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.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty Two

In the office bright and cheerful the next morning. While I'm not a "people person", which is odd in a person whose gainful employment is in working with people, I felt rejuvenated by June. Just a few hours with her left me feeling great, refreshed, a believer in humanity again. In my line of work it can take a little resetting from time to time.

With the focus on Accipiter I'd let a couple of items slip. A few calls to Cantide and a quick update from Levantine took most of the morning, but I felt I had at least touched base with the folks who were waiting for me. That cleared the deck for a long think about Accipiter. One thing for certain, we had to get a good, clear scope defined for the effort, otherwise any result would be deemed a failure.

There were two items to pursue in parallel. One was easy. That was to generate a list of software firms that would license their solutions to Accipiter, rather than require a hosting agreement. Since most of the firms in the space were now software as a service, only a few firms would offer their code for installation and licensing. And of those, even fewer met the architectural requirements of Accipiter's CIO. He preferred not to introduce any technologies not already in house, so that eliminated any Lotus Notes solutions. Being a stickler for licensing and intellectual property, we also threw out any open source solutions. That meant there were only three or four viable firms to consider. We'd interacted with all of these firms from time to time, so lining them up to provide more information wasn't too hard.

At the same time we needed to establish the "going in" position for innovation - an operating model for innovation, if you'd like to think of it that way. We needed to establish the "rules" and expectations for innovation, and provide the programs and procedures to reinforce those programs, so innovation remained true to the goals of the organization. That meant getting executives to make decisions and provide clear goals and objectives, which is never easy. We'd get what we could, and make assumptions about the rest. In my experience, about 40% of any company strategy is made well down in the ranks, and percolates up once the mid level managers get tired of waiting to be told what the strategy is. More than likely, we'd see a healthy dose of strategy development by our team. Fortunately, we'd developed an innovation model that allowed us to ask questions and understand the initial goals and objectives of any firm. That model helped us help our customers think through their goals and objectives, and outlined areas of disagreement.

I assigned Matt to contact the software firms and ask them to prepare a short pricing proposal and demonstration for Accipiter. I pulled out our Innovation Model Facets white paper and used it as a guide to structure the work of getting the innovation model defined for Accipiter. We'd need to interview some of the top management, including Bill Thompson, Fred Phillips, the CEO of Accipiter and the HR director. The last one was always the hardest, because few corporations understood the link between innovation and recruitment, compensation and evaluation. A good HR team can help shift a culture very quickly, and also have a significant amount of influence over compensation methods and evaluations. These two factors - compensation and evaluation, can drive what people do, and what they are compensated to do, in an organization.

I called Susan to discuss my game plan.

"Susan Johansen."

"Susan, Sam Marlowe."

"Hello Sam. What's up?"

"Do you have a few minutes to talk about our game plan for the community?"

"Umm, yes, I'm free until 2, then just back to back for the rest of the day."

Here's a bronze medal for bravery in the face of dreaded corporate meetings.

"Great. I'll be quick. First, I've got Matt chasing down a short list of software vendors who will license their software. I expect we can line up four vendors who can provide some short demos as soon as early next week."

"OK. I'll ask Bill and Frank to put some time on their calendars."

"Second, I want to talk with you about the work we need to do to define the innovation community and understand the expectations and outcomes."

"We'd better schedule some time for that conversation". I could tell that she had some of the same concerns as I did.

"Yes. What does 4pm today look like for you?"

"I'm booked up, as I told you earlier. However, I am open after 10am tomorrow."

"OK. Can I get an hour of your time? 10 to 11 tomorrow?"

"It's on the calendar."

"I'll send you a short note with some of my thinking, then we can talk."

"Thanks Sam."

"Sure. Talk to you tomorrow."

I think Churchill said that the Russians were a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. I was beginning to understand what he meant. Often, working with Accipiter felt like I was chasing black cats in a dark room with a blindfold, never sure of my purpose or direction, and with no advice or coaching from the participants.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty One

I left Accipiter that day facing a long drive home in terrible traffic. Yet I couldn't tell you anything about the drive home. It may have been crowded, bumper to bumper, or it may have been wide open. It was one of those drives where you suddenly realize you've parked the car in your driveway or parking spot, without actually realizing you're home. I was so preoccupied with the latest developments that I had driven home on autopilot, while the rest of my mind was churning over the newest twist to the puzzle. I hoped the reptilian part of my brain that had managed the driving had managed the drive home effectively.

Here's the puzzle that allowed me to drive through six lanes of freeway traffic at the height of rush hour without noticing the other drivers: how do you build an effective innovation platform without understanding the key strategic goals of the company? At this point, success was going to be as difficult as throwing darts at a dartboard in a dark room with a blind fold. There was some chance for success, but it was a very limited chance. We needed a lot more clarity on what the management team expected from an innovation community. Simply opening up a site where customers can place their suggestions for new products or services will be less than satisfactory if 'all those ideas' have already been suggested internally. Or what if there was a desire for some really radical, disruptive ideas? An open suggestion model might capture some of those ideas, amongst the hundreds of mundane ideas or outright critiques of existing products or services. This project was a balloon which bulged out in every different direction just as soon as I felt I had one clear goal or target. The number of variables in this equation was simply too high. If no one wanted to provide us with clarity, I decided, then we'd impose clarity on the process. We'd establish a clear scope and boundary conditions on the community, publish those and wait for the howls of protest. If we didn't get any, or at least none we couldn't correct, then we'd declare that the scope. Given a specific scope and set of expectations, I felt we could be successful. Then, once the ideas were generated and considered, we'd declare victory before anyone could complain. That would give Accipiter a 'quick win' that we could build on.

I was mentally exhausted and morally bankrupt by the time I dragged myself into my apartment. I'd need a good stiff drink to need a good stiff drink, so I slumped on the couch and set mental distress signals to June. Not that I'd ever been good at receiving her rather overt signals about a regular dating life, or flowers, or dinner out. We'd had, so far, a rather haphazard dating scheme, developed mostly around my inability to commit and disheveled lifestyle. Some might call it selfish, I simply thought of it as idiosyncratic. My life resembled the guy in that movie who crashed on a desert island with a beach ball, except that I left the island everyday to work with hundreds of people, who I suspect went back home each day to their own desert islands. The mental signals didn't seem to pan out, so I reached out and touched June the old fashioned way, with a dial tone.


"Would you throw a drowning man a lifeline, even if that man wasn't always the best to you?"

"Is this a philosophical question?"

"More like a cry for help from the deep end of the pool."

"For a man who is drowning, you certainly have time for snappy patter."

"Like a duck. Calm on the surface and paddling like hell down below."

"Sam, you never need anything from me or anyone else. What's up?"

"Tired, lonely and bored. I need a few rays of sunshine in my life."

"You know how to sweet talk the girls, don't you Sam?"

"June, you know me. I am what I am. I'd really like to see you - take you to dinner, out for drinks, whatever. My treat."

"OK Sam. Let's make a date."

"No, I mean now, tonight. Are you free tonight?"

"Well, I'd planned to arrange my sock drawer, but your offer does seem just a bit more enticing. Give me half an hour?"

"Great. And thanks. I'll stop by and pick you up."

"How gallant. Remember, three floors down, 7a."

"I've been there once or twice before."

"Yes, but it's been so long I thought you might have forgotten. See you soon."

OK. Feet on floor, hat on rack. Splash water on face and comb hair. Exchange formal monkey suit and tie for something a bit more stylish and slightly more casual for dinner. Rummage through the clothes in order - on hanger, off hanger on bed, draped on chair, piled on floor. Decide that everything needs ironing, so go with the linen slacks and silk shirt.

Eyeball the familiar mug in the mirror, and decide that except for the hangdog look around the eyes, that visage could be on movie posters around town. It's not the looks, it's the attitude I told myself. Buck up boy. Accipiter can wait until tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty

In the end, the IT department proved to be more powerful than the COO. It was almost Orwellian, in the sense that to preserve the data, they needed to destroy it. Don't get me wrong - the IT department has a tough job, managing the existing systems at Accipiter and layering on hundreds of new requests. They were actually quite pleased to learn of the desire for an innovation community, and quite unhappy when they realized that Bill and Susan had their eye on hosted software. The biggest problem in their minds: data privacy and security.

"Our policies, which we built to satisfy the users that no Accipiter data would be put at risk, require any sensitive data, or customer specific data, or data with high intellectual property must be behind our firewall" said Frank Smithson, the Accipiter CIO. It wasn't negotiable from their perspective. Either find a package we could install behind the firewall or IT would be happy to build it in SharePoint or some other technology.

Susan and Bill left the room, trailing a thin wisp of steam emanating from their nicely tailored collars. The IT guys glanced at me, shrugged as if to say "we don't make the rules, we just enforce them" and left quietly. Susan returned a few minutes later.

"I don't think I've ever seen Bill so angry. Lately, it seems any time we need a new system or software solution, the IT guys drag their feet. Usually, we can get them to do something we need. Now that we have a directive from the CEO to create an innovation community, they've thrown down the gauntlet." Susan, who wasn't used to the roller coaster ride of an innovation project, was getting tired of the ups and downs, the curves and straightaways. I stood like an old seahand on a pitching deck, since I'd been on this particular ride more times than I could count.

"Look, this is fairly typical in this situation. The IT guys are merely enforcing a policy that some other executives have asked for. You can argue it all day, or we can investigate some software applications that your team can purchase and install, or you can start designing a new application internally. It's best at this point to consider your next best alternatives. A hosted solution seems out of the question."

She nodded. "Let's start a review of applications we can license and install. I don't want to have to wait for the design and development internally."

I knew of a few firms that provided software that would probably meet Accipiter's needs, and went about the task of contacting them and setting up demonstrations. This time, we were careful to invite the appropriate IT resources to the meetings, so any issues with architecture or support were addressed early on. Bill continued on a separate path to talk with the CEO and CIO, to see if Accipiter could bend the security rules in this instance. He was rightly convinced that a hosted application could be available much more quickly, and would probably have better support than an internal application. No such luck.

While the Accipiter executives dueled it out over the software, Susan and I got down to brass tacks on the purpose, goals and management of the community.

"Susan, we need to document your goals and make sure we map those goals for the community to the software we select. Is it your goal to have an 'open' community, where anyone can submit ideas about an Accipiter product, or do you want to invite a specific set of customers or partners to submit ideas?"

"What's the major difference?"

"There are several. Most important is intellectual property. In a community that is by invitation, you can invite business partners and key customers and strike agreements that define the ownership of intellectual property, and perhaps share more of your strategy. In an open community, the ideas will have less protection, since they are visible to anyone who signs up. You will also have to work harder to validate the ideas submitted in an open community, because an average Joe won't know, and won't care, if that idea or capability belongs to another firm."

"Will we get more ideas from an open community?"

"Yes, but that's a two edged sword. More ideas, most certainly, and most likely the ideas will represent a very broad spectrum of interest and opinion from your customer base. An invitation community can be more focused, so you have deeper ideas but less breadth. An open community can become very similar to an open suggestion box."

She seemed to shudder slightly at that remark. All good innovation programs are just one or two steps away from the suggestion box, that seemingly innocent place where ideas go to die.

"Then another concern with an open community would be the same as our suggestion box - no clear statement of needs or goals, and anyone can submit any idea?"

"Yep. If you aren't careful, an open community can become a dumping ground for anyone with a problem, issue, idea or just a favorite topic. The breadth and diversity of ideas is interesting, but often many of them just won't be valuable."

"OK, what's the alternative?

"You can invite people or partners to a community, or you could establish clear, specific statements or goals for the community. In some smaller communities, we've even gone so far as to spell out the problem we are trying to solve or the opportunity we believe exists. The problem with that approach is that now you may be tipping your hand on your strategic direction and strategy. There are some fine lines to walk."

"I think our first goal is simply to start demonstrating that we are listening to our customers, and taking on their ideas. Let's start with the simplest model and then refine it over time."

"Fine, as long as you understand the tradeoffs. You also understand, I hope, that this community can't run itself. Accipiter will need to staff it with people who read and review the ideas, comment on the ideas, contact some of the submitters and evaluate and select ideas. We'll need to identify a team of people to interact with your community on a consistent basis. This is about engagement, after all, and not a one way street."

"Let's get to work outlining the community, the team we'll need to support the community and the process once ideas are selected. I'll talk with Bill to see if he is making any headway on the hosted solution, and if not, we can start looking at the licensed software options."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Thirty Nine

8am the next morning found me at my office, rumpled, tired and uncertain about the whole Accipiter account. 8am most days found me safely ensconced in my own bed, dreamily considering placing one foot, and then the other, on the cold floor to start my day.

8am in the office meant having to decipher one of the new coffee making machines, with brightly highlighted buttons and special additives. What ever happened to the old coffee pots. I needed caffeine in the worst way and was confronted with a machine that appeared to have more in common with an Xbox than a coffee pot. Who wants to read directions to get coffee at 8 in the morning, just before a controversial phone call with an uncertain client?

8am that morning found me in a bad mood. I felt that Accipiter had spun out of my control, and had taken a very different direction that what I had expected. That unsettled me. I like my clients to follow my lead. I get uncomfortable when I want to foxtrot and the client wants to tango. After all, much of the reason a firm should pay me at all is for my knowledge and experience. I can't afford to risk being led around by the nose by a client whose management team can't agree on what to do.

8:45 found me at my desk, by the phone, reviewing my notes from the previous day's discussion with Susan. My writing reflected the reaction to the call. My prep notes were clear and strong, my notes of the call were rambling and jagged, uncertain. All I was sure of was that Susan and probably Bill were going to call in a few minutes to talk about an innovation community. An outcome as surprising to me as any in quite a while.

9am promptly the phone rang. Count on Accipiter to be on time when it mattered to them, and when I'm still trying to get my bearings.

"Marlowe" I said, with just a hint of remorse.

"Sam, Susan Johansen and Bill Thompson from Accipiter. How are you today?"

"Fine. And you?" I hadn't noticed before, but 'fine" slips through gritted teeth with the elegance of fingernails on a chalkboard. I quickly added "It's a bit early for me, and no coffee."

"Oh. Well, thanks for joining us. As you and I discussed yesterday, we need to move quickly to define and build an innovation community, so we can collect ideas from our customers and business partners. Bill has joined me today to discuss the direction we want to take."

"Hello Sam. Staying busy?" Not as busy as I'd like to be considering the effort to start a project at Accipiter.

"Yes. Several of our clients are keeping us busy with some ethnography research and scenario development, not to mention some work we've just finished helping another client with idea generation." I wanted to let him know we were busy, and that there were a number of capabilities that other people were paying good hard cash for our services.

"Great. Look, I know we've been a bit slow to start, but I think we've got a real opportunity now. Our CEO read about IdeaStorm and other innovation communities where customers enter ideas for new products and services. He's asked us to move forward on building a community for Accipiter. How can you help with that effort?"

Even without the coffee my mind raced. It struck me that Accipiter was not overly serious, and that their customers would see through a half-hearted attempt to collect ideas. Given their reluctance to generate any really disruptive or radical ideas, they were likely to be comfortable with incremental ideas, which may seem very ho-hum to other executives. And so far they hadn't parted with a red cent, which made me question their financial commitments. So many questions, just get started.

"We've built programs like this before. To be honest, I'll need a lot more information in regards to your timing and budget and expectations before we can give you a sense of what this will take to complete."

Bill rose to the occasion. "We'd like to have an innovation community up and running in 90 days, that allows our customers to submit ideas about our products and services. We'll need to examine the software that's available on the market, select something and implement it and build up our capabilities internally to review and select ideas. We'll also need to work with our PR and marketing team to make them aware of the community and to publicize it appropriately. It's a tall order, but the CEO doesn't want to go back to the Street without something to talk about."

"Any concerns about the kinds of ideas that will be submitted, in terms of diversity or whether they are incremental or disruptive?"

"We'll take them all for now, and as we learn we'll shift the focus of the community if necessary. What do you think it will take to get the system up and running?"

Up and running wasn't really the key issue. We could, with a few resources and some dedicated effort, get the system up and running in 90 days. No problem. What could be a problem would be if the community wasn't supported, and funded appropriately. Accipiter was making an implicit promise, not just for a few days, but for a period of time, to listen to its customers and accept their ideas. This wasn't something you simply started, and stopped on a whim.

"Bill, what's the budget to support this over time? It will take time for the customers to find it and submit ideas, and time for the ideas to be considered and implemented. Accipiter can't simply put up the community without supporting it and selecting ideas and interacting with your customers. This needs to be something that is actively supported and engaging with customers, over a period of time. Do you have that in your budgets for the community?"

Susan jumped in at this point. "Sam, Bill has given me some thoughts about a budget and the resources at our disposal. I asked him to sit in to demonstrate how important this community is to Accipiter. He's actually going to step out to another meeting, and you and I will work up a project plan for the implementation of the community and the long term resourcing required. We have money available for the build out of the community, and to support it through the end of the year. We'll need to go back through the funding process to get more funds to support it next year."

Bill had come, had spoken and had left. Veni, vidi, vinci. Now Susan and I were left to make it work. Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend me your arms.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Thirty Eight

I'm a baseball fan, but from the old school. Give me the guys who slid into base headfirst. Pete Rose before the gambling. Give me Fenway park, or better yet Wrigley. Brick walls, stanchions in the sightlines, open air and grass. None of this faux throwback stadiums full of glass and astroturf with retractable ceilings and stars who are constantly on the DL, who are too thin skinned to take a little criticism and seem to be more about padding stats than winning games.

So you'll allow me a little baseball analogy when I say I was back on my heels in the box when Susan called. All my discussion and planning with Matt had me prepared for the heater, the high hard one, and I was on my toes, ready to swing hard and knock that pitch right out of the park. What I got instead was the slow curve, the change of speeds that had me swinging before the ball was halfway to the plate. If I'd been up to bat literally, I would have swung myself right out of my shoes, helmet and jockstrap. That swing might have actually cost me two strikes from a tightfisted ump.

All that to say that Susan called the next day, and all my preparation and thinking went out the window. It went something like this.

"Marlowe" I said into the phone, gripping the handle so hard I thought it would break.

"Sam, Susan Johansen here. I assume you receive my message about the skunkworks."

"Sounds like the idea didn't go over well."

"Not too well, but it did spark a new discussion within the management team, and I think we have some momentum behind this. We want to create an innovation community - you know, let our customers submit ideas to us. Can you help us with that?"

I had that momentary feeling you get when someone taps you lightly on the back of the head with a lead sap. I wasn't quite sure where I was, or what we were talking about. Susan had suggested a reasonable approach that I was completely unprepared for, and it had knocked me off my game. Nothing is worse than dead air on a phone call, so I had to fill it with something.

"An innovation community. To get ideas from your customers?" An echo chamber would have worked better, but I was still trying to get my wits about me. In this case, better to ask some open ended questions and see where the answers went than try to drive the discussion.

"Yes. We've seen some examples from other firms where they've asked their customers to submit ideas to an innovation forum. Since we don't have a lot of available resources to assign to generate and manage ideas internally, and we need more customer insight, it seemed a reasonable approach and might kill two birds with one stone. Do you have experience with innovation communities?"

The questions were right but the logic was all wrong. Innovation communities could be very helpful, gathering ideas from customers, business partners and so forth. But just putting up a site wasn't going to be enough. There was strategy involved, and planning, and the little requirement of actually reading and selecting the ideas.

"We've built internal communities and defined campaigns, and helped design and build external facing communities as well. Probably our work at Cantide is the best example of an externally facing community."

"Great. How quickly could we get started with that?"

This was like asking an architect how quickly he could build a house without a blueprint. I'm sure he could build one pretty quickly, but would it meet your expectations? Would you want to live in it? Wouldn't you want to design it first?

"We can get started tomorrow if that works for you, assuming we can get an agreement put into place, but there are a few things to think about."

"Ok. One thing at a time. Send me your standard contract and I'll start that through the legal process."

"I'll email it over today."

"What other items do we need to work out?"

"Susan, a community is only as good as the people who are part of the community and the ideas or suggestions they provide. Your team needs to think about how to structure the community and what you want out of it. Do you want a community open to anyone, who can submit any idea? Do you want to identify challenges that the community should submit ideas about? Do you want to form trusted networks with business partners? Does the management team expect incremental ideas or disruptive ideas? All of these issues will drive the kind of community we build with you. We still have to consider a number of the strategic concepts to get out of the community what's important to the management team."

The silence on the other end was deafening. I think she had hoped we wouldn't have to go back to the management team again. "Perhaps we can just make a set of assumptions and get started" she said.

"That's fine, as long as we are documenting what we intend to do, and build the community to meet those assumptions. One other thing - you are going to need staff to help evaluate and select ideas, and to communicate to the people in the community, and to implement the ideas. A community won't run itself, and will expect input and feedback from Accipiter."

This was getting bigger by the minute. What had initially seemed to her a small pleasure cruise was becoming a gathering of the animals, two by two, for a long, wet ride, with no clear destination.

"OK. First things first. Send your contract over and let's schedule some time to outline what we think we want in a community, and the staffing necessary to support it effectively. Then I'll talk with Bill about the funding. Are you free tomorrow at 9 to start talking about the project?"

"Let me see." I spent a few minutes fumbling for my pocket calendar, and looking at my schedule online. I was free, and did have the time available. The question of whether or not to take on a still very unformed project with a client that didn't seem to understand the investments necessary for success still had me worried.

"I'm OK then. I'll call you." I heard the words come out of my mouth, but still wasn't sure I was the one who said them. All I had committed to do, I reassured myself, was to talk about the scope and effort of the project. If I wasn't happy with their commitment, I could always politely excuse myself and my team from the project. Yeah, sure, here we go again.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Thirty Seven

The iron triangle. That's what I'd learned in school. Cheap, fast and reliable. Pick any two, and the third is dictated to you. Accipiter was asking for an innovation program that was cheap, fast and reliable. Usually a client would ask for inexpensive and reliable, and we'd staff it accordingly, and work on it leisurely. Sometimes a client would ask for fast and good, and we'd tell them it wouldn't be cheap. Getting to cheap, fast and reliable meant making a lot of assumptions about Accipiter I wasn't willing to make, and forcing them to follow our methodology, which we knew and felt would work. So the question becomes - is working with Accipiter, and the opportunity to work with them beyond this project, worth the risk that they would fail to put the right resources on the effort, or choose to ignore our plans and guidance?

I left the call with Susan promising to contact her with our thoughts. I wanted to talk with Matt. Taking on what appeared to be a demanding client that might not agree to work to our approach meant a significant risk of failure, especially one that had been so slow to make a decision and now felt forced to move. I knew what this meant, and so did Matt. Time for a skull session. Darby's at noon.

I slid into the cool, comfortable booth and shot a glance at the waiter across the room near the bar. He sighed and wandered over. What ever happened to customer service I thought.

"What'll you have today, Sam?" I like a place where the folks know my name - I wish sometimes I'd get a little more respect for the business I bring.

"The usual. Dry white bread, Thousand Island dressing on that terrible corned beef."



"Ok, one regular reuben for you. Matt?"

"Cobb salad, hold the eggs."

My raised eyebrows got Matt's attention. We had an unwritten rule that meat, in some form, was consumed over lunch.

"Watching my cholesterol" he said. By eating a salad with bacon and blue cheese.

Our faithful waiter departed, in a hurry to place our orders and wait on someone, anyone who didn't denigrate the food and the waitstaff. I leaned in to Matt.

"Look, I'm torn about Accipiter. I think there's a lot of opportunity there, but I also think they want something on the cheap to point at for Wall Street. I don't want to create the show pony that gets put back in the barn after the carnival."

Matt scowled. "What do you care how they use what you teach them once you're gone? If they don't can't reinforce the programs we put in place, that's not our problem."

Matt had a funny way of shifting his eyes around when he was debating himself, and now his eyes shifted back and forth like windshield wipers. If he wasn't careful, on the next pass one of those eyeballs might just roll out on the floor, and keep going.

"You don't believe that, and neither do I. We're not big enough to leave a client with a half-complete, half-baked solution and not feel the consequences. If I start a job, I want to do it right."

He sat back and gave me his best devil may care grin. "So, tell them no. Tell them you won't work with them unless they agree to work according to our methodology. If there's as much pressure to get something done quickly as you say, then perhaps they don't have the time to search out another consultant. Maybe you can turn the tables and demand something for a change."

As this wasn't my first rodeo, that thought had crossed my mind. Could we make these demands and expect Accipiter to accept them? Would Accipiter simply decide to find a more compliant consulting firm who'd create a Potemkin village of innovation and cash the checks?

Our waiter slid our orders in front of us, and waited patiently to discover if we needed anything else before slinking off to flirt with the bartender. If I didn't need to pay the alimony I'd get me a job like that, which required as little thinking and strategy as possible, and as much time loafing around a bar with a good looking bartender as possible. A man's got to have a plan in life, and his wasn't so bad, looking at it from my current vantage point.

Matt attacked his Cobb salad with the attention he'd usually give to a rare sirloin. I assume that's what he was trying to conjure up. My reuben was tasty, hot, tangy and salty all at the same time. Matt looked at me, fork halfway to his mouth.

"What if you simply put down a set of requirements. You know, they define the scope and we define the project plan. Any deviation from the scope or plan and we both agree to rewrite the contract. If we need to do this much work this quickly, and you have concerns about their staffing or follow through, let's just make that part of the agreement."

"Well, I am worried about staffing, but what I'm more worried about is that we'll get people on the project who've been told to give us 10 hours a week, but who still have their entire "regular" job to do. You know we faced that at Thanone. Remember how popular we were there?"

"Yeah. That one guy was sure we'd cost him a promotion since he had to miss so many meetings with his boss to complete the work. I think he did most of the work we assigned him on Saturdays."

"There aren't enough Saturdays in this plan to get everything done on the weekend. The folks from Accipiter have to be fully committed to the effort, or the project will really suffer in such a short period of time."

Matt nodded. I wasn't preaching to the choir, I was reading from the book of Matt to the author himself.

There was nothing to it. I was going to tell Susan we'd work with them, but only under very carefully defined conditions. If Accipiter didn't like the scope or the workplan, then they could go find another firm to work with.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Thirty Six

I was in the office bright and early the next day, fresh from untroubled sleep and a surprisingly easy drive into the office. Strangely it seemed that traffic was much lighter at 10am than at 8:30. I made a mental note to myself to sleep later all the time. Why waste an hour on the freeway when I could be relaxing in bed?

I had plenty of enthusiasm and energy. I was just coming off a great ideation effort with Levantine, and our work with Cantide that Matt was handling was going well. Meredith would be starting in just a few days, and Accipiter appeared to be gearing up for something, which was better than the alternative. I plunged right in, following up on a few introductory calls, accepting an offer to write a jacket blurb for a new book on innovation, and harangued June about the preparations for Meredith. Once I'd plowed through most of the clutter on my desk and squared away the work for Levantine, I decided to call Susan at Accipiter to see what new challenges awaited us there.

"Susan Johansen"

"Susan, Sam Marlowe. June said you called yesterday."

"Yes, Sam. I'm glad you called. There have been a number of changes here, and I wanted to bring you up to speed."

"Now's a good time for me."

"Well, the first item on my list for you is the skunkworks. I ran it up to Bill, and he has yet to give me a firm yes or no. He is taking it under consideration. In the mean time, however, our CEO was at an investment banking conference and was questioned at length about Accipiter's innovation plans. As you might expect, that meant that Bill got some pretty direct questions last week. All he had to show our CEO was my skunkworks proposal, which mollified him somewhat. But the pressure to do something is on."

A burning platform. That's what those of us in my line of work live for. A burning platform is what forces people to jump. It wasn't the first time an investment bank or Wall Street firm had pressured a potential client to get busy with innovation. I made a mental note to myself to see if there were ways to influence the Wall Street guys, so I could run a back door and start the innovation pressure from the CEO down.

"I guess the skunkworks isn't really what the CEO was looking for." I said this to let her know I was listening and to let her take the lead. It wasn't clear yet where this conversation was going, but I had an idea where it would end up.

"You are right. The skunkworks proposal at least gave Bill some cover that we were considering some options, but the timeframe to get the skunkworks built and get some ideas percolating seems too long to our CEO. Basically he wants something to show the bankers.."

"At the end of next quarter." I finished her sentence for her, since I knew the melody by heart.

"Yes" she said, a bit taken aback. "How did you know?"

How did I know? Doesn't every new convert want all the religion all at once? Doesn't every CEO under pressure from Wall Street want the numbers to change in one quarter?

"Um, let's just say that this isn't my first rodeo, and that we've heard this before. In some ways, Susan, this could be good news for you. In other perspectives, this could be terrible news."

"Terrible news? Why?"

"Working together, starting quickly and following our methodology, we can get some ideas into a pipeline for you by the end of the quarter. I doubt very seriously that anyone at Accipiter can identify the "right" ideas and get them into product development so your CEO has something to show the boys on Wall Street in 90 days. It simply doesn't work that way. We need to know exactly what's going to constitute a success for your CEO when he goes back to the analysts. Better yet, we need to set that expectation with him, so he can set that expectation with the investment banks and Wall street types."

"What's a reasonable timeline for us to generate a new idea and create a new product?"

"If we could identify a specific need or opportunity space today - that is, assuming we've got some good customer insight or trend spotting accomplished - we could start a brainstorming or ideation session in a week or two. With those ideas, we could quickly investigate and select several for further evaluation. Let's say if we have the right backing and conditions we can present several good ideas to a product development team in 30 to 45 days."

"But that's only half a quarter. That timeframe should be fine."

"Yes, but at that point we are only presenting rough concepts to product development. Recognize they have a set of existing priorities, and probably won't have been very involved in our ideation work. Generally, in your firm, what's the lead time from product definition to product launch?"

"Oh. Anywhere from nine to eighteen months."

If you could hear a person deflate over the phone, that's what I was hearing now. I could imagine her slumped over her desk, all the vital life forces drained out in a puddle under her Herman Miller Aeron.

"So, you see" I continued, grinning into the phone, the bearer of bad innovation news, the avenging angel of new product innovation, he who can be ignored for only so long "it won't be our innovation methods or process that delay a product innovation at the end of the quarter. It will be the challenge of getting a new idea funded, and placed into the product development process. If we'd started this process back when we first met with Bill.."

"We'd be in a position to offer a new product to our CEO. I get it." Rarely had a potential client grown a new backbone so quickly. She continued. "Well, we have to set the expectations with John that he can take new concepts back to the street and we can expect to have new products in the market next year. Hopefully just demonstrating a new process and a plan to come out with new products will be enough in the short run."

"OK" I said, waiting for the next shoe to drop. That's the shoe with the money it it. She knew about the shoe, and was hoping it would be a fast shoe, a running shoe, and one that would fit a very small child.

"Sam, we need your help to get this off the ground, but we don't have a lot of money, and we need to do this in a hurry. We've got to deliver something very high quality in a short amount of time. What can you do for us?"

The question wasn't "what could Marlowe do for Accipiter". The question, as I saw it, was "were the goals too high to achieve, and would this client be worth the return?"

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Thirty Five

I was beat, spent and dead on my feet. Actually I think my feet had expired a few hours ago, and the death rot had worked its way up from my feet, through my legs and was rapidly encroaching on my brain. Keeping a brainstorming activity humming as a facilitator is an amazing task, and can be exceptionally fun and rewarding. However it is seems as taxing as chopping wood or farming all day, both of which I can speak about from experience. While I was tired, fortunately the day with Levantine had gone well. Fortune rewards the prepared mind, and brainstorming rewards the prepared team.

We’d been in the room most of the day, kicking off promptly at 8:30 with an ice breaking exercise, something we use to get people out of their comfort zones and thinking in a very different way. Our icebreaker was a combination of Pictionary and Charades, matching one half of the brainstorming team against another. You really haven’t lived until you’ve seen a bunch of cube-bound desk jockeys trying to act out or draw The Unbearable Lightness of Being for their peers, or watched the nervous energy mixed with outright horror at the thought that one of the team still seated was going to have to go next. The participants weren't sure what to make of this exercise, but after a few minutes the barriers seemed to break down and they got into the game.

We’d proceeded in a fairly typical brainstorm: we’d reviewed the rules, talked about the problem statement and kicked off the brainstorm. Marge had prepared a very compelling and very well documented problem statement that framed our brainstorming nicely. I had done this a million times it seemed, and every time was the same and every time was different. What was different, and lucky, in this instance was that Marge was in her own right a gifted facilitator and was playing the role of scribe. We taught our brainstorming teams to start writing as soon as people started talking, even if what they were talking about wasn’t an idea or even relevant. Simply getting something on the page seemed to break the ice, and her writing seemed less threatening. Marge also didn’t question, didn’t judge, so the ideas flowed and she captured them effectively, stopping only occasionally to seek clarification or to elicit more information about the idea.

By lunch we had over 100 ideas documented. I congratulated the team and sent them out to typical corporate hallway food – a boxed lunch of dry break with stale turkey and wilted lettuce, a bag of chips, a pickle in plastic and a cookie, with your choice of water, tea or soda. The break came just in time as the hallway food vultures were already circling our lunch, waiting to see what would remain after our team had taken its share. A few hours later the only food left on the table consisted of three pickles still in plastic wrap. Over lunch several of the team members ate with Marge and me in the room, while the rest scattered to answer email and voicemail. Promptly at 1pm I sent Marge out to round up those who had left us, and right on time, well, fifteen minutes late, we resumed.

After lunch we performed some more brainstorming and then shifted into what we call “elaboration” – which allows us to review the ideas and gain any additional definition or insights, and “grouping” – which allows us to collapse or consolidate ideas that are duplicative or similar in nature. We set the rules for ranking and turned the team loose, and we found 8 ideas that the majority of the team seemed to think were the best. After that we spent an hour reviewing each idea and assigning the followup actions for the idea to a team member in the room, creating mini-project plans for deeper investigation. Each member of the brainstorming team had one idea to take further and report back to the team his or her investigation and findings by the end of the month. These follow up actions are always part of our efforts, to ensure there is follow up and action on the ideas we generate.

At this point I’d been on my feet all day, cajoling, facilitation, telling jokes, tamping down the more talkative and encouraging the reticent. I often felt like a combination of therapist and game show host, but we’d made it through another very valuable session. Marge and her team seemed pleased, which was ultimately how I judged our effectiveness.

I thanked the team for their time and Marge finished the wrapup. While they had been dismissed, several hung around to talk about the experience, while most scurried off to try to answer the email that had piled up during the day. Marge and I gathered the toys and put them back in the toolboxes. We took photos of the sheets of ideas hanging on the wall and collected them in order. We took down the brainstorming rules and I packed up my materials.

“Another great job today” she said.

I nodded. “Working with you and your team is always great. The folks in these meetings are always prepared, so we don’t spend time arguing about “why are we here” or “is that the real problem we are trying to solve”. That makes such a difference.”

“We didn’t take to your methodology at first, but once I saw how effective it could make these sessions, I’ve adopted it whole heartedly and never looked back.”
That was the case. I had the distinct feeling that whatever Marge decided worked for her she adopted whole heartedly.

I collected all of my materials and headed for the door. My feet were aching and I was at the saturation point. I needed a good, stiff drink, a comfortable chair and a shiatsu massage for my feet. What was waiting for me was a good stiff drink and a TV dinner.

I made the mistake of calling the office on my drive home. June was packing up, ready to leave. I could hear it in her voice.
“You had several calls today. The only one that seems important is from Susan Johansen at Accipter.”

“What’s the message?”

“She wants you to call her as soon as possible. The skunkworks idea is a no go, but other opportunities have opened up.”

Fine, I thought, we can back down off the plank and perhaps start a new discussion with Thompson. Now, instead of unwinding from a successful day with Levantine I had to wonder what new tricks Bill Thompson had up his sleeve.