Friday, October 2, 2009

Pulp Innovation Chapter Fifty Nine

We innovation consultants have a mantra that we repeat to ourselves and our clients on a regular basis. It has to do with the either/or possibilities of building an organization that can sustain innovation, or just doing innovative work in the face of a resistant culture. Both approaches are dead ends, it is a lose-lose situation. So, on the face of it, there's just one thing to do: "Build the plane while it is flying".

But in this case we were going to have to reset expectations and find a new pilot while the plane was in the air. Clearly Chad was going to have to have a come to Jesus with Brockwell, or we weren't going to be flying at all. On top of that we needed some real momentum to the project, to demonstrate some results in a reasonably timely fashion, and we had not even left the terminal yet.

Susan and I agreed that we needed to do several things simultaneously, and as quickly as possible. First, we needed to reset Chad's expectations and his ability to accept some change and risk, or we need Brockwell to replace him. Chad's concerns and connection to the way things are done now are too deeply embedded and will actively work against the innovation program. Second, we needed to identify one or two significant challenges or opportunities and frame our efforts around those, to generate ideas and kick start the innovation effort. And third, we needed to address the existing culture, and build an innovation process and staff a team that was engaged and excited about innovation. Something like juggling a running chainsaw, a bowling ball and a live baby while riding a unicycle, but much less fun.

We charted our course of action and asked to meet with Brockwell as soon as possible. Of course, Brockwell's calendar was full for the next two weeks, and he was out of town for several days as well. We agreed to waylay him on his way in to work on one of his first days back in the office. Our predicament with Chad was simply too much of a barrier to leave untested for too long. Next, we decided to meet with the heads of several of the business units to understand their biggest challenges or potential opportunities. We felt it was important that we demonstrate we were solving "real world" problems or challenges that one of these individuals could implement as a new product or service. We never anticipated how hard it would be to identify that problem or opportunity. Finally, we made plans to meet with the HR director to discuss how we could begin to change the compensation and evaluation schemes to encourage more innovation, thinking that this was the best way to start to move the culture, along with a series of communications from a respected senior leader. Which led us back to Brockwell, Underwood and Kasamis.

"Probably the most important thing we can do is start communicating our innovation plans and goals. If he's agreeable, Kasamis would be a great spokesperson for innovation. Everyone in Accipiter knows his story. He founded this company from nothing and built it and took it public."

I knew the story, a classic rags to riches entrepreneur. An immigrant with little opportunity wills his company to grow, and builds a respectable business. Through some luck and insight he had acquired a number of other businesses and successfully merged them to form Accipiter. He was riding out his senior years as Chairman, sitting in on board meetings and remaining one of the public faces of the organization. Kasamis understood the entrepreneurial spirit, and probably would get behind the concept of innovation. It was rumored that he was unhappy with the state of Accipiter, which had lost its leadership position and could not even contend for a fast follower position anymore. With his backing, we would have a respected voice advocating for innovation from the top.

Susan agreed to set meetings with the heads of the electronics division and the components division, the two individuals who had appeared the most receptive to our work and who probably had the largest challenges. From them we could hopefully identify several challenges or opportunities we could use to generate new product or service ideas. That work would help us demonstrate short-term, actionable results. Looking back on it later, I suspect that was the biggest failing, thinking that these "leaders" had any insight into where they were leading the firm.