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.

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