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.

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