring innovation consultant? So, that meant I didn't have to punch an 8:30am clock most days. However, on days like today, with a scheduled event at Levantine, like it or not I was expected to be on time, ready to go with a quick wit and a professional demeanor. Luckily this was expected of me only periodically in my consulting role.

After the usual ablutions and preparations, I uncrumpled my suit pants and pulled a jacket from a hook on the back of the door. The face looking back at me in the mirror by the front door seemed vaguely familiar, a bit more worn around the edges than I'd remembered. I took my portfolio, keys and sun glasses and headed out to face the corporate world.

Once you've left the regular commute, it seems almost impossible to wrap your head around the fact that people face this soul rendering drive every day. For me, once a week or more to face such a congested, angry, slow moving mob would have had me contemplating the view from the top of the downtown skyscrapers, putting Newton's theories to the test. Nine to five five days a week, these folks are wired very differently from me.

I arrived and found a choice visitor parking spot at Levantine. It's corporate offices sat in an office park that resembled a lush botanical garden, or a tropical resort. Even at that early point in the morning, hundreds of gardeners were working to ensure the steel and glass buildings were surrounded by palm trees, neatly mowed grass and freshly blooming flowers. It was as if the headquarters was trying to disguise itself as a Cancun vacation retreat. All that was missing was the surf, sand and twelve small shops hawking "I got drunk in Cancun" T-shirts.

I fumbled with my materials - the portfolio, markers, tape, toolbox and other items for the brainstorm - and made my way to the cavernous reception area, where a guard gave me the frozen stare. How anyone can have less personality or enthusiasm for their job, I don't know. Perhaps he, too, had just left the morning rush hour commute and was only now recovering his humanity. He asked for my name, my organization and my blood type, and gave me a flimsy plastic badge. He poked through my materials for the brainstorming session, looked at me as if I needed to have my head examined, and called Marge to let her know I was in the lobby.

I took my seat at an fashionable but very comfortable chair made by designers in Sweden for business lobbies in America, where one is supposed to view the furniture with interest but never actually interact with the furniture, and turned my attention to Electronics Weekly, that being the most enticing magazine on offer on the glasstop table. Fortunately, before I was able to obtain my undergraduate electrical engineering degree from the first issue of the journal, Marge poked her head through the doorway and called me in. I smiled at the guard, as a way to say "see, there really is a purpose in all this" and he shot me a look that convinced me he hadn't lost his humanity on the highway, he'd never really had any to begin with.

Marge greeted me in her usual way - that is to say that Marge is a hugger and gets a bit put out if we don't engaged in at least the ritual one arm around the neck. She'd prefer the full on two arms around, and possibly the full on Mitterand - a peck on each cheek - but I draw the line on this faux familiarity. Marge is a great client and a nice person, but sometimes I received more overt affection from her than I did on my second and third dates with women I intentionally wanted to get to know better. Plus, it's difficult to hug someone when you are simultaneously holding a door open with one foot, and clutching a briefcase, a toolbox and a smattering of other materials. The kabuki dance consisted of Marge trying to decide whether to hug first and offer assistance later, and me offering Marge some of my burden and anticipating the hug that preceded all of our meetings. We probably looked like two large birds in an elaborate mating ritual to those innocent passersby in the lobby.

"Sam, you look great. We are so glad to have you back today to lead our brainstorming."

"Marge, always good to see you. Where are we headed?"

"Just down the hall here. You remember the room we used in April, when we did the session on market opportunities?"

"Yes" I said, handing off some of my materials to her and walking in the general direction.

"I've managed to convince the facilities team that we should have permanent use of that room for innovation and brainstorming. It's a great room, with lots of light, big and very configurable."

"That's great, Marge. It is a much better location than some of the other conference rooms." Most of which were similar to early World War II submarines, usually the same color and with the same vague smells as those tin can death traps.

"Everyone should be here by 8:30. I'll introduce the session and the goals, and then you can take it from there."

"Great" I said, finally reaching my destination and ending my period of employment as a Nepalese sherpa. I unloaded all of my materials for the session, and noted that the room had several flip-charts, markers and other materials that would be useful. Marge noticed my glance.

"Yeah, we're getting better about having the right materials available in these rooms. That's another reason we wanted a permanent spot. That way we can outfit the room to our needs."

She was saying this as I opened the toolbox and started extracting a range of balls, Play-Do, an Etch-A-Sketch, a Slinky and a number of other tools that looked like the spillage of an eight year old's toy box from the back of the closet.

"I don't suppose you've got any of these about?" I said to her with a grin.

"Not yet, but that's our next purchase" she said. In our first session, lo these several years ago, Marge had been very concerned, expressed with a raise eyebrow and a slight sideways frown, when I started unpacking the toys. Once she'd seen their impact in an ideation session, she'd become a vociferous believer. I think she had a Mr. Potato Head and an Etch-A-Sketch on her desk now.

"Everybody loves the toys" I said.

After distributing these around the room, I pulled a set of laminated cards from my portfolio, and Marge helped me tack these up around the room.

"This is another thing we need to do to fully dress out the room" she said, eyeing my brainstorming rules.

"Never conduct a brainstorming session without the rules" I said.

At this point the participants were staring to drift into the room, coffee in one hand, BlackBerry in the other. The folks who had been with us before I recognized and nodded to or shook hands with. A few people who had not participated with us before entered, glanced around the room, sought out Marge to ensure they were in the right place, and took their seats, eyeing the toys and rules and making nervous small talk with others around the table.

Marge called the meeting to order.

"As you all know, we are here today to brainstorm about new product opportunities in our ASIC and FPGA product areas. All of you should have received the prep material" most heads nodded at this "and should be prepared to participate. For those of you who don't know Sam Marlowe, he will facilitate our session today. Our goal is to generate some incremental and disruptive ideas to explore as new products in our programmable products division. You've seen the material on what our competitors are doing. Any questions before we get started?"

There didn't appear to be any, at least none anyone was willing to voice at that stage. Marge turned to me. "Take it away" she said.

I stood, and walked over to close the conference room door. I do this for the effect it has of sealing the team off from the rest of the world. "While we are in this room" I said "we are generating ideas. We have the freedom to generate any idea - no matter how crazy or counter to what Levantine does. We have all the money in the world, and can violate any rule of physics. Give yourself that freedom when we start thinking about the task in front of us."

I continued. "This brainstorming session has been carefully planned. You've received the background and key questions we want to answer. Now, I'm going to ask you to start generating ideas in just a minute. My role will be to facilitate the discussion - to ask questions, to kickstart the conversation and to help the team stay on track. Marge will be documenting the ideas. You'll notice, tacked up on the walls, a set of brainstorming rules. Yes, good brainstorming is based on rules. One of those rules is to grant yourselves the ability to think objectively and to break the rules that govern you outside this room. Other rules: generate lots of ideas. Don't judge ideas as we generate them. Generate wild ideas. Don't try to "own" an idea. My job will be to reinforce these rules as we progress."

I stopped to let that sink in. "In front of you you'll see some toys, which some of you have already picked up. You are welcome to 'play' with those toys if they help you think more creatively. You are welcome to get up and move around if that helps you think creatively. You can draw an idea if that is helpful. Our goal is to stimulate your thinking and remove roadblocks. Before we begin, are there any questions?"

Some nervous chuckles and some experienced grins. OK, here we go.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Thirty Three

While we were planning for Meredith's arrival and jockeying with Accipiter's skunkworks design, Matt and I had real client work to deliver the following day. We were facilitating a two day brainstorming session with Levantine, a long time client that used us on a regular basis to conduct brainstorming and scenario planning workshops. Over the last two weeks we'd worked with Marge Belinski, our primary contact, to identify the opportunity that her team would use to brainstorm against. Luckily, Marge knew our approach and how important we felt it was to do adequate prep work. In our experience, most brainstorming and idea generation sessions fail based on just a few reasons:

1) The issue or challenge is unclear or unimportant
2) The people who attend the brainstorm are inadequately prepared
3) The facilitation is poor or has an obvious bias
4) There's no plan to act on the ideas after the session

Clearly, none of these challenges is insurmountable if your client is willing to invest some time to address each of them. In Marge we had a long time partner who understood the value of the prep work.

I called Marge to discuss the preparation of the brainstorming participants.

"Hi Marge, it's Sam."

"Hi Sam. Calling right on time. You ready to review the prep work and our goals for the brainstorming tomorrow?"

"Yes" I said. "Let's review the framing first. What is the opportunity or challenge you've defined and communicated to the team?" In the past, we would have worked with Marge to develop a clear, definitive purpose for the brainstorm, a newly identified opportunity or an impending challenge. Marge had been through the drill so frequently that she knew how to develop it on her own.

"I've sent the team a framing statement that reads 'Levantine is a leader in extruded plastics for the automotive industry. Given the decline in the US automotive sales, Levantine must identify new clients or new prospects for its extruded plastics. In this session, we'll generate ideas about potential prospects for extruded plastic. You should come to the meeting having considered this need. Any relevant idea that identifies a new market opportunity or a new industry that could become a viable prospect is welcome, as is new business opportunities that Levantine can create in the wholesale or direct to consumer markets. We'll focus our efforts on US based customers to control timelines and shipping costs'. What do you think?"

"I like the definition and especially some of the scoping statements about considering opportunities only in the US. However, haven't you left the scope a bit broad? Should you rule in, or rule out, certain industries?"

"At this point, we are genuinely interested in any idea, in any industry. There may be some disruptive opportunities that we're not seeing because of the 'business as usual' mindset. So, for now, we are intentionally leaving the scoping fairly broad."

"OK. I don't see any significant issues otherwise."

"Great" She beamed through the phone. She was one of our first clients once we set up shop, and had been resistant to our approach at first, leading to one poorly prepared brainstorming session that almost meant the end of the relationship between Marlowe and Levantine. However, we were able to convince her to try it our way, spending the time clarifying the issue and preparing the attendees, and the results had been obvious to her, and to Levantine. Now she was crafting the problem statements and preparing the brainstorming teams on her own.

"So, we're conducting the standard two day event with you" I said, just getting it out there so there were no misunderstandings. "We'll lead the brainstorming session Wednesday morning, and you've got an activity for the team in the afternoon. We'll return to brainstorming on Thursday morning, and wrap the session Thursday afternoon by ranking the ideas and assigning responsibility for followup. Correct?"

"That's the agenda. You'll like the activity we've designed for the group."

Whenever possible we break up our sessions in two day increments, doing brainstorming in the morning when people are fresh, and conducting an activity or exercise in the afternoon to get them 'hands on' with the problem or product in the afternoon. What still amazes us to this day is how little people in a firm actually interact with their own products and services, or take an outsider's perspective. We've sent people from credit card companies off to shop with credit cards, but making them note how and why they used the card. We've had agricultural equipment makers out on tractors, thinking about the challenges and issues of the maintenance of their products. Inevitably these excursions create entirely new vistas of ideas that simply won't be generated sitting in a conference room.

"Surprise me" I said.

"We're taking the team to a series of stores that offer extruded plastics, including an auto parts store, a LEGO store and other stores in a shopping strip. Basically it's a scavenger hunt in the mall to find various extruded plastic products. We need to open the eyes of the team to the range of possibilities for our extruded plastics. And, we are asking them to buy one product from each store that is extruded plastic, and one product that isn't extruded plastic but could be if it was re-engineered."

"I do like it" I said, not just shining her on. "It's good because they are confronted with the range of possibilities for extruded plastic, and are forced to think about other possibilities for the technology and your capabilities."

"I think it will be a good session" she said "We've got a good range of people who are really engaged in this problem, and I think they are well prepared. I think I've earned the reputation as someone who will take the ideas and ensure they get a fair hearing in the product management council."

That was the case. Marge, whatever our early stumbles had been with her, was definitely one to champion good ideas and seek out sponsors and product managers who would work with her. She had several new products out in market pilots due to her sheer energy and enthusiasm, and had a great reputation in Levantine as a one-woman innovation program.

"Marge, we're good to go tomorrow. For grins, I am going to run the brainstorm in the same manner as always, with a statement of the rules of brainstorming and an ice breaker to get the team started. Could you fax over your agenda so we can review it?"

"No problem. I'll send it over in just a few. Anything else we need to cover?"

I didn't need to ask but I did anyway.

"Just checking - the room where we'll work has plenty of wall space, and we'll have flip charts and markers? We'll bring along some other manipulatives and the rules."

"You're bringing the toys? Don't forget the Play-Do and the Etch-A-Sketch. That one is always a favorite. The room is perfect for brainstorming - in fact I'm trying to take it over as a permanent brainstorming space."

"Then we're all set" I said. "See you tomorrow."

"Great. Take care."

I love it when a plan comes together.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Thirty Two

The phone rang as Matt and I were talking about how to re-arrange the office to make room for Meredith.

"Sam" said June "it's for you, Susan Johansen from Accipter. Are you free to take the call?"

Why not, I thought.

"Sure, send it through"

"Marlowe" I said, gripping the phone a little more tightly than usual.

"Sam" she said "I've finished my proposal for Bill and I wanted to run it by you before I submit it to him. Do you have a few minutes to walk through it with me?"

What's a few more minutes invested on an inevitable failure? At this point anything to kick start Accipiter into action was worth something.

"Send it over."

"It's already on your fax machine."

"Pretty sure of yourself."

"No, I knew you couldn't pass the opportunity by. Probably like rubbernecking an accident on the freeway."

Hmm. How to answer that one - too true for comfort. I left it laying there like an orphaned cat.

"Hold the phone while I get the fax"

I left the phone lying on the desk, made a face at Matt and strode over to the fax machine. There, in the tray, were ten pages of text, describing a proposed skunkworks for Accipiter, including projections for costs. I noticed that we had a line item in the budget.

I picked up the receiver. "OK, how can I help you?"

"I just wanted to walk through the proposal to ensure I didn't miss anything, and to see if you had any suggestions or changes."

"Tell you what" I said. "Give me 30 minutes to read through it and I'll call you back."

"Hmm. I'm going into a meeting in 20 minutes, and won't be free until 4."

"I'll call you at 4 with my comments."

"OK. Thanks Sam, and please keep this confidential for now."

Like I was headed for the rooftops.

"No problem"

"I'd like to shoot this over to Bill by Wednesday or Thursday of this week, so anything you give me I'll incorporate tomorrow."

"OK. Give me a little while to review it and I'll call you with my comments."

"Thanks." The line went dead. I admired her moxie. She was playing chicken with the COO of a Fortune 500 firm. It was going to be interesting to see who flinched first, and to ensure we didn't get splattered with the remains.

I looked over her proposal that day. Where do these people learn to write? Most business propositions are as dull as a late summer Mississippi Sunday afternoon, languid and drowsy, with prose that an eight grade English teacher would mark as incomplete and inappropriate. Written in a passive voice with little excitement or emotion. I marked up the introductory pages, trying to breath some life into rather staid corporate speak. If we are going to innovate, and going to play chicken, we may as well make it interesting.

The proposal itself, once I'd waded through the various penumbras and passive voice hanging clauses and the three dollar words (utilized for used), was OK. It seemed Susan had captured the relevant costs for space, overhead, staff and cash expenses. She'd included a generous sum for "consultants" which I assumed meant Marlowe Innovation. The accounting for the costs was crisp and to the point, unlike the rest of the document. What was missing, however, was the most important aspect of the skunkworks. There was little mention of the result. Bill, and anyone else who was going to approve this investment would need to understand what he was getting for his money, and in a very specific way. We couldn't present a tic'd and tied budget on the cost side in the order of $600,000 without describing in some detail what we expected the specific outcomes and benefits to be.

Reading this document was like reviewing the obituary of an 18th century English accountant, flowery in description without being direct, yet specific to the point of pain on the accounting side.

Wasn't it Einstein who said the definition of insanity was doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results? Why couch a risky new venture in the existing corporate speak that never got approval for even safe projects. We needed some robust, action-oriented language, to make some bold claims and to have our work leap off the page if it was going to stand out. This proposal was written with to accept failure before it had been decided. Susan and I had our work cut out for us. Last I looked, pirates didn't meekly and politely ask for the booty they took, they raised the Jolly Roger and took it, guns blazing. Susan was going to have to step away from the corporate mentality to be successful - it simply isn't possible to represent the culture and innovate against it at the same time.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Thirty One

Matt and I walked back to the office from Darby's. The mid-day sun was hot but the awnings of the buildings cast a dark, cool shade, and a breeze was picking up from the water. All in all, a day that even a hard-living, hard-working cynical guy like me could enjoy.

Matt and I had bought our small office building on the edge of a very sketchy neighborhood several years ago, betting on the come. The neighborhood was a mash-up of funky bohemian, edgy arty marcom types looking for the rough, exposed brick and wood buildings, a few used clothing stores, a boarded up grocer next to a thriving tienda. The city and its high rise sprawl ended just a few blocks from our neighborhood, and already the developers had their eyes on the real estate just down the street - perfect for some new yuppie condominiums for highly paid investment bankers and fashion models. The real people, doctors, police and innovation consultants, would continue to have to find shelter in the outer burbs.

Our building was perfect for us, because we took an entire floor, even though we didn't need all the space, and rented out the ground floor to a tailor and a florist. Our space was the entire second floor, a couple of offices and a reception room flanking an open space we could configure as a classroom, an ideation space or for other purposes. Really, just a big, open space with lots of bare walls, wood floors and large windows for natural light, perfect for a lot of the group work we did on site. I liked being a story above the street, so we could look down on all the goings-on without having to deal with the noise and distractions, while our tenants on the first floor relied on the walkup traffic.

Adding Meredith to the mix wasn't going to be a problem from a space consideration. Matt and I shared an office because we liked to toss ideas back and forth, and we'd probably just add more room and add another desk for Meredith. Having her in the office would probably mean a little less Scotch and soda and sports motif, such as it existed. The iconic dogs playing poker painting, hanging on the wall near my desk, or the faded brainstorming rules poster near Matt's desk could probably stay, but the picture of the Thanone client manager, currently used as a dart board behind the office door, might not give the best first impression.

Additionally, Matt and I had learned to work together, so we didn't disrupt each other. I could be on a conference call with a client and Matt could tune it out. As we grew, we'd probably need to create some separation and quiet space for each other, so we didn't interrupt or disrupt each other's work. June's reception space was probably OK. Coming up the stairs and entering the Marlowe Innovation office doors and looking at the reception space with critical eyes didn't produce any significant issues, but I made a note to ask Meredith to give us her thoughts - after all, she had fresh eyes and Matt and I were probably too close to the forest to see the trees.

Several things we'd done had made the open space a lot more viable for the work we did. First, we left a lot of blank wall space, so that when we were generating ideas or capturing trends we could hang these ideas or trends on the copious wall space, and do a lot of our work in groups. There was no crowding or difficulty organizing the ideas. We'd purchased a couple of very heavy but moveable white boards, which we could use to spark conversation or to divide up the room into virtual classrooms. We'd also collected over the years a veritable Sanford and Sons junkroom of cast off furniture and fixtures, giving the room an interesting dimension. It was completely possible to sit in a chair that would remind you of your childhood with the sticky vinyl covering, or find a comfortable rocking chair rescued from a second hand shop. The point was to get people out of their Herman Miller Aeron chairs and gray cubicles for just a few hours, and to have them think differently and act differently in a new environment. That was our goal, plus most of the furnishings had come cheap, and gave us a somewhat urbane, funky appeal, not something you could say about Matt and me generally.

Thinking about our space and the advantages it offered, I was struck by the fact that I should try to get Thompson, Briggs, Phillips and Johansen out of the Accipiter mahogany and glass encasement and into a less formal environment for some radical thinking. Perhaps if we could get them to visit, and to participate in a trend spotting session or an ideation they could see how the program would work, and the change in environment would weaken the corporate resistance to change. I made a note to speak to Susan about bringing her team over to interact with us on our playing ground, thinking that might break the logjam in their minds. Of course, with her skunkworks program proposal, she might be doing that herself already.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Thirty

I hung up with Susan, thinking that she and I were out on the plank together. Taking a $600K proposal to create a skunkworks to Bill Thompson was going to take guts, but it might be the only way to break up the log jam that the innovation program at Accipiter had become. One way or another we'd probably reach a resolution on that issue shortly.

Matt and I left for our standing Tuesday lunch. We tried very hard to get together for lunch at Darby's every Tuesday, same restaurant, same booth, same meal. If we weren't careful, we could go for weeks without seeing each other, and we felt it was important to touch base regularly about what the innovation market was doing and the kinds of things we needed to do to stay out in front. With Meredith coming aboard, the next few weeks were going to be especially hectic.

We strolled down the avenue in the crisp summer sun, watching the crowds pass by and keeping our usual patter going. Business had been good recently, and we'd managed to put the Thanone challenges out of our mind. We had a reasonably strong pipeline and felt that the demands for innovation consulting were increasing. However, I felt that Matt had something on his mind, and I knew if he did it wouldn't be long before whatever concerned him was on the table. We'd been seated and ordered our usual - cobb salad for him, hold the eggs, reuben sandwich for me, two beers, when he unloaded.

"I'm concerned about what we are going to do with Meredith" he said. "I know she's got great ethnography skills, but that's new for you and me. How do we find and win that work? Can we deliver voice of the customer and other customer insights work that's reasonable and high quality?"

It was a bit late in the game to ask these questions, since we'd offered Meredith a job and she had accepted. Her first day was scheduled in less than two weeks, once she had detangled herself from her existing position. Matt had voiced some of the concerns that had been bouncing around in my head - had we overextended ourselves in an area that we knew little about?

"We've lost opportunities in the past because we didn't have good research and customer insight skills. We've also been forced to partner with firms that we felt did poor work or were the client's favorite, but who contributed little to the project. You and I don't know a lot about ethnography, but that's not exactly the point. What we need to do is consider the 'front end' of the innovation process and help our clients identify trends, unmet needs and customer insights. While we have done a number of trend spotting exercises and helped develop scenario plans, you and I don't have much experience gaining the qualitative insights of customers. I'd rather bring those skills on board than see that work go to another firm, or get neglected all together."

"I'm on board with all of that. My concern is that we need to sell that work - you and I have always partnered for that capability. Now we need to learn how to sell it, or Meredith will become a very expensive commodity."

In a small agency, a hunter's mentality is important. A good consultant is constantly hunting for new business and working on his or her existing business. Any good consultant is part salesman, part implementer. Without a dedicated salesforce, each consultant in a smaller agency had to pull his or her own weight. Matt didn't have to voice his concerns, I knew them as well. Meredith had never had to sell work before, and now her success, and ours, depended on selling her knowledge and skills in an ethnography project and blending the findings into insights we could use to drive other consulting opportunities.

"Matt" I said, between bites of my reuben, which was actively positioning small morsels of itself on my tie and shirt front "the first thing we've got to do is not allow Meredith or ourselves to be stovepiped. Meredith needs to learn what we do, and be able to consult with our clients on trends, or innovation processes or ideation. She can be very valuable as another consultant in that regard. She also needs to develop a pipeline of projects that require her skill sets, and you and I will help her do that. You and I need to learn to support ethnography and research projects. This is only going to work if we stick with our methodology - an integrated approach to innovation from trend spotting and synthesis all the way through idea validation. Ethnography and market research will help identify new opportunities that customers may not even be aware of, and validate the strength of the need, and help validate new products and services in market tests. Today you and I cobble that together as best we can. With Meredith aboard, we can deliver a better, more complete and practical solution for our customers."

Matt nodded, but I knew he wasn't completely satisfied. In that way he reminded me of my first wife, who could never fully wrap her head around any plan, or enthusiastically support any new project I suggested. No matter how much I tried, getting her on board with any concept or change was difficult if not impossible. When I'd decided to open my own consulting firm, that was the last straw for her. She wanted a stable life with a husband with a dependable 9 to 5 job, who worked in a cubicle and brought home a steady paycheck. Last I spoke with her, she was remarried to an accountant for a large industrial firm on the west side, probably worrying him to death about his plans for promotion.

Knowing Matt, it was clear he was going to reserve judgement, so I just shrugged and went to work on my reuben. There were several possible projects for Meredith even before she came aboard. Cantide and Accipiter could both use her services, even if they didn't know it yet. I was less worried about Meredith adding value than I was her adjustment to a pure consulting existence. The life of a consultant was very different from a corporate one. In a corporate existence, your day is not your own - you move from meeting to meeting, updating others or being updated, and try to squeeze in the work you will be evaluated on in the early morning or late afternoon. The days are mostly the same, and the work rarely changes. For consultants, each day is something new. Clients have no problem radically changing direction or asking for new, revised scope on a project, or starting or stopping suddenly. Often we'll work on two or three projects in a day for several different clients, or find that a deliverable has changed and work late into the night to meet the deadline. To a great extent you plan your days based on what you expect to happen, and prepare for what does happen, which is usually different and unexpected.

We called for our check and dropped the cash on the table. As we left Matt turned to me and said "Don't worry. I think we've done the right thing bringing her aboard. I'm just getting cold feet. There's no doubt we can learn a lot from her and she will add very valuable experience to our team. Plus, I think she can hold her own with us, and that's saying something."

Looking at us, two rumpled, cynical, sarcastic innovation consultants, leaving lunch with a combination of blue cheese and russian dressing hanging from our collective shirt fronts, it was hard to think that anyone would want to hold their own with us, much less be seen in public with us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Twenty Nine

"Building a skunkworks isn't going to be too difficult" I said. "You won't need a significant amount of space, or funds, to work effectively, but you will need several good people, and they'll need to commit at least half of their time to working in the skunkworks."

"Only half their time?"

"Ideally, they'd be full time in the skunkworks" I admitted "I just wasn't sure if you can convinced four or five people to give up their regular jobs and move into a disruptive innovation team for four to six months, with no guarantee that they can return to what they were doing before."

"I believe we'll have to have them full time, or else they'll get sucked back into their 'day jobs'. If we are going to make the skunkworks successful, then the participants need to be full time."

"In that case, they also need to be volunteers. You want a team that is fully committed to the success of the skunkworks, and innovation at Accipiter. If you simply ask for several individuals, you may have some assigned to the team who don't want to be there or who can't think disruptively. You are also going to need to demonstrate what these individuals will be doing in six months. Do you anticipate the skunkworks will continue? Or do you think they could become the core of an innovation team? Or will they need to find roles in their current functions?"

"I don't know that part yet. Let's design the skunkworks and determine the staffing, and then think through how it works and what the logical outcomes are."

I'd tossed a few grenades at her, and she seemed as passionate about the skunkworks concept as when we'd first started talking. I had very little reason to believe she could pull it off, but given the glacial pace of decision making and change at Accipiter, perhaps this was the only way to introduce something radically new.

"I'd recommend, based on our experience, a site off campus, away from the Accipiter culture and the pressure of fitting in. Does Accipiter own or lease any office space in town, away from the Accipiter campus?"

"We have small satellite offices in several locations. I'm concerned, though, that all of them have a fair amount of Accipiter staff, so we'd still be 'in' Accipiter even in those offices."

"Then that means finding a small office, away from Accipiter, where you can establish the team. With four or five people you won't need more than a thousand, fifteen hundred square feet of office space. You can probably find that anywhere."

"I had in mind some space in the warehouse district. You know, bare walls, high ceilings. Get away from the traditional class "A" space and cubicles."

"That's an interesting suggestion. You need to be sure the individuals you bring on to your team are comfortable working in a slightly different environment. If you can find something that's different in terms of space, it's possible it would be a good place for brainstorming and other innovation activities, close by yet away from Accipiter."

"OK, I'll start working on the space. You've mentioned four or five people. What kinds of people do we need? Is four or five enough?"

"Most research shows that as a team grows, it struggles to keep focus on disruptive or radical innovation. Only small teams seem to be able to get beyond the traditional corporate thinking. Much more than five people and you start to introduce group pressure, and you'll have a hard time preventing the team from introducing Accipiter corporate thinking."

I thought, after meeting many of the Accipiter executives, she'd have a hard time with this anyway, but perhaps within the rank and file there were people who wanted change.

"As far as types of people" I said "Look first for people who are a bit of an irritant in their organizations, who are 'idea' people or who constantly ask why things can't be done differently. There are always people that fit this description in any organization. Then talk to them to understand if they are merely complainers, or, if given the chance, they would create real change. Then, see if they are crazy enough to volunteer for something like this."

"Crazy enough? I'm going to make it a badge of honor to be on this team" she said.

She's either got the moxie to pull this off, I thought, or she's frustrated enough to commit a frontal charge directly into the guns.

"I'd want to see people with several different types of skills or business knowledge on the team. So I'd definitely find someone who has been working on corporate strategy, product management and sales. Don't worry too much just yet about finance or legal, they are trained to ask the right questions, just not the ones we want to focus on right now. Get as much customer interaction and insight on the team as possible, and a reasonable breadth of skills and knowledge so you don't attack the problem from any specific perspective."

"OK, I think I can start recruiting the team based on this feedback, and I've already looked at space. What kinds of help can you provide to help us get started?"

"From a consultative viewpoint we at Marlowe can help you with trend spotting and synthesis and scenario planning. What's going to be important for you to succeed is to pick one area of the company where you believe a radically new product or service can create a real difference. We need to focus all of our work on a specific area and create a compelling new product or service. Before your team can be successful, you'll need to shrink the scope of their work. Then we can help develop alternative scenarios and drive out customer insights and requirements, which you can use to generate ideas about new products."

"OK, so what's this going to cost over a four to six month period of time?"

"Assuming each person costs about $10K a month, fully loaded, and you have five people, that's $50K for the team per month, plus space, overhead and so forth. Say $60K for grins per month. Our costs will be another $25K per month. So you will be looking at approximately $90K per month, for four to six months. Minimum $400K, maximum $600K."

"OK, that's enough for me to get started. I'm going to write up an outline and send it over for you to review. My goal is to get something in front of Bill by the end of the week for his review and comment."

This should shake something loose, I thought. It will either light a fire under the executive team, or encourage Susan to find a new job in a different company.

"Are you sure this is the right approach, Susan? It could be a big risk on your part."

"Bill brought me aboard to run an innovation program. I left a good role to take on this position, and eight months later we are still only talking about innovation. I want to force this to a decision. If it goes my way, great. If not, I'll know where we stand and I can start looking for something new."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Twenty Eight

In for dime, in for a dollar I always say.

"Tell me more about your skunkworks idea. What makes you think a skunkworks will appeal more than any other innovation effort?"

"I don't know that it's more appealing" she said. "I just think if we can create an innovation program that allows us to move forward, create some new products or services and demonstrate we can create something compelling, then the rest of the organization will get behind it. I think it will be very difficult to innovate within the lines of business as they stand today. There's just too much cost cutting pressure and too little appetite for change."

"Sounds familiar. Many of the firms we work with have the same cultural challenges."

"But I feel the need to demonstrate some value. Bill Thompson recruited me from a good product management position and asked me to work directly with him to build an innovation capability. I've been in this role for almost eight months and we've done nothing but talk about innovation. I'm losing time and credibility, and there's really few options beyond starting up a skunkworks at this point. I don't see Fred Phillips allowing us to innovation effectively, and most of the other product group heads want to innovate but don't have the budget or manpower. If I can't produce something - some idea, some method to break this logjam, I will have to find a new job in Accipiter or somewhere else. And I have to tell you, the perspective I've gained in this innovation role has led me to believe it will need to be elsewhere if we can't get something started soon."

Pirate flag, I thought. No, more like walking the plank joined together. But I had great sympathy for her, having been in her predicament several times, except as a consultant. Oftentimes it was easy to see the opportunities but hard to reach up and grasp them for most firms. As a consultant, I could walk away and find another firm more committed to change. As an employee, who'd committed years of her life to Accipiter, leaving would mean starting new in some other organization. Staying would mean going back to another job, tail tucked between her legs, the silly 'innovator' who should have been back doing the real work.

"OK, I understand the need to do something. Believe me, I'd like to see Accipiter do something. The question in front of us is: can you get Thompson to agree to a skunkworks and provide the resources quickly? Will he need to get the rest of the management team on board, or can he do it himself?"

"That's why I needed to speak with you. I need to build a compelling case for the skunkworks, define the costs and resources necessary and identify some possible outcomes. I think Bill is frustrated as well, but he can't force the product groups to innovate. A skunkworks allows us to set up our own team, outside the structure and pressure of the organization, to generate ideas and develop them. I think we can move much more quickly that way."

"Yes, you can. We've done things like this before. The definition and generation of ideas won't be difficult. You'll need a very well defined opportunity to address or problem to solve, and the hard part will be implementing the idea. If you don't have the product groups behind you, it's very possible that you'll generate good ideas but won't find a home for them in the organization. The product groups may snub even very good ideas if they weren't involved in the development, and you'll have to find funding for your ideas just like they do - in the annual plan. You'll compete with them for resources. Are you willing to take that risk, or to develop and launch a new product outside of the existing product lines?"

"I've considered the issue. I don't know how we'll develop and launch ideas out of the skunkworks, but I am willing to get started and see where this takes us. I think I can get Bill on board with that approach if we hold the costs down and demonstrate real value quickly. Will you help me put some cost estimates together for the skunkworks?"

When your neck is in the noose, do you help the hangman tighten the knot? The tradeoff was this - if the skunkwork was successful, Marlowe would get a lot of accolades and more business from Thompson and Johansen, and none from the rest of the organization. If the skunkwork failed, we get no business from Accipiter anyway, and it didn't appear as though the calcified decision making process at Accipiter was going to break up anytime soon. So, in balance, I didn't have much to lose.

"OK" I said "with a couple of conditions. First, we need to confirm with Bill that he'll look at our proposal. There's no need to do this work if he won't agree to look at the proposal."

"Done" she said.

"Second, you and I have to trust each other and communicate effectively. To date, talking with Accipiter has been like shouting in the desert. I'm talking and no one is responding. If I agree to do this with you, we agree to respond to each others emails and voicemails, and to talk regularly."

"Sam, I can't do this without your expertise, and I wasn't able to communicate with you since I didn't know the decisions or how things were progressing. I promise you that I'll communicate with you."

"OK. Third, if we build this and the proposal is accepted, you'll work with Marlowe Innovation to implement the skunkworks. I'm doing this work on my dime, sticking my neck out, and I need to know that you'll do the same for me if the proposal is accepted."

"I'll do my best to influence the decision. You know that Bill will ultimately make the final decisions."

"I'll hold you to your word."

"Any other conditions?"

I was sure there should be, but I couldn't think of any at that point.

"No. Let's get started."

"OK, what's it going to take to build a skunkworks here at Accipiter?"

That's what we were going to find out.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Twenty Seven

I was sitting in my office, reviewing the results of a brainstorming session just completed when the phone rang in the outer office. I could hear June, our receptionist slash girl Friday talking to the caller. I tried to block out the conversation and continue on with the review of ideas.

Matt and I led a brainstorming session with Thanone the day before. Thanone was losing share and late to market with new products in its market, and had asked us to help generate new ideas. We'd stipulated the use of our methodology, which requires adequate planning, engaging the participants in pre-work, and a two day ideation event broken up by an "excursion" which allowed us to get the participants out of the conference room and acting like consumers, so they could get a sense of what it's like to interact and use the products and services they build and sell. The project manager agreed with our methodology, and together we planned an event that would help the team see past its current predicament and think differently. At least that was the plan.

"God save us from an engineering firm" Matt had said as we wrapped up the two day event.

It turned out that none of the pre-work was reviewed by the participants, over 80% of whom were engineers primarily focused on cutting costs on the existing product line. Several of them chose to see the ideation portion of the event as a time to catch up on their email or chat on their BlackBerrys, and several told us directly that generating ideas for new products was "a waste of time" as the management team was very focused on cutting costs and improving the existing product line. Generating ideas within that framework was nearly impossible, since several of the team members had to be educated on the goals, which most of the rest of the team members promptly rejected as a reasonable goal. The project manager from Thanone, a product manager working to improve his product line, surveyed the product and safety engineers and called the whole thing hopeless.

"Even if we come up with some interesting new ideas, the safety engineers will shoot them down in the session."

"That's our job to keep the team focused. We'll keep them from judging the ideas too quickly" I said.

"Um, you don't understand our culture. Watching this for just an hour or two, I can see that the engineers aren't willing to step away from what they "know" to be true. They can't remove themselves from the tiny adjustments or simple problems with the existing products to try to think of new products and services."

"We've seen this before. Unless we have strong buy-in from the team to move on to new and challenging opportunities, most teams, especially very homogeneous teams, will revert back to solving the day to day problems rather than generating new ideas. Could we bring in a senior executive to speak to the team about commitment to the new opportunities and ideation?"

"I doubt we could at this point. I was hopeful that following your methodology the engineers would appreciate a step by step, methodical approach to innovation. What I didn't realize is that they are so steeped in the culture that they simply can't break out - at least we haven't achieved any breakout."

Looking over the ideas later I had to agree with him. It had been quite possibly the most frustrating brainstorming session I'd ever led. We spent far too much time simply trying to get the team on board to think more disruptively, and it was evident their hearts and minds weren't in the task. Even when we did manage to generate some good ideas, some joker in the room would point out all of the problems with the idea, rather than trying to build on the strengths of the idea. Virtually no one on the team had done any of the pre-reading, and none felt there was a strong chance to build a new product. The lack of preparation and agreement on the goal showed up in the ideas. Typically in a two day event we can generate hundreds of ideas and winnow them down to a manageable list that are ready to be implemented. In the case of the Thanone brainstorm, we'd barely managed to generate 100 ideas, and there were very few compelling ones on the list.

"This has been a real failure on our part" my client said as we left. "I'm afraid this may set back some of the things I'd hoped to do from an innovation perspective. It's clear to me that there are bigger challenges to this approach than I'd suspected."

I left knowing that we'd done the right things, but would have a tough time winning more work at Thanone. There were simply too many obstacles to innovation in that culture, and a poorly received event, even one that wasn't our fault, would cause them to think twice about working with us again.

June interrupted my thinking.

"Boss" she said, in that way that lets you know who is really the 'boss' "I've got a Susan Johansen on the phone, from Accipiter. I told her your schedule was full this morning, but she seems very interested in talking with you today, as soon as possible. Can you take a call from her now, or can we move something around on your schedule?"

What the hell, I thought, would I rather beat myself up over Thanone, or watch the ice melt at Accipiter. Somehow, at this point in time, watching the ice melt seemed more interesting. "I can speak with her now. Send her through."

She nodded, and I thought I got a glance of sympathy as she closed my office door. Good help is hard to find. Good help that knows its place and has empathy is even harder to find. I decided to give her a raise at the end of the month.

The phone rang. "Marlow" I said.

"Mr. Marlow, this is Susan Johansen, from Accipiter. I need to talk to you about our innovation efforts."

The words came tumbling, spilling out, rushing out like they were escaping convicts freed from the pen. She gathered her breath and continued.

"Our quarterly results are just coming in and we are getting crushed. Our market share has slipped even more, and another competitor is planning to launch a new product to compete with our best product line in just a few weeks. We've got to improve the way we innovate. I'm so frustrated. Can you help me build a plan to take to Thompson to start an innovation program?"

Anger, desperation and a quixotic task. What more could an innovation consultant ask for?

"Susan, what you are telling me is that things have gotten slightly worse since we first met six months ago. I spoke with the Accipiter leadership council over a month and a half ago, and certainly the results are evident to them as well. Have they asked you to contact me?"

"No. There's no consensus on what to do. Fred Phillips is pushing hard for more Seven Schema work to cut costs. The line of business leaders are running for cover, since Thompson and the executive team are thinking of selling off lines of business or plants. It's as plain as the nose on my face what we need to do, yet trying to get everyone on board, or anyone on board, is almost impossible."

"You work for Thompson."

"Yes, I work for him. He maintains he's interested in innovation, but that the time isn't right. There are too many distractions."

"Well, waiting for the right time to innovate is a management prerogative."

"Sam, I can get the run around here in Accipiter. Are you interested in working with me or not?"

"What is it you want to do? What can we do to change the situation?"

I was buying time at this point. While I had always thought that Susan would be a key player in any innovation project, I knew she didn't have the seniority to drive it by herself. Thompson or Phillips, or one of the heads of the business units would need to back her up for the project to go forward. Clearly Phillips had cast his lot with cost cutting.

"I want to build a business case for innovation and take it to Thompson and the rest of the executive team. I think I can build a case that we should build a skunkworks and move a few people over to build new products and services for Accipiter, but outside the corporate culture."

Will you hang the Jolly Roger over the doorway, I thought.

"I'm convinced that a skunkworks is the only way we can get started. We just need a few people and some help getting started. We really have nothing to lose at this point."

She sounded a bit desperate, as if her career was somehow caught up in the success or failure of innovation. Perhaps it was. But could Accipiter stomach a skunkworks and would it be successful? Would it be another Thanone for Marlowe?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Twenty Six

The day broke, clear and sunny, with a fine soft west wind off the bay. People were out, going to work, eating in bagel shops, sipping that first delicious draft of coffee. They were driving to work in convertibles with the wind in their hair, reveling in the fine weather. All was sunshine and light on the outside.

Or at least that's the way it appeared from my bedroom window, peering slightly off to the left to get a glimpse of the street down the narrow alleyway between my building and the one just across the way. Mornings were probably another invention we should chalk up to Torquemada, even mornings as bright and clear and resonant as this one. No wonder Starbucks and Caribou and a host of other cartoonish coffee klatches had succeeded. Most people didn't want to get out of bed even on the best of mornings, and they needed that caffeine kickstart to get them moving.

For me it was a fine morning outside, but a clock and a calendar clicked away inside my head. Today was the 30th working day since I'd presented to Accipiter's management team at the Excelsior. In that time period I'd had one voice to voice call with Johansen, left two voicemails for Phillips (unreturned), left three voicemails for Briggs (unreturned) and had four conversations with myself about what had gone wrong. Silence from a firm like Accipiter is as inevitable as rust, and since no executive in his right mind will tell you what is happening until the ground under his feet stops moving, the silence reverberated in my office. I understood that no decision would be taken quickly, but Accipiter was moving with the speed of a prehistoric sloth surrounded by hungry Cro-Magnons.

I tossed back my breakfast, a mixture of day old coffee with a slash of something Irish and dressed, pondering my next move. First, I asked myself, did Accipiter intend to do anything to innovate? Next, if so, did it intend to seek out an outside partner to assist with that work? Third, if so, how likely was it that Marlow Innovation would be that firm. Last, if all of those suppositions fell in my favor, what was the approximate timeframe until the next global warming period? In all honesty I answered my questions as 1) maybe but who really knew 2) probably, if for no other reason than to ignite some energy 3) Very likely since I'd met and spoken with most of them and 4) that date got reset each quarter.

Fortunately Matt and I had enough on our plate to keep us occupied, expanding the office, bringing Meredith up to speed, working with other existing clients and trolling for new opportunities. Hiring Meredith brought immediate and unexpected benefits - a small trend spotting and synthesis project for a traditional media company. Meredith had contacts and introduced Marlow Innovation as a firm to assist with trend spotting, synthesis and scenario planning, which we won fair and square, which is to say without competition. We'd be starting that project this week.

Trend spotting and synthesis is one of my favorite types of projects, because it is somewhat removed from the pressure of identifying a new "product" and more interested in discovery of new opportunities or markets. There's some of the Blue Ocean in a trend spotting and synthesis exercise, especially as it extends into a scenario planning workshop. Our goal is to look 5 to 7 years out, extending key trends and developing a description of the future conditions and possible outcomes. This work is interesting because it involves conjecture, and trading off alternatives and forecasting actions and reactions across time. Many firms do this work exceedingly well - the Shell Oil company has used scenario planning very successfully and much of what we do is built on the work they and the Defense Department created in the 60s and 70s. The other reason I enjoy trend spotting and synthesis is that we often open up unexpected opportunities and challenges for our clients.

For example, in one trend spotting exercise years ago we extrapolated the growth of the "doc in a box" or minute clinic, and one of our projections was that these locations would become the predominant place for people with insurance, as well as the underinsured, to obtain more of their healthcare. At the time, the health insurer laughed off that assumption. Two years later they were investing in minute clinics and considering completely new compensation schemes for doctors in those clinics and the patients who frequented them. Pressed to provide more coverage for the underinsured, where did they turn? To the locations with the least overhead and easiest access - the minute clinic. Done well, trend spotting, synthesis and scenario planning can provide a glimpse into a very possible future. All that remains is for the client to take action before some other firm does.

Thinking about the trend spotting activity brightened my morning. Or perhaps the Irish part of my coffee breakfast was kicking in. I finished dressing and went down to take part in the great commute in the warm summer breeze, my mind already exploring the trends in the media space and extrapolating into possible scenarios. Accipiter and its glacial pace would wait another day.