Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Eight

The euphoria didn't last long. It never does. There's the roller coaster ride to the top of the drop, and the either the fast descent straight down, or the twisting, turning descent that brings you to the same place. In our case it was almost an immediate descent.

Monday, I turned up at Accipiter to meet with Susan. There I discovered we had a new sponsor.

"Underwood is just too busy to work with us on a daily basis, so he has assigned Chad Gillette to work with us. Chad is a good guy, one of Jim's guys, and Jim has assured me that he understands the importance of this effort."

That lurch in my stomach was the first car going over the lip of the descent. We hadn't really started and already there were changes. No matter how close a relationship, no matter how well communicated, Chad would want to place his stamp on the work. It would be another few weeks before we sized each other up and got working in earnest.

Susan recognized my discomfort and added "Look, it's not what I had hoped for, but we have momentum and the opportunity to build a real innovation program. Let's see what Chad has to say."

"In my experience" I said "we need to keep the channels open to Brockwell and Underwood. Those two have given us the vision, and regardless of Chad's responsibilities on this project, we need to set the expectation that we want to meet with Brockwell and Underwood regularly."

Susan frowned but said nothing. There was no way I was going to allow the reporting structures and politics get in the way of achieving what Brockwell and Underwood wanted, because it seemed that everyone else had a different perspective or intent for our project.

We met Chad later that morning. Chad, on the whole, was a bright, earnest young guy, a fast climber who had impressed Brockwell with his hard work and smarts. Chad was a fairly newly minted MBA, which meant in my book that he knew a little about a lot of things, and practically nothing about actual work. Given that he was a finance major and worked in finance, that just compounded the issues in my head. I was convinced all Chad was going to worry about was the money. Boy, was I wrong.

After the usual pleasantries, Susan and I set out an ambitious plan to build an innovation team, encourage incremental and disruptive innovation throughout the organization and start building innovation communities by training high potential people in the organization. It was a very carefully designed program, one she and I had been building for months in anticipation of the approval from Brockwell and Underwood. I made sure to impress upon Chad that Brockwell and Underwood were supportive of our plans and the goals of innovation.

Once we finished our presentation, Chad had a few questions.

"What's it going to take to accomplish all of this work? How quickly can we get some new ideas into the product development pipeline?"

I liked what I was hearing so far. Speed and urgency are so important in an innovation program. Let's get going while we have the ear of the CEO and some momentum.

"We can start generating ideas in specific product groups in just a few weeks" I said. "Clearly we won't have a chance to train the teams on innovation processes, but Susan and I can work with them to identify key opportunities and issues and start generating ideas."

"Great. Do you think we can have new products in the pipeline so we can get budgets in place during the annual planning cycle?"

The annual planning cycle, that recurring monster better known to innovation experts as the idea killing process. Perhaps as welcoming to innovation and new ideas as a place of execution, a place where great ideas went to die. Every large business basically shuts down to re-enact the development of next year's plan, which comprises a set of presentations where the numbers move slightly from last year's plan. A rigid, microscopically managed process with no ambiguity and no room for error.

"Yes, but I think we'll need to consider how to acquire funds for the idea within the annual plan, as well as outside the plan. Our experience is that new ideas seldom have much success in an annual planning cycle. Additionally, we may have good ideas that should be launched before the planning cycle, and may need to find the funds for those ideas instead of waiting for the plan."

You'd have thought I'd questioned the validity of the Black-Scholes equation or burned a tract on financial theory of markets to see the disbelief in his eyes. There was no consideration for funding outside of the annual plan from his perspective. And that's the way the rest of the morning progressed. We'd recommend changes to the way Accipiter worked, to further an innovation goal, and he'd reinforce the existing processes. What I came to discover, very quickly, that while he was in finance, he was actually much more invested in the existing processes and methods. He understood the need for innovation and different results, he just didn't seem to understand that new thinking and new ideas might require different processes, people with new skills and changes in the way Accipiter worked.

It was odd to see such attachment to a dysfunctional corporate process and culture by someone who had not served much time within Accipiter. From a corporate lifer I would have expected the adherence to the existing order, but not from a fresh-faced MBA. Yet Chad battled us on every recommendation, trying to water down our approach and align the approach to existing methods and processes, intent on keeping the work as close to what Accipiter already did as possible.

By the end of our first meeting I'd reached the bottom of the roller coaster. My stomach didn't lurch so much as heave. Just on the brink of success, we were being pulled back into the existing order. Even though we had open channels to Brockwell, I didn't think it would matter. One of us would have to go. Either Accipiter wanted to move forward with innovation, and was willing to change, or Accipiter wanted to act interested in innovation while reinforcing the status quo. I wasn't going to stick around for the second option, and Chad seemed unwilling to commit to the first. I wondered why Chad, and several other executives before him, were so wedded to the current structures and so afraid of change.

At the end of a completely frustrating meeting, where Chad and I had increasingly talked past each other, and both recognized the futility of further discussions without clear direction from the top, we broke the meeting. Susan had been relatively quiet for a while and had a pensive look on her face.

"OK, we go back to Brockwell and tell him the fair haired boy doesn't see eye to eye with him, and find another person."

She shook her head, not saying no, just in resignation and disbelief.

"I didn't realize how powerful the status quo really is, and how difficult introducing innovation as a sustaining capability was going to be."

It's not a hopeless cause, I thought, but we need a burning platform to get the company's attention.

"What would draw significant attention to this issue and get everyone on board?" I asked.

"I've been thinking about that myself. Perhaps we should pull in Mr. Kasamis."

"Doug Kasamis, the chairman?"

"Yes, he was the founder and a real entrepreneur. He is still very respected within the organization. If we can get him as a spokesperson, if he is willing, he could rally most of the organization to a significant change."

We knew what to do. Meet with Underwood and Brockwell, explain the gravity and urgency of a clearly communicated message, and recommend that we deploy the heavy guns.

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