Monday, August 31, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Four

Matt eyed me warily that Thursday morning. He seemed uncertain about my presence in the office, as if I were an unexpected bill collector.

"You look a little surprised to see me."

"I am. I thought you had taken permanent office space at Accipiter."

Close to it I thought.

"We got the go ahead from Underwood, the CEO, yesterday. I'm working with the project manager and their CFO to pull together a project plan on Monday. Could be a good, long term client."

That seemed to bring me back into his good graces a bit.

"Meredith won a new research project at Cantide last week, and I'm continuing our work with Johnson Industries. Things are just busting out all over."

"Look, I know I got in a little deep with Accipiter, and I appreciate the fact you've stepped up to take over the work. There was something about this client - I just had to win this work."

"Something about Accipiter, or something about the project manager, that made you want to win the work? And since when do we make such a large bet on just one firm?"

Matt was right, but I wasn't going to lie down and let him walk all over me.

"Accipiter has the potential to be a very large client, and a successful client. I made the decision to spend my time on that account, and I don't have to justify it. I know I've been less than attentive to the firm and to our other clients, and I'll make it up."

Matt wasn't mollified by the answer but didn't pursue it any further. He and I both left the issues with Susan fall to the wayside for the moment.

"What's the work going to look like at Accipiter?"

"They need a complete overhaul of their product development process. They are too inwardly focused and haven't created a compelling new product or service in years. The culture is very comfortable and safe, so we'll need to do some revamping of the culture and the compensation systems. They have been a slow follower, and need to get out in front of their competition. I'd like to see them conduct some scenario planning and ethnography to understand where the market is going. There will be opportunities for your skills as well as Meredith's at Accipiter. I can see at least a year, perhaps more, of work for us there."

His eyebrows almost merged with his hairline and I think I had his attention and perhaps a bit more. One client of the size I described, in combination with our existing clients and prospects, could mean a good year, and perhaps another staff member or two.

"How certain are you of that forecast?"

"Not counting any chickens yet, especially after all the false starts. But I think we have a real sponsor who is committed to doing something dramatic. I'll know a lot more next week after we put the plan together and define the costs."

"So, in the mean time, do you think you can help me review some of the Cantide insights and meet with them tomorrow to lead some ideation?"

It was the least I could do, given how much of the load he'd carried the last few weeks. Or probably months.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Three

It was one of those moments we'll look back in time and wonder what happened. It had a Rashoman-like quality, creating a different perspective from each of us that was in the room that day. While I had been a part of a number of discussions with senior executives, I'd never seen a CEO pushed into a corner by a compatriot. Underwood was cornered, and cornered executives, like cornered animals, were unpredictable things.

I gasped slightly and realized I'd been holding my breath, waiting for Underwood to respond to Brockwell's challenge. As I considered it, though, I was certain that Underwood would play his ace in the hole, the card every executive puts on the table when they don't want to, or can't, make a decision. Underwood was going to ask us for more information, more research, more cost estimates. Anything to keep from having to make the decision right now.

Underwood glanced from Susan to Brockwell, studiously avoiding my gaze. My eyes were fixed on him, an intentional challenge. I was willing him to have the backbone to support the innovation efforts he had championed earlier. He cleared his throat like a gun shot, and I couldn't tell which shoe would drop.

"You are right, George, that I have been advocating innovation, and I believe it is something we absolutely need to do." My heart rose. "However.." My heart sank while he held up his hand to stave off any immediate reactions "However, I don't have the time to get as involved as I suspect the team will need me to be. I have a suggestion, however." My heart was pounding - was there a light at the end of this tunnel, or just a train approaching? "I'll fully support you taking the lead on innovation, if you are willing to take on the work. You'll have my full support and can act as the head of innovation for Accipiter, at least until I complete some other activities the board has asked me to complete." He shot a conspiratorial glance at Brockwell, who decoded it and recognized what he was talking about.

In this game of pass the ticking bomb around, now Brockwell had it securely in his lap. There was no one else to pass it to in the room, as we all knew a senior executive would have to sponsor the initiative. He couldn't pass it to Susan, and certainly not to me, and, as they say in the military, excrement rolls downhill, not up. You could almost see the mental abacus working behind Brockwell's eyes as he weighed the alternatives. There probably wasn't another executive who would push as hard as he would. Thompson had already proved unreliable. If Brockwell backed down, there'd be no reason to go forward. If he agreed, he'd take on another significant initiative just as Accipiter was heading into the yearly budgeting cycle.

Susan was carefully studying the nap on the rug in Underwood's conference room, like a scientist trying to read ancient hieroglyphics. She was not making any eye contact, hoping like a kid at bedtime that Mom will overrule Dad and let her watch the late movie, there, but pretending not to be involved in the decision. Even so her face was flushed, and she was breathing rapidly. It was evident that this meant a great deal to her.

Brockwell finished sliding the virtual beads around and locked eyes with me. I knew what he would say before he opened his mouth.

"Let's do it" he said. "I'll delegate some of my responsibilities to Aaron" this he said with a glance to Underwood, who nodded "and I'll need to round up a few strong managers to help us make this project go forward" Again, Underwood nodded. I wondered what this would cost him.

Underwood stood up, signaling his part of the meeting was done. "Good. I'm excited about the project and about your role in heading it up. Sam, Susan, excellent work. I can't wait to see the new ideas start flowing." And with that he left the room, on to another meeting.

Susan looked a bit stunned. "What just happened?"

"We're on, and moving the project forward. I'll be the executive sponsor. You and Matt have convinced me. I'm sticking my neck out a bit, but don't worry, there's something in it for me, as well as for Accipiter. Now, let's get the plans finalized and get started. Matt, do we have an agreement with your team?"


"OK. Susan and I will walk the vendor agreement and services agreement through purchasing, otherwise it will be another six weeks before we can get started. I need a day or two to clear up my calendar and bring a few other people on board. What say we kick off this project next Monday."

I was excited but didn't want him to think we came cheap, or easy. I pulled a small appointment calendar from my pocket and made a show of checking my availability.

"I can do that. Will we meet here, say at 9am?" That was one of the first of my assumptions that would prove to be incorrect.

"9am? By god man, by 9am I'm half way through my day. Let's compromise and kick off at 7:30 next Monday." Susan shot me a glance that said just shut up and say yes, so I did. 7:30? That put me feet on the floor in my apartment at 6am. Was the sun even up at that hour?

We left the meeting and Susan and I thanked George and walked over to collect our things. She escorted me to the front, her excitement bubbling over.

"Can you believe it? I thought we'd lost our chance when George asked Jim to take on the executive sponsor role. I was ready to quit. And then George agreed to sponsor it. We finally have someone who will back us and support us on this project. I can't wait for Monday."

My emotions were boiling as well, but I tried to temper her thinking. "It's good George said yes" I said "but we need to be sure we understand his goals and priorities. He may have different objectives than we do, so one of the first things we need to do is to talk with him, and understand how he sees the world."

"You're right, but I'm still excited."

I turned, shook her hand and made to offer her my security badge. To my surprise, there in the middle of the reception area she threw an arm around me and hugged me.

"See you Monday" she said.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Two

We'd worked for four days, examining every angle, talking to every influencer and building what we hoped would be a bullet proof case for the innovation efforts we felt were best for Accipiter.

Sitting in the assistant's office, waiting for Underwood to finish his meeting, I felt for a moment like a man on trial, waiting for the jury to come in and read out my sentence. I was entirely too invested in the success or failure of Accipiter, a prospect that had yet to pay me a dime of revenue after six months of business development. I had an uncertain and awkward relationship, both personal and business, with the project manager and had been so consumed with Accipiter that the rest of my business had been pushed off or ignored. Thankfully Matt was capable and Meredith had come up to speed more quickly than we'd anticipated. If I took a hard, objective look at the meeting I could see that if Underwood didn't want to invest in an innovation effort and shot us down, I'd have plenty of other opportunities and would quickly recover professionally. It wasn't clear to me yet why I had turned an ordinary sales effort into the hunt for the white whale, but there it was, and here I am, sitting impatiently like a kid on his first date, waiting for the new girlfriend to come down the stairs while I passed the time with her father.

Susan, on the other hand, seemed very optimistic. I think she had some inside information that had led her to believe that this meeting was a formality. We thought we were going to get the funds, and perhaps a real slap on the back as well. Who knew? Who can read the corporate tea leaves?

We were well prepared. We had a slide deck, examples of work Marlow had done for other firms, examples of innovative new products from Accipiter's competitors. All of this would be compelling, but only if Underwood felt the urgency and was willing to place a lot of emphasis, and a lot of his time, on innovation. And on that score, I had done my own homework. Underwood was a company man, having worked for Accipiter for almost his entire career, joining out of graduate school and working his way up through the financial organization. Not a promising track record for an innovator. Brockwell had assured us that while the numbers meant a great deal to Underwood, he was interested in placing his own stamp on the company and felt it had to change to be successful. We'd know in a few minutes.

The door opened and a number of Accipiter executives exited the conference room adjacent to Underwood's office. I'd been in and out of Accipiter's offices so frequently that I knew many of them, at least in passing, and several nodded in my direction and spoke to Susan. Brockwell walked over with Underwood and introduced me.

"Sam, this is Jim Underwood our CEO. Jim, Sam Marlow of Marlow Innovation. He's been a key contributor to the work we've done so far, and will be working with us if you give the go-ahead."

I'd seen Underwood's picture on the annual report, and he did not fail to impress. Every CEO looks like a television evangelist, not a hair out of place and crisp shirts with dark suits. Underwood was medium height, salt and pepper hair cut trim and carried himself like an athlete. One could easily imagine him walking off the golf course or the tennis courts.

"Sam, good to meet you. I've heard a lot about your work with our company, and I know it's been quite a while since you first started talking with us. I'm interested in changing the dynamic at Accipiter and encouraging much more innovative thinking and new product development. I'm interested to hear what you and Susan have to say."

Interested, but not yet committed I thought. It was better than a sharp stick in the eye, certainly.

We made our way into the conference room. Susan and I set up our presentation while Brockwell and Underwood took their seats. Susan made introductions and gave a brief overview of the proposal we'd developed, and then we settled in to present our thinking.

We had decided to recommend the whole kahuna - a centralized innovation team to facilitate innovation throughout Accipiter, to develop an innovation process and methodology and to act as a coach or facilitator for teams throughout Accipiter doing innovation. The central team would also take on trend spotting and scenario planning and would generate ideas for "white space" or "blue ocean" concepts, while the product lines retained responsibility for incremental and product innovation. We identified how the team would work, staffing requirements and investments for a three year period. It was a well thought out, well designed program but was reasonably expensive and definitely different from anything Accipiter had done before.

"This is a larger effort than I had anticipated" Underwood said once we were done. We'd intentionally asked for everything, assuming we could get some, if not most of what we thought was important. Ultimately for us we wanted 3 full time people in the innovation team and perhaps $500K to $1M dollars for innovation efforts by the team.

"When we spoke with George we felt the best course was to show you a true innovation program and what it would take to build and support such a program. This isn't a short term solution or a "toe in the water". What we've shown you, and what we think is the best chance for success, is a full immersion." Susan was hitting her stride. I think she was fully committed to an innovation program or finding a new company to work for.

"I didn't say I was opposed - just surprised." I think Underwood caught Susan's passion and conviction. "We need something like this, there's no doubt. George, what are your thoughts?"

That was a good sign to me. Brockwell was a supporter and felt the innovation program was a good way to drive new revenue.

"I brought these folks to you because they convinced me that innovation was necessary to do what we need to do to change Accipiter. I'm on board for the people investment. We'll need to do some work to find the funds. But what Sam and Susan have also told us is that this program needs your investment as well. Jim, can you spend the time and the energy to build some momentum for this program?"

How much did he really want it, and what was he willing to do to make it successful?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty One

Nine thirty sharp the next day my phone rang.

"Marlow" I said, wiping coffee grounds from my tongue.

"We're in" she said.

"OK. What day?"

"Next Tuesday, 9am. We'll have an hour. Just Underwood and Brockwell. We make our recommendations and ask for funds and resources."


"Can you come over today? I want to get started on the presentation as quickly as possible. I'd like to have a draft to Brockwell for his comments by Friday."

I pushed some papers off the desk blotter. Normally they'd have my full attention, since they were the project plan that Meredith developed for Cantide. We'd been asked to conduct some ethnographic research to identify new products. It was Meredith's first project start to finish. But right now cracking the Accipiter nut was simply too compelling. Around the ring marks and smoldering ash, underneath the sticky notes and assorted flotsam and jetsam of my desktop I found my calendar. September 12, 9am. Noting booked for that day. Good. Counting back. September 7, today. Matt had scheduled a meeting with Goine Technologies to present some early idea concepts. He had asked me to attend weeks ago. Goine was a paying customer, while Accipiter was still in a sales process. Matt was going to have to go it alone.

"I'll be there in an hour" I heard myself say, and I rung off. I trusted Matt to get the work done well, and I knew Meredith had it in her to design the work at Cantide correctly. We'd finally climbed the ladder at Accipiter. There was no going any higher. With luck we'd walk out of that office on the 12th with the funds to do the work the right way.

I gave Meredith's plan the once over, marking up a few tasks and adding a recommendation or two and left it on her desk. I left Matt a note explaining the situation. I told June I'd be at Accipiter the rest of the day and left the office. It wasn't clear to me anymore if I was going for the client, for the project, or for Susan. It felt as if we were both captive to the project, and to a certain extent the work was running us, rather than the other way round.

I drove to Accipiter in a fog, arriving without recalling the drive. It was only 10:15, but I felt I'd been up all day. I resolved to myself to set priorities. Marlow Innovation had my name on the badge. It employed a number of interesting and dedicated people. I was the leader, in name and in practice. I had to balance the importance of Accipiter to the firm, and to me, and I had to be willing to move on as well if Accipiter didn't progress the way I knew it should. My feelings for Susan were confused - not love really, more like the way two people in a lifeboat cling to each other for assurance. We were like two kids who finally get to see Santa, and realize that perhaps it wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

Susan met me at the reception desk, with a wary look in her eye. I think we both were confronted with the reality that Tuesday would make, or break, whatever relationship we had. Perhaps it needed to be defined first.

"Susan, Accipiter could be an important client to Marlow Innovation" I said, "And I'm working hard to win this business. On Tuesday, Underwood can make us both very happy, or he can decide to forego innovation. I'll work my other clients if that happens. What will you do?"

It hadn't come out the way I'd wanted, but my my thinking wasn't clear. We were on the brink of something big, but the work felt crowded by the possibility of a relationship between the two of us. What would happen if we won this project? What would happen if we lost?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty

The line between commiserating and celebrating is a very thin line. A few weeks ago we'd had a beer together to commiserate the fact that nothing we did at Accipiter seemed to go as planned. We'd sat at the same bar, had the same drinks and we'd consoled each other over our hard work and lack of progress. Today, the beer was just as cold, the wine just as tart, but we were sitting in a nether world somewhere between shock and celebration. George Brockwell, probably the most unlikely candidate to improve our innovation chances, had broken the log jam and offered to take our proposal straight to the CEO. Given that Brockwell, was the right hand man to Jim Underwood, and the heir apparent, we believed this meant our project would finally gain some momentum.

Immediately after the meeting, Susan turned to me and said: "O'Malley's. Five thirty." And had gathered up her things and left the conference room, never acknowledging Bill Thompson or anyone else in the room. I was sure if it was relief, emotion or some other factor that caused her to flee the room.

I hovered, slowly gathering my papers and re-arranged my bag. I wanted to speak to Brockwell alone, away from Thompson and some of the other executives who'd been part of the innovation program all along. Slowly, one by one, some of the executives left the room, leaving me, Thompson and Brockwell. It was fairly clear Thompson wasn't going to leave me alone with Brockwell, so I made my move.

"George, just want you to know we appreciate your confidence in our proposal and look forward to meeting with you and with Jim."

Brockwell looked at me curiously, as if he had a bad taste in his mouth and was trying to clear it before speaking. His eyes never left mine.

"Sam, we are under attack from many sides. We've researched, and investigated, and piloted, but we have no compelling new products to release. In my mind, we have no alternative but to innovate, and quickly. I can't for the life of me understand why it has taken this long to reach an agreement on this project."

Thompson stiffened visibly but said nothing. I was on very thin ice, since Thompson was Susan's boss, but Brockwell clearly held the whip hand now. My hand was flush, but I needed to know what cards he held.

"In my experience" I said "these projects always take time to approve, since the work requires a different approach and perspective than the existing culture is comfortable with, and introduces a lot of risk and uncertainty. I'm just glad we are moving ahead with you."

If a glance could cut diamonds, I'd have ten or fifteen facets by now. I could feel Thompson glaring at me but did not bother to acknowledge his presence. Brockwell shot holes through my chest but didn't take his eyes off me.

"Hmm. Yes, I suppose these projects do take more time and discussion. Call me tomorrow and let's set a time to see Jim."

"Glad to. I'll get with Susan and we'll work with your assistant to get on your calendar and then find a convenient time to talk with Jim. What do you want to accomplish in the meeting with Jim?"

At this point, since neither of us had acknowledged his presence, Thompson stood, gathered his papers and left. He'd heard what he needed to hear.

"Sam, I want you and Susan to present the same material to Jim. He is passionate about implementing change and wants the organization to innovate. Frankly" he said, glancing at the open doorway "he's frustrated that this hasn't moved over the last three months, and has made clear to me that it needs to move faster."

I could take the hint. Thompson, for whatever reason, had been stringing us along, not intending to do more than absolutely necessary, while Underwood had wanted more. I never understand why CEOs allow their plans to be held hostage by their subordinates, but that's another story for another time.

"Susan will be ecstatic to move forward more quickly" I told him. "I'm sorry she had to leave so quickly once the meeting ended."

"No worries. Just talk with my assistant and get the meeting set with Jim."

I thanked him and left. I walked to my car with the lightest step I'd had in weeks, and pointed the convertible to O'Malley's. I had a beer at the bar and read the paper, waiting for Susan to arrive.

Promptly at 5:30 she pushed the door open and glanced around. I waved at her and she came over, sat down and made eye contact with my waiter. She ordered a Chardonnay.

"Sorry I walked out so quickly. I was afraid I'd say something to George or Bill that would end my career, so I felt the best thing to do was just leave."

"You were definitely in a no-win situation. I know Bill's your boss, but what game has he been playing?"

"No idea. I had no idea that Underwood felt so strongly about innovation. Bill has been parsing out information to me, and I thought perhaps someone above him was pulling back on the reins. Now I feel like he's misled me for several months. What do you do when you can't believe your own boss?"

I told her about the conversation I'd had with Brockwell after the meeting ended. Her spirits rose as I told her that Brockwell was stepping in and clearing the way for us to meet with Underwood as quickly as possible.

"What could Bill have been thinking?" I asked. "Clearly Underwood wants more action around innovation."

"I really have no idea" she said, signaling the waiter for another glass. "I was led to believe that Underwood and some of the other senior executives were reluctant to move forward. What am I to do now? Bill won't be happy that we are moving ahead quickly. I wonder what he'll do now."

Thompson didn't strike me as particularly vindictive, and he'd been the bottleneck. It seemed strange to think that he'd continue to be a fly in the ointment now that Underwood was stepping in, but who knows how things work.

What was important to me just then was that very soon we'd be meeting the CEO of Accipiter to pitch him on our plans for innovation.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty Nine

My head was spinning and I was glad that Susan had offered to kick off the presentation. I was still trying to recover from the coldcock blow that announced that the CFO was the new "sponsor" for innovation. Now, I'd worked with a number of firms on innovation, and I'd had sponsors that ranged from the expected (product management, marketing or business line lead) to the unexpected (a human resources director) but the last person I thought I'd ever see as a sponsor for innovation was the CFO. But, there he sat, paying close attention to Susan's introduction.

I was pulled out of my funk by Susan introducing me and the transition to the next slide, which introduced our vision for innovation at Accipiter.

"Pardon me, Susan, but before Sam presents, can you tell me how long you've been working on the innovation effort to date?" That from Brockwell. It was probably an innocent question, but my heart sank to my knees. I'd be involved with Accipiter now for at least six months, presenting, talking, cajoling and we still didn't have an active project. Susan had been at it far longer. It wasn't her fault that we weren't further along. It wasn't anybody's fault. So far there hadn't been any reason for the project to succeed.

I glanced at Bill Thompson, but there was no joy there. He wasn't willing to step out on the ledge with us. If Susan was going down, she would do so publicly and alone.

"I've been working on developing an innovation capability within Accipiter for about eight months. I took the position in September and had to transition some of my other responsibilities. We've had, frankly, some starts and some stops along the way."

"What's the barrier?" Hmm. Things could get interesting. Could Brockwell actually care about innovation and want it to move forward, or was he just scratching a rhetorical itch? And, how far out on the limb would Susan be willing to go?

"Well, George, Accipiter's culture doesn't lend itself well to this kind of change. That's actually why we decided to take a step back and get agreement on a vision for what innovation could do for us. It was pretty clear there was a lot of concern and little interest in some of our initial efforts, so we decided to see if we could get buy in with you, the senior executives, and start to push the concept of innovation through the business units."

George was nodding, but not giving too much away at this point. It still wasn't clear whether he was agreeing with Susan or just taking it all in. He definitely was playing his cards close to the vest.

"Please continue with the presentation" he said.

That was my cue to start.

"Susan and I have spent the last few weeks thinking about innovation and what it could mean to Accipiter, and what Accipiter needs to be successful if it commits to an increased focus on innovation. Over the next few slides I want to show you the vision we've defined and discuss the opportunities and challenges we see in relation to that vision. As we progress through this, I hope you'll find that we've defined the opportunity well, and that you'll see the importance of senior executive commitment to this effort. As Susan has already pointed out, no significant initiative is going to be successful without your buy in and continuing support."

"We've identified three significant strategic objectives that Accipiter is pursuing. These are: Organic growth in key markets, entry into new product lines or areas where Accipiter does not have an offering today and entry into international markets. We believe that a focused innovation effort can support and accelerate the first two strategic goals, and this is our first supposition. Innovation is not a strategy, but an enabler of key strategies and goals."

So far, so good. We'd taken the strategic goals we could identify, which hadn't been easy, and identified the ones we felt we could support with innovation.

"If we seek to innovate around these two strategic goals, we can decide whether we seek incremental or disruptive innovation. Making these choices will then determine what kinds of innovation activities, processes and goals we'd implement, and the amount of change we'd require for Accipiter. Our recommendation is to pursue incremental innovation in new markets for organic growth, and pursue disruptive innovation in new products. This recommendation means that we'd form programs to assist the existing product groups with incremental but intentional innovation, seeking new ideas for new products and services that are aligned to existing products for organic growth. We'd also work to set up more radical or disruptive innovation programs to identify new product or service opportunities or "blue oceans" where Accipiter can be the first to offer a new product or service."

"You'd suggest doing both, simultaneously?" Brockwell seemed a bit surprised. It was becoming evident whose meeting this was, as no one else had offered a suggestion or made any commitment. Thompson, who had been our sponsor and conduit, seemed to shrink even further in his chair. I wasn't sure if he was preparing to duck the bullets, or if he was losing stature in the hierarchy.

"Yes. Both require different commitment and different tools and techniques. The incremental work can start quickly and will identify new ideas in fairly short order, which allows us to get to the proverbial 'quick wins'. The disruptive work will take longer but will create more interesting and valuable opportunities. So the incremental work creates momentum and new products and buys time for the disruptive work, which will take longer but have more potential impact."

Brockwell's eyes widened. I'd really stepped in it this time.

He turned to face Thompson and Phillips. "Can we take on two simultaneous innovation projects?" He wanted them on the record.

Phillips hemmed and hawed, but allowed that Accipiter could probably manage both. To him it wasn't an issue of dollars but an issue of resources.

I responded. "Yes, in our experience innovation is almost always bounded by people more than costs. We will work with you to define the appropriate team, and we'll keep the requests to a minimum, but there will be demands on resources - and they'll be on your best people."

Thompson still hadn't responded, and Brockwell looked at him curiously. I was beginning to sense that Thompson had never intended for things to get this far - perhaps all he had ever wanted was to look like he was making some efforts around innovation. Well, he was soon to be hoist on his own petard. He'd have to come down one way or the other - either he'd been stringing Susan and I along for a number of months, or he'd grow a spine in the next 30 seconds.

"I don't think we can afford to do two simultaneous initiatives" he said at last, refusing to look at us. He busied himself with rearranging some papers in front of him. "I think the best we could do would be to focus on the incremental innovation for the product groups." Once again choosing the least risky approach.

Brockwell took that all in, nodding all the time. He was beginning to remind me of the bobblehead tchotchkes you can pick up at the ballpark on souvenir night. Then, he said something that I'll never forget.

"No, Bill, I think we need to do them both. What's the point of only doing the easy, incremental stuff? We already do that occasionally. Accipiter needs more, and we need to challenge it to do more. Susan, you and Sam plan to see me tomorrow. Call my assistant and set something up. I'll look at your estimates and see what we can do for the funding, then we'll take our proposal to Jim."

Jim. The CEO. George was overruling Bill and taking us straight to the CEO.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Forty Eight

Three days. That's a long weekend to some people, and a lifetime to others. Three days could make or break a quarter for a large organization. Three days is longer than most women get to be in the hospital before, during and after the birth of a baby. Three days can seem like a lifetime when you are on the receiving end of a software vendor pitch, trying to understand fact from fiction and watching screens and functions fly by at a thousand miles an hour. There was nothing to it, however. We'd asked for the demos and then we'd been unable to provide clear guidance about what Accipiter wanted to do with the software. Without clear direction and a defined set of needs or processes, all the software vendors could do is walk us through their standard dog and pony demos. After three days of watching these demos, I could tell you which ones had the nicest colors and which used fonts I liked, which offered features and attributes I thought were useful and which firms I'd want to work with or avoid based on the sales pitch. But none of that really mattered. What mattered after three days of demos, and after several weeks of work developing the innovation vision, was that we'd finally get an audience with the senior executives to get approval on our vision or clarity on the purpose and goals so we could reshape the vision. That meeting, finally, is scheduled for today.

Over my third cup of coffee I reviewed the requisite PowerPoint slides and pondered what the reception would be to our proposal. We'd tracked down as many of the executives as we could get in to see to brief them on our thinking and listen to their ideas, fears and concerns. The reception had been modest but polite. There were no overt concerns voiced or significant discomfort displayed by the executive team, and several interesting and valuable suggestions. One of the things we'd hoped would come out of these briefings would be a volunteer, someone so interested in innovation and trying out the process that the executive would volunteer his or her line of business, product group or geography to go first. In seven meetings we'd had only one taker, an up and coming hotshot who was interested in changing Accipter who ran one of the product groups. Mike Stimson is a real mixed blessing. Mike is clearly a comer, and is one of those guys who is fully committed to change. Stimson has implemented a number of new methods and processes in his team, some of which have worked well, and some of which have failed or managed to piss off the people around him. Stimson, while a climber, has a bit of a deaf ear when it comes to working well with his peers, and he is covered by Fred Phillips of all people, who is acting has his mentor and sponsor. Having Stimson as our first trial would mean that he would be fully engaged, and his team would be on board, but could damage our results in the eyes of other executives. We'd need to tread cautiously during the pilot.

Susan walked in with the final, updated deck. At this point I could have recited the contents of the deck blindfolded, drunk and hanging from my heels over an abyss. Strangely, that what I was sure the meeting would be like as well. Susan had dark circles under her eyes, the stress emanating from her fingertips like small sparks of electricity. She seemed perfectly composed except for around the edges, like a painting the artist was too busy to complete, fading off around the edges.

"You ready?"

"I'm ready. I was up early this morning reviewing these slides" she said. "There really shouldn't be any surprises. Everyone has committed to the meeting and we've briefed the deck with about 80% of the attendees. Bill has committed to me that the CEO will cover us if necessary. I don't see a big concern, other than perhaps the IT guys."

"They won't scotch the request."

"No, but if they aren't on board they can extend this project until you and I are comfortably rocking ourselves into retirement on a porch in Modesto."

"I'm not retiring in Modesto. When the time comes I'll push off in a little boat and go fishing like the Old man and the sea. Just float away and not come back."

"Ok, whatever your choice of oblivion. They can delay, obfuscate and pilot this thing to death. I think we've got Frank on board. Let's just hope he stays there."

"You'll do the presenting?"

"I'll kick it off and handle the first two sections. I'd like for you to cover what competitors are doing and what you see as the best going in concepts for our vision and innovation expectations and models. That will come better from an outsider than from me."

"So you can blame the consultant later?"

Her eyes tried to smile. Her voice was tired and wavered a bit. "I don't think you have to worry about that. If this goes down, or even gets significantly delayed, I'll be looking for something new, and you'll find another innovation executive to start a beautiful friendship with."

Darn tootin. But I'd put far too much into this to see it fall apart, or lose momentum, or run up against an executive team with too little gumption and too much fear of change. Come hell or high water, we were going to leave there with an approval, or something was going up in flames.

"I'm with Cortez on this one. We've landed and we're burning the boats. There's no easy way out, no easy way back."

Now her eyes smiled, and so did the rest of her face. I didn't realize it until then, but she was a wreck. The weeks and months of living in limbo, never sure if we were moving ahead or killing the project, living in a half-alive, half-dead no man's land had taken a lot out of her. Admirable that she was keeping it together. Frayed around the edges but still solid at the core.

"It's time" she said, sounding like the executioner leading me to the guillotine. "Let's go."

After six months of uncertainty and misdirection, headfakes and management gibberish, we were finally going to bring this to a head.

We entered the conference room and I spotted many of the usual suspects, most of whome we'd managed to brief before the meeting. Frank was there, of course, representing IT. Fred Phillips was there, and of course Bill. George Brockwell was a surprise addition. George, the CFO of Accipiter, had expressed little interest in the innovation program to date. A few other sundry executives, most of whom we'd met before, completed the cast. The only outlier in the room was George. His presence made me uncomfortable since I didn't have any sense of his agenda or purpose in this meeting. The vision we were proposing and the innovation community we'd scoped weren't large and certainly weren't expensive, and George as the CFO didn't seem to have a dog in this fight. As Susan and I arranged the PowerPoint decks and set up the presentation on the projector, I managed ask her, very much under my breath, why George was there.

"He's just been named by the CEO as the new sponsor for innovation" she said, eyes pleading for me not to blow my stack.

"What?" I shouted that whisper.

"I just found out this morning. The CEO values George's opinion and usually follows his advice. George is probably here to act as an impartial reviewer of our proposal."

Like a funhouse, the surprises never end.