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.

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