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?"

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