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.

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