Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Seventy One

I met the crew from Marlowe Innovation for lunch that afternoon at the Brown Derby. The cool late October sun made me wish for my gabardines and a wool overcoat rather than the business suit I was wearing. But I was following the consultants precepts - never dress worse, or much better than, your customer. And Accipiter was an old-line, suit and tie kind of place, where my lack of sartorial splendor was never an issue among the man in the gray suit fashion statements.

We were right where I thought we'd be at Accipiter, three months into an eight month engagement with about two months worth of work complete. That didn't alarm me much, since the lethargy and inertia that forestalled much action was starting to change. Either we'd energized the beast and it would move more quickly, or we'd startled the beast enough to make it panic. Then it would show us its teeth for certain. Only more work would tell if the new acceptance of our work was based on agreement or was merely laying a trap and waiting for us to fail.

I saw Matt in our favorite booth, with two cold, frosty adult beverages and one long slender iced tea. I started right in for the squat mug, assuming the tea was for Meredith, who usually didn't imbibe over lunch. Matt raised his mug to me in a mock salute and quaffed a fair portion while I did the same. Meredith entered a few minutes later and we took time to recap our work loads and plan the next quarter. Matt and Meredith were fully up to speed on my work at Accipiter, and I tried to avoid talking about it as much as possible.

Meredith told us about some new ethnography work she had just won at a new client. There's nothing better than new work, unless its also new work with a new customer. The client, a medical services company, wanted to understand unmet and undiscovered needs in its customer base. Spotting a possible opportunity, I asked Meredith about another service.

"Are they at all interested in innovating around the customer experience?"

She hardly blinked.

"I've already teed up some work on customer experience journey mapping, and I think they'll be very interested in it."

We didn't hire her just for her looks.

"We're going to kick off an ethnographic study with some of their customers and patients, and evaluate behaviors and actions to understand if there are some unmet needs. Those will become need statements that we'll have Matt use to drive some idea generation with their team. Once that work is complete, we'll have a chance to pitch them on some customer experience journey work, but I'm concerned about trying to do both at the same time."

Matt nodded. "Two different approaches for two different needs."

"Yep, and since they are a new client, we need to demonstrate some value before enlarging the scope of the work. Great job."

Meredith was clearly pleased, but Matt and I had already thrown out our shoulders slapping ourselves on the back for bringing her in. She had added a crucial capability to our team and had attracted new work on her own. My only concern was whether or not she realized how valuable she was to our little firm.

"How about you Matt?"

I knew what Matt was working on, and who he was working with, just as he knew about my trials and travails with Accipiter. You can't be partners for over a decade without great communication, but I'd found that a short discussion always led to new insights or opportunities.

"Still working with Conover on some new idea generation, and they've asked us to deliver some innovation training to their mid-level managers. I think over time they could do a great job managing the idea generation internally, but it will be a few more months before they are fully trained."

"We're seeing a lot of requests for innovation training."

"Yes, I think firms are starting to realize that with the right tools and methodologies, they can bring in house a lot of the work they've outsourced to the bigger consultancies."

"You think they've finally realized how important innovation is to their businesses?"

"No, but they are starting to realize that innovation can be a competitive advantage and they want more innovation more frequently."

We were well stocked for opportunities. In fact, if the work at Accipiter kicked off well, we'd probably need to hire another consultant or two if we could find some to fit in with the merry band.

"Reach out to your contacts, both of you. See if there are people you know you'd like to bring aboard, especially strategic folks and people with a background in training."

Meredith and Matt both nodded. I think they were happy, and I was pleased to see Marlowe growing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Seventy

While I'd never compared it to digging ditches, real thinking work is hard work, exhausting work. I've heard that the brain is basically a leach, sucking all the energy and nutrients from the rest of the body, but after a full day of scenario planning I had to believe it. I was drained. Wiped out from a full eight hour day in a Herman Miller Aeron chair in a comfy conference room.

We'd finally managed to agree on our strategic scope and had started collecting market information, industry trends and other information we felt would be helpful in building scenarios. One of the biggest challenges was to extend our line of sight beyond one or two years. It seems that no one in the aerospace group (and I suspect no one in Accipiter) had done any long range thinking for years. And by long range, I mean three years out. So we had quite the battle royal over creating scenarios that were more than five years into the future.

"The future much past three or four years is almost unknowable" Greg said. "We don't know enough about that timeframe to predict it effectively."

Greg had a point, but it didn't hold water with me.

"Do you plan to be in business three to five years from now?"

"Well, of course."

"What products and services will be important to customers in five years? What can you effectively and profitably deliver? What key needs will those customers have?"

"I think they'll have many of the same needs as they have today. As for the changes that may take place, we can't know what those are, and building products or services based on hunches is risky."

"We don't work on hunches, we work on educated guesses based on trends and their likely outcomes. For example, we can see already that the Asian economies are rebounding faster from the downturn than the US and Western European economies, yes?"

He nodded, not wanting to commit much more.

"Ok, if that's true, and if Asia depends on air traffic to move people around and air freight to move goods around more than these other economies, we can predict that there will be an uptick in demand for new planes and for replacement parts in Asia in the next two to three years at a minimum, and if their economies grow more rapidly than ours over the next five to seven years, the demand there will far outstrip demand here."

There were nods all around the table now.

Greg shrugged. "OK, but what do we do with that insight?"

"All we've done so far is begin to create a scenario that suggests that the Asian economies come out of the downturn faster, and we've begun to identify implications of that scenario. If they grow faster and maintain a higher growth rate than Western Europe and the US, the demand on air traffic will increase dramatically. That was already the fastest growing market for air travel, especially long range air travel and air freight. If we predict those markets to grow rapidly, we should begin to identify new products and services we need to create to support that growth and win market share. We also need to think about how our services are structured and where we have people on the ground. It may make sense to start shifting resources to Taiwan and Singapore, since we already have operations there."

"But what if that scenario is wrong? What if we've placed too much emphasis on Asian market growth?"

"That's why we create several competing scenarios about the future." I noticed that Greg no longer seemed to have as great a concern about the timeframe. Now he was worried about chasing the wrong story, rather than the length of the story. "We need to create another scenario based on other trends that we've collected. Perhaps we have a set of trends that suggests that there will be a significant reduction in military spending since we'll reduce wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the world is eager for a "peace dividend" again. In that case, governmental spending on aircraft and maintenance will plunge. That's a realistic scenario based on the trends we've captured, and would have a huge impact on Accipiter unless we find ways to deliver new services. Perhaps in that scenario Accipiter takes on the role of mothballing and maintaining planes in the desert."

Greg shook his head. "That's all interesting but almost too much to wrap my head around."

"The point of scenarios isn't necessarily to be able to predict the actual future, but to identify discontinuities and anticipate them, and bring new needs or opportunities to light. None of these scenarios is exactly right, and several of them overlap or intersect. It's just as likely that our Asian scenario and "peace dividend" scenario are partially right. If so, we need to either change our government services or exit those and move our focus to Asia."

Everyone on the team had their eyes glued on Greg. If he bought in, they were mostly on board. If he rejected the approach or timeframe, Susan and I had a lot of work to do to get the team back on board with our approach.

"We can either assume the future will look a lot like today, and plan new products and services based on the needs and demands we believe are valid now, or we can try to understand what the potential futures are and anticipate those needs. That's innovation" I said.

Greg nodded. "OK, let's finish the Asian growth scenario and flesh out the "peace dividend" scenario. I think there are one or two other scenarios to consider."

With that we were off and running into the future.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixty Nine

Faulkner said that the past isn't dead, it's not even past, or something along those lines. I suspect if he'd been interested in innovation, rather than examining the mores of southerners after reconstruction, he'd have had a similar pithy statement about the future. Perhaps something like "the future isn't unknowable, just uncertain". One of my favorite authors, William Gibson, has a line that reads "the future is already here, it's just not widely distributed." By which I think he means that we are the future, just becoming aware of it at different rates.

When you work with trends, and develop scenarios to try to ascertain the future, you and your team work in a nebulous, ambiguous void where everything is possible. By conjuring just the right insights you may be able to identify opportunities before anyone else. But turn the broth the wrong way and you've created a picture of the future that is unlikely to occur. Scenario planning is where we first start separating the true innovators from the administrators. There's simply too much ambiguity for some folks, and they demand clearly drawn "black and white" lines. Sorry, that's not going to happen. And if you thinking developing scenarios based on a five to seven year time horizon and five to ten key trends is tough, wait until you try to tease out wants and needs from an ethnographic study.

No, the reason Trend spotting and scenario planning is one of the first activities in our work on innovation, beyond the obvious need to understand the future, is to quickly ascertain what the team can, and can't, or won't do. I'd rather face up to it now that some of the team may just not be cut out for innovation work, and if they struggle to create a simple story about the near future, they'll be a boat anchor to the rest of the work. Scenario Planning never fails to identify one or two people who seemed promising on the surface but can't, or won't, extend their minds beyond what they "know" is true and factual. If innovation was based on knowable facts, then it wouldn't have any risk involved. Perhaps Altshuller addressed that in one of his paradoxes. I'll have to brush up on my Russian to know for sure.

About a week into the scenario planning it was clear that most of the team was on board and comfortable with the tools and techniques, but Ann Livingstone was really struggling. Of course Ann came from a pure engineering background, which meant she was either going to be perfectly suited for innovation (the discovery part of engineering) or it was going to be an obstacle for her (the rigidity and "finding the one right answer" part of engineering). With Ann, it was all about the black and white. She struggled mightily and hampered the team's progress because she simply couldn't accept an unknowable future, or was trying to juggle too many unknowns in her mind. Two equations, two unknowns, a solvable problem. Five questions, seven unknowns, not possible, therefore no reason to try.

Ann clearly didn't come from what I like to call the handgrenades and nuclear bomb sort of engineering (close enough for effect) but came from the bridge-builder school of thought. I'm thankful that many engineers are worried about making sure the bridge stays up, and stays put, and can endure the forces thrust upon it to eight standard deviations. However, that kind of thinking conflicts with innovation thinking, and it was clear Ann was hurting the team. Susan and I were going to have to adjust Ann's methodologies and thinking, or ask her to leave the team.

"Will it damage the morale of the team to have Ann leave so quickly? she asked.

"I frankly think Ann's participation is damaging and holding the team back, and the rest of the team resents it."

"How do we let her go gracefully?"

"I don't think it would be a surprise to Ann for us to ask her to play a different role. Her skills are going to be much better suited for evaluation and product development instead of innovation. We just recast it as a better fit downstream."

"OK. Do we backfill her role now?"

"I'd like to have another engineering representative, but perhaps we should interview the candidates rather than have them assigned."

"Thompson won't like that. His aerospace team is already stretched."

"well, we'll find out from Gregg if it is more important to mollify Thompson and have a gap in our team, or if it is more important to have a fully stocked team and a slightly steamed Thompson."

"I'll talk to Ann in the morning."

"Take it from me" I said "she'll be relieved."

She was, and the rest of the team was as well.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixty Eight

Three weeks, four days and two hours into our project, we finally started doing innovation work. Forming, norming and finally storming, we'd built the team, addressed their concerns and were finally at a place where we could do some real innovation work, rather than build the team, assess the participants, address their (realistic) concerns and define a project plan. We were finally going to do some scenario planning. There was just one problem.

We were meeting in the innovation team room, formally known as Conference room 2A, on a cloudy Tuesday morning. Susan was facilitating the meeting, our first effort to start looking further into the future of the aerospace business. It was at this point we realized that no one on the team knew exactly what the future looked like, or understood any of the trends that might shape that future. The parable of the blind men and the elephant from Kipling was top of mind.

"We've never really paid a significant amount of attention to trends, especially over a three or four year time horizon" said Sally McKay. Sally had joined the team to provide market analysis for our work. "We typically buy information from industry analysts and compile yearly forecast of market conditions, but we've never looked at bigger trends that would shape the industry over a several year time horizon."

"OK. Let's break this down and make it simple. We want to know what the significant trends are that will influence and shape the market for aerospace production and parts in five to seven years. Typically, when we at Marlowe do this work, we look at trends in four categories: demographic, technological, governmental and social. Who can help us understand the unfolding trends in those four buckets?"

James Davidson chimed in. "We have a chief economist who works with our CFO. He could probably provide some economic forecasts to help us understand some governmental and economic trends."

Susan nodded. "Accipiter also has relationships with several lobbyist firms that can provide insights and trends on federal government regulations and governmental actions, at least within the US. We'd need to find firms or analysts that can provide insights into foreign governments and their actions, since our parts can be used in a number of countries."

I looked at James and Sally. "Surely you have relationships with industry analysts who can provide forecasts and trends as pertains to technologies in the aerospace industry?"

"Yes, and we can go talk with the guys in R&D. They are constantly experimenting with new technologies and capabilities, and they attend a number of engineering conferences. I think we can get them to give us their insights."

"OK, that covers economic, governmental and technology. Our team can put together trends that encompass social and demographic changes over the next five to seven years that will impact the aerospace industry. Let's look at the flying population and how that will increase or decrease. Let's look at the green movement to see how that will impact recycling, or reductions in waste, or fuel consumption in the airline industry. There are a number of social and demographic factors that may influence how planes are used and built. Remember the massive Airbus plane? The one that was forcing international terminals to build new jetways for, because it is so large? The demand for that plane has fallen as the economy has dipped, and the price of fuel has increased. We need to think about that plane and consider all the factors that will influence the future."

So, with a few assignments everyone went off to gather insights from their respective sources. Susan and I had a few minutes to reconnect and plan for the next meeting.

"How frequently will we need to gather these trends? This is going to be a fair amount of work, and some of the team will run into resistance since the people they'll be talking to won't understand how we'll use the data."

"Ideally, trend spotting and trend gathering would be an ongoing, sustaining process, not a discrete activity. In this case I know we won't continue the effort, but we need to demonstrate the importance of gathering this information and assessing it regularly."

"That's a lot of work, and a lot of data."

"Yes. But if Accipiter can do it well, you'll have the ability to assess your future opportunities and challenges and a much longer runway to decide what you want to do. It's not that difficult, and not that expensive, and can create really valuable opportunities."

Susan shook her head. She agreed, but I think she realized how big the change would be for Accipiter. When you have a small army, you have to pick which battles you want to fight. Was this a time to dig in and fight, or a place to retreat and reserve our forces?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixty Seven

They say the word sabotage was created when the Dutch would throw their clogs (sabots) into the works of mills. Every innovation project has it's saboteur, usually well meaning but very disruptive, and I'd been waiting for the shoe to drop. On a crisp morning not long after our meeting with Greg, the spanner, or shoe, went into the works.

James Davidson joined our innovation team from the aerospace product marketing team. He was eager, interested and full of ideas. He also had a full plate of work in his day job, which must have been important but uninteresting. The shoe fell on a day when we were moving ahead on our strategic planning and preparing for some trend spotting and scenario development. We'd just finished our plans and identified the meetings and workloads.

"Um, I have a problem" he said. I glanced at Susan, who glanced at Greg, and we all waited patiently for James to spit it out.

"Go ahead" said Susan.

"Well, how are we supposed to get all of this innovation work done? I mean, I still have a job, and my boss is on me to make sure I get my regular work finished. I'm finding it tough to balance the demands already."

"We're just getting started" said Susan, and James nodded. "The workload for the innovation team will only increase. This work is in addition to your day job."

"I know, and I volunteered for this project. But I can't end up worse off in six months because we created a cool new product but I didn't get my other work done as well as it should have been done."

"Good that you are voicing the concern now" I said. I glanced around. Of the eight of us on the project, only Susan and I were "full time". Everyone else still had some component of their regular jobs. Greg seemed unfazed, but everyone else seemed sympathetic to James' complaint.

"OK, how many of you have concerns about getting this project done well and keeping up with your day jobs?" All the hands went up, except Greg's.

There were only a couple of realistic responses. We needed to gain some cover for these folks who were innovating, and if possible relieve them of more of their day job responsibilities. We also needed to change their incentives and compensation to place more emphasis on innovation. Those were some big changes, but I didn't want to have to play the CEO card just yet.

"Greg, let's get Jane from your HR team in here. We need to place more emphasis on innovation in the evaluations and compensation structures for the team members, or at least work with the team to reduce their work loads so we can innovate successfully. My preference would be to tweak the evaluation and compensation models so people who demonstrate innovation activity and success don't get dumped on at promotion and bonus time." Greg nodded. So far he was steady as a rock when we needed it.

"OK James, if we can work to divert some of your work, and perhaps add some points about innovation in your evaluation, does that give you the cover you need to stick with the team? We probably can't totally relieve your work load, but Greg can talk to your manager and we can ensure you don't end up worse off for having participated on this project. What do you think?"

James paused, but realized he'd probably gotten all he was going to get.

"It's not perfect, but I want to be on this project. I think it matters to Accipiter. Hopefully, if we can create some great new products and services, any work I miss will pale in comparison. I just don't want to end up worse off because we are innovating."

Heads were nodding like naptime in a kindergarden. No one else had quite the guts as James, but they all felt the same way. The shoe had dropped. Everyone wanted to know that they would end up at least as well off in their positions and careers regardless of the outcome of the project. If they didn't get that assurance, we wouldn't have to worry about wooden shoes in the gears, they'd vote with their feet. They'd miss meetings on innovation to attend staff meetings. They'd fail to review ideas because of their "day job" demands. Slowly but surely the commitment would leak away and we'd be holding meetings with ghosts.

I knew what we needed, and I suspected Greg did too. He stood up.

"OK, I hear you. I'll work with your managers to ensure everyone ends up after this project is over in at least the same situation if not a better one, and no one will get dinged for working on this project. You have my word on that."

His statement was like a breath of fresh air, or perhaps the escaped sighs from the team members merely felt like a breeze. It seems as though every one was holding their breath, and Greg hit the right notes to allow everyone to relax and recommit.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixty Six

Making decisions is easy. I make them all the time. Blue socks with the blue suit. Steak for dinner. Single malt after. Even a child can make decisions. Making good decisions with limited knowledge that have a lot of impact, there's the rub. And what the aerospace group needed were clear, concise decisions about innovation targets.

I couldn't help but feel for Greg. After all, I've been unfortunate enough to watch a number of executives twist on their own petards. It's easy to say "we need more innovation" but often hard to say, specifically, what we should be innovating. Making decisions and choices is as much about what to leave out, as to what to leave in. Making the decision meant making choices that would impact the organization for months or years, coming down on a strategic direction. Making the decision meant success or failure in the not too distant future. No wonder most firms can't innovate. They can't make good, informed decisions and communicate those things to their staffs. Something about plausible deniability.

We met with Greg a week or so into the project. We had selected a team, not necessarily everyone we wanted, but workable. We'd talked to the communications team and we had a program ready to alert the aerospace group that we'd be focusing on innovation and needed their attention. All the major pieces were in place, except possibly the most important piece. What were we going to focus on?

"New products" said Greg. "We need new products. We're getting our heads handed to us by foreign competition. Even our best customers are telling us that we've fallen far behind. We need something really revolutionary."

"Do you have any customer insights or requirements developed? Has your sales team discovered any interesting unmet or unarticulated needs? What about innovating around the way you service and support your products? Does it have to be a new product, or one that's delivered or serviced differently?"

"AXT has released a number of new products that are much lighter, but as strong and resilient as our older products. They are cutting weight from the plane, and that equals less fuel burned per mile. Nippon Air Industries has a completely different approach. They offer to maintain their products right on the tarmac. Their products are probably equivalent to ours in terms of weight and performance, but their maintenance is superb and cuts costs and time for the carriers. Whether our solution is new materials, new products or new services is almost a moot point. We need it all, just to catch up to what our competitors are doing."

"So, really, we could be just as successful innovating around a business model, or a service offering, or even the customer experience? What do you want to prioritize, Greg? That will give us focus for the team."

"My preference, because it's something we can do quickly, is to create some new products for the industry with really outstanding and revolutionary capabilities - extremely low weight or extremely easy to maintain or extremely long life. I think Accipiter can drive new product development faster than it can wrap its head around new services or business models."

Good. One key focus area down, with hits about how radical or disruptive the change needs to be.

"Do you want to conduct this as a "skunkworks" and separate the team, or open the work up more broadly to the entire aerospace division? I think we can move faster and we'll be more likely to achieve radical ideas in a small, separate group, but we may miss some good ideas from the division if we don't involve them."

"No, I'd prefer to keep it smaller. I've read about Lockheed and the skunkworks model and that's what we need right now. Small team, fast action, radical outcomes."

"Great. So we can assume that we'll form the team and keep the idea generation within Accipiter. No "open innovation" models - at least not with the Accipiter name. If we need to use some external innovation, we could leverage a company like Innocentive, perhaps?"

"I don't want to create a lot of publicity, but there may be inventors or entrepreneurs we need to tap externally. Tell me more about Innocentive?"

"Innocentive helps connect people with ideas to people with needs. Basically we can place a notice that we're trying to solve a specific technical problem, and anyone who is registered on their site can spot that and submit technical solutions to the problem. There are two nice things about Innocentive's services: first, most of the people on the site are engineers and technologists, so we're likely to get relevant responses, and second, we can post anonymously."

"But we're not ready to post anything yet - correct?"

"No. And we'd use them only if we weren't satisfied with the ideas we generated or felt we could go further by including that capability."

"OK - do you have what you need? A fairly radical product innovation developed by a small team that has a lot of leeway and flexibility but works primarily internally. Don't focus right now on services or business models. I just don't think we're ready for that."

"This helps a lot. As strange as it may sound, offering very specific instructions in some dimensions of the challenge encourages innovative thinking in the areas we leave "unbounded". And an innovation effort with no scope just becomes an attempt to boil the ocean. We've got enough for now."

It went even better than I had hoped for. Greg was under the gun and ready to make decisions, since many of them had been made for him and Accipiter by the competition. Nothing sharpens the mind like a near and present threat.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixty Five

There are a number of impossibilities in life. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. You can lead a teenager to class but you can't make him think. You can't push a string uphill. To add to that litany, you can't tell people often enough, and in enough detail, about dramatic change like innovation.

In every innovation project I've worked on, I've preached the theology of communicating about innovation - it's goals, purposes and outcomes. Almost uniformly, my requests go ignored or unanswered. I'm not sure if the management teams don't want to talk to their folks, or are afraid a big communication efforts commits them to actually doing innovation work. Inevitably, we'll run into a significant portion of the workforce who is unaware of the innovation focus and effort, and needs insights into what we are doing and why we are doing it. Typically, at the end of an innovation effort, a senior executive will turn to me and say "that went well. Too bad we didn't do a better job getting people on board earlier." As sure as the sun rises in the east, and Sisyphus is pushing that rock, I'll live through another project where we fail to communicate effectively and regret it at the end. Accipiter was proving to be no exception.

Greg was actually on board to communicate to his team, but felt he needed to pull in the corporate PR team to help write the communications. After several missed meetings and delays, Susan and I convinced him that we could write the communications, but we would need help to select the most appropriate channels. In my work, we've managed to use a wide range of communication vehicles to educate and inform, including emails, newsletters, voicemails, taped video of senior executives doing the talking head thing, posters, table tents in the break rooms and a host of other activities. Susan and I had pulled together a relatively comprehensive program to communicate to the aerospace group, but we felt we needed the PR team's blessing and their final polish of our messaging. We'd even written up some talking points for Greg's reports, so they could talk about innovation to their reports and stay on message. Now, we just needed to get the internal communications team on board. No easy task.

We met with Leslie Parks, the VP in charge of internal communications for Accipiter. We'd been warned that Leslie was very proprietorial with her communication team and channels, and that we'd need to build a case for communicating. In fact, I found her very open to the fact we wanted to communicate the changes we were planning, but very concerned about the volume of communication in general.

"We'd be happy to work with you" she said, and I felt it was sincere. "But what we need to do is balance your messaging with all the other messaging that's going on. Right now many Accipiter employees are overwhelmed with internal emails and communications. We've just finished a big push for HR and benefits, and have another messaging and communication campaign about to start for the United Way. I understand the requirements and urgency of your work, but you also will want our employees to read and understand your messages, and with the volume of emails going out to them right now, I can't assure you that will happen."

"OK. What if we break our communications down into three targeted groups - executives, senior and mid-level managers and the rest of the staff? Most of our direct communication needs to go to the first two groups, primarily within the aerospace group. We also need to communicate a broader innovation effort more generally across the company, but our first targets will be within aerospace."

"Your talking points for the executives and senior leaders look great. I'd like to pass them through our review team to ensure they don't conflict with any other messaging. I think the managers will like this and use some of the draft emails and talking points to communicate to their teams. Do you have an intranet site or some other website set up where people can visit and get more information? Emails are great, but a permanent site that people can review as they are interested is very valuable."

In fact we did have plans for an innovation website, but the development of that site was currently IT project number 347, somewhere after the rollout of a new SharePoint site for time management and before the development of a blogging template for internal bloggers. In other words, we were probably going to have to build an external blog site in the short term.

"We're working on that" Susan said with a wry smile. "We'll have something ready within the next two weeks."

Leslie agreed to work with us to include our communications into the Accipiter communications calendar, and promised us feedback on our plan and talking points within a week. That would give us enough time to build at least a sample blog site to provide some insights into the Accipiter innovation process. As for the internal site development, we were still waiting on approval for hardware and trying to find the staff to do the work.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixty Four

"Hi Greg, thanks for joining us on the call."

"Sorry I can't be there, but we've had a significant problem crop up in our Seattle operations. I had to come out here to see what could be done to straighten out a customer situation."

"No problem. Did you get our presentation for the innovation discussion?"

"Yes, but I haven't had time to review it."

Eyes rolled in the conference room. Several of them bounced off the table, and collected in a small, sad pocket in the corner near the projector. Several more seemed to glaze over with that look of corporate resignation so familiar to people trapped in small fabric covered boxes and chimpanzees in zoos.

I took the bull by the horns.

"Greg, we'll need your insights and directions for the innovation effort to succeed. If this is a difficult time for you, we can reschedule, but we need your thoughtful input on our recommendations. You'll need to understand those and be ready to support them, or indicate a different direction for our team. Can you give us an hour or so today?"

There was absolute silence in our conference room. The silence was so loud I was glad that Greg was furiously shuffling papers and making a significant amount of background noise. We were hardly started with our innovation efforts yet already at the cusp of a major decision. Greg needed our help. But Greg had many other priorities. It would really come down to how important it was to him that he create some interesting new products or services. I could feel the excitement leak out of our conference room by the second.


"Yes, I'm still here. I'm working with Mary to shift our calendars around. I can give you one hour now, and I'll commit to reading the presentation and getting back to you with my thoughts by Friday."

"Great. Let's get started."

The energy level in the room increased by degrees as we walked Greg through a series of ideas and concepts we'd generated so far. We were trying to develop a "charter" for the innovation effort. We knew his team needed new products and services to stave off a lot of overseas competition. Little new product development had been done and his unit was suffering. Clearly, the products weren't the only issue, as we were interrupted twice by client managers in Seattle with pressing problems.

"Greg, what we want to do with you is establish the scope of the innovation effort. So, what we're trying to do is document the two or three most significant challenges or opportunities, confirm those are the concepts you want us to work on with you, and begin to define your risk tolerance."

"Risk tolerance?"

"Just shorthand for how incremental or how disruptive you want our work to be. We can set up a quick brainstorm and have some ideas to you fairly quickly, but they'll probably be more incremental, and may not have a lot of value. On the other hand, we can set up a more disruptive exercise, which identifies some more significant change but will take more time and have a greater chance of failure."

"Can we do both? Can we do some short term, more incremental brainstorming and some longer term disruptive work?"

"That's possible. What would you want us to focus on in the short term, and in the longer term?"

"We need some new product ideas, but we also need something radically different. I'm thinking about an idea to shift from a model where we sell and maintain our products to a rental model where we own and manage the products and our clients simply rent them. I think you sent me a white paper along these lines."

"Yes. That would be the York HVAC model. Several other heavy equipment makers are moving in that direction as well."

"No doubt we need to change our interaction with our customers. I think you've also recommended some concepts around customer experience journey. Tell me more about that."

"The concept behind the customer experience journey is that you purposefully design the interactions and touchpoints so that the experience a customer receives is optimal, and Accipiter places the right emphasis on touchpoints and interactions that matter to the customer."

"From where I'm standing, and what we're dealing with, we could definitely stand to innovate our customer experience."

We walked him through much of the strategic overview, trying to ensure we understood his goals and could link our work to strategic outcomes. Innovation is tricky enough without clear goals and expectations, and I wanted the chance to work on a well-defined problem, since our project was high visibility. Greg understood our need and managed to give us enough insights in the meeting that we were able to develop an innovation charter that he approved.

Later that week, Susan and I met with him again to confirm our approach and begin to chart our course for the work.

"So you're suggesting a more incremental project to seek out new product ideas and a longer term project based on customer experience?"

"That's what seems appropriate to us, based on what you told us were your key needs" Susan said. I just watched him and nodded.

"OK. What kind of staffing or resources do you need from my team?"

"We'll need your involvement, of course, mostly for direction and to ensure we get the people we need. We'll need three or four strong people from the product groups, marketing and sales to build a team to explore new product ideas. Say five or six people at 20% for six to eight weeks. We'll need to lay out the customer experience journey a bit more, but a similar sized team but a much longer time horizon."

Greg blanched a bit but didn't refuse. When you are backed into a corner with no good alternatives, even a painful exit can be promising.

"Alright. Get with Donna to identify the people you need. Can you draft a short email from me to my team indicating why this is important and why they need to take on this extra work? If you can get something to me later today, I'll review it and get it out."

"No problem. If you are comfortable with this approach we'll get started."

Greg was anything but comfortable, but I think he realized that we were his last, best hope for turning the tide. Lifeguards have a difficult job, pulling drowning people out and avoiding getting pushed under themselves. We'd need to be careful, execute against our plan and help Greg as best as we could, and hope we could create some meaningful success in the short run while we build the teams and processes necessary for Accipiter to succeed.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixty Three

There's an old saying that you can tell the pioneers by the arrows in their backs. During my time at Accipiter, I had seen what appeared to be a few circular firing squads but few people who seemed to be leaders, and that was rapidly becoming a problem for our innovation effort.

You see, everyone is for innovation until someone has to be innovative. It's kinda like cliff diving or parachuting. In the abstract, sounds like a great idea, but in reality the corporate environment tends to weed out executives who introduce change or take on risky propositions. It was clear that everyone had the message from Jim and George that Accipiter was going to become more innovative. And every senior executive was ducking our meetings, hoping they wouldn't be called on to go first.

Our plan called for building an innovation capability, identifying, recruiting and training an innovation team and defining innovation processes while simultaneously doing some innovation work for one product line or business unit. I've found that doing one or the other is interesting but incomplete. If we focus on the buildout, sooner or later four or five months down the road everyone wants to know where the ideas are. If we focus on a specific innovation effort, there's no way to duplicate it once the work is done. Only by combining the two can we resolve short term needs with long term goals. But that works as long as someone wants to go first.

Accipiter had clearly bread a grow of senior managers and executives who were very happy with the status quo, and did not want to risk any change. Our innovation team had been approached by exactly two executives who were interested in working with us to kick off the innovation effort, and while they were earnest I wasn't sure they were the best candidates. Gregg Flynn ran a small aerospace components business line that had been hammered by off-shore competition. His margins and shared had eroded, and he was desperate for some new products. I wasn't sure if he was volunteering to save his job or because he believed innovation would matter. Mike Fraser had also met with us. Unlike Gregg, his machined products group was an industry leader, and had good differentiation and margins. Mike was interested in driving even more distance between his business and his competitors. Neither of these businesses were large or "core" to Accipiter. That meant that if we were successful we'd probably still have a tough time convincing the rest of Accipiter that changes we'd implemented would matter in the rest of the business.

Susan and I wanted one of the core business units to step forward, thinking that if we could do great work with one of them, the rest would notice and fall in line. But we also believed we needed to get started quickly, with a team willing to work with us. With a team still under development and the clock ticking, we didn't have time to convince an executive to take a chance with us. So we chose to work with Flynn's team, thinking that if we could create some interesting new products or services, we'd get the attention of the rest of the business. Margin improvement to a strong business is valuable, but could be discounted. Real change in a struggling business would draw attention.

By the time we recruited a few team members and had Flynn on board for the short term innovation effort, we were a month into a six month effort, far behind our original goals, but with the right people on board to succeed. It amazes me how much a committed executive and senior leadership team can water down the desire of a CEO. The level of urgency and desire for change was dramatically different, and I was sure we'd need to get Jim and George involved in our work to demonstrate to Accipter that innovation wasn't a sideshow but a new way of doing business.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixty Two

Susan rolled her eyes at me.

"Well, what do you think?"

"What am I supposed to think?"

"You met her. You interviewed her. What do you think?"

"I think the same things that you do. I think that we need either really strong, connected people or really passionate, engaged people for the work to succeed. She was neither."

"Sort of a deer in the headlights. I wonder what she was told when her manager asked her to speak with us."

"Clearly, not much, since she didn't seem to understand what we were trying to do."

"OK, let's regroup. We are wasting time. That's the third candidate for just one role on our team, and none are close to meeting our needs or expectations. Are we asking too much?"

"Not if this initiative will have any chance of succeeding. We need people who will take a proactive stance and push against the status quo. While she seemed very nice, she is a corporate animal and used to taking orders. We need a few rule breakers and some individuals with real passion for change."

We'd developed our requirements for the team, and taken two actions to build out the team. First, we'd identified our wish list - the people we felt would help us the most and be the most difficult to get. Most of the best people were up to their eyeballs in work, fighting fires and mixing metaphors across the business. I didn't care, I was determined to get two or three of these folks on board, even if only as a steering committee member. The second track we'd pursued was to publicize the roles and they kinds of skills necessary and ask for volunteers. Of course even these folks would need their manager's approval, so what we'd seen so far in terms of potential team members were the inexperienced, the jaded and the checked-out. More direct action was going to be needed soon. It was probably time to rock the boat, and I was sure it wasn't going to be the last time this particular boat would get tipped.

Our demands weren't big. For a central innovation team in a Fortune 2000 firm we were looking for three full time people, and another four or five people who could contribute part-time. We needed people to help spot and track trends and develop long term scenarios, and who could facilitate an innovation process and eventually an idea management solution. We also wanted to interact with Accipiter's HR team so we could begin to change the evaluation schemes to place more emphasis on innovation activities and potential rewards and compensation. We needed subject matter experts to help us evaluate ideas and move them through a pipeline. We needed these skills, but more importantly, we needed people who wanted to work on innovation and would commit to working in the face of inertia, quarterly demands and the resistance to change.

Since casting the nets wasn't working, we decided to fish from the other side of the boat. Susan and I prepared a short list of ten key candidates from across the business, and asked George and Jim to help us interview and attempt to attract at least three of them onto the team. In the end we settled on a rotational program, giving fast risers an opportunity for 18 months to rotate into a position on the innovation team, exercise a wide range of skills, and then move back into a leadership position in a business line or product area. It was our hope that these individuals would become advocates for innovation throughout the business, but that's still to be proved out.

Our first hire on the innovation team was a young lady from IT of all places. She clearly wanted to help the organization change, and was very open to new ideas. She also provided a key skill set, in that she could organize and manage information effectively and helped us get our first intranet site established. Over time Lisa became indispensable, and her innovation skill sets grew rapidly. It was also a validation of our approach that someone from the team thought to be the least innovative became one of the leaders of the innovation effort.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixty One

As a kid, a quick wit and a smart mouth eventually result in a poke in the nose. As one grows older, these tendencies lead one to become the life of the party, or as the acerbic outsider. Smart mouthed, short kids never get chosen in gym, so I knew something about our next task. We were off to do what could be the most trying task of all in an innovation effort - finding the right people who were willing to work on an innovation project.

In my experience, building the team is a lot like the plot line of some of my favorite movies. Assembling the team is very similar to The Dirty Dozen, a Lee Marvin vehicle about a bunch of loser and underachievers sent to do the impossible. Or perhaps it's like the Wild Bunch, a bunch of crooks who end up defending a town against the oppressive strongman. In any metaphor, my experience is that the people you want, and need, on an innovation team rarely have any interest in working on that team, and the people you get are the people that other people think are expendable. Maybe that's the movie title I was looking for - They Were Expendable.

We met later that week to talk about building a team to help flesh out our innovation goals. This would include a permanent central innovation team and a cast of people from the different product lines and business units who would coordinate their innovation efforts with the central team, and help get the initiative off the ground. We knew, going in, that everyone we wanted on the team was already wearing two or three hats and had full time jobs. We also knew that the people we wanted would be very wary of our project, and that we'd be approached by a number of people who actually wanted to be on the innovation team. I knew that we'd want, and need, some of these volunteers. The difficulty was identifying the ones with passion who could add value, and weren't merely tourists.

Susan and I decided on a somewhat unique approach to staffing the team. Actually, it was my idea, but she put the spin on it that made it compelling.

"You've got the list?" I said. We'd built a list of the people within Accipiter we believed could add the most to our team, regardless of their existing role or responsibility.

"Yes. Most of these people are really indispensable to their products or business units. But I can't imagine this project will get much buy-in without at least their support."

"What better way to support a project than to join it?"

"How do we get them to agree?"

"We don't. We ask them to submit an application to join us."

She looked at me with her head twisted sideways.

"What? None of these people will 'request' to join us. We'll be lucky if we can get a few of them part-time."

"Then we, and Accipiter, aren't setting our sights high enough" I said. I knew how important the initial buy-in and staffing of the team would be to the eventual success or failure. I also wasn't about to collect the flotsam and jetsam of the unwanted and unloved as part of my innovation team.

"We interview every person who joins, and we, you and I, agree or reject each person. We need to demonstrate that it is a privilege and a challenge to be on this team. This, this team will make the most dramatic difference at Accipiter."

"You are out of your mind. No one will go for this."

"Let's examine the evidence. Playing by the standard rules has resulted in Accipiter losing market share. The cupboard is bare - there are no compelling new products. Heck, as far as I can tell there are no compelling new ideas that might become products and services. What's Accipiter got to lose if they put some of their best people on this effort?"

"Well, when you put it that way, we've got little to lose. It's just going to cause a lot of upheaval. We'll need to get George and Jim involved again."

No doubt. We weren't going to get all of these folks, but I was determined we'd get some of their best people, and we'd fill in the rest of the team with the most passionate volunteers. Accipiter wasn't going to change if we staffed a team of minor leaguers, has-beens and one or two rapid comers. No, we needed some of the most respected senior folks, and some real die-hard volunteers, or the project would go the way of all the other initatives at Accipiter.

"You know Einstein's definition of insanity?"

"Something about doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results."

"Yep. On this project, we are at least going to try something different. We're going to find out how important innovation is, and how much investment the executive team is willing to make. A small investment know will speak volumes to the company about the commitment to innovation. A big investment will be rocket fuel for us now and later."

"Have you done something like this before - selecting the best people AND asking them to submit applications to be on a team they don't want to join?"

"No, but it needs to be done this way." I could only hope I was right.

"So, your position is that we request a number of the best people in the organization, and allow people to volunteer for the project."

"Yes, and we resist having people dumped on us to demonstrate that a product team has given us a "resource", since most of the time they'll be giving us a resource that isn't their best. Either this project matters and gets good people, or it doesn't."

"OK, I get the demand for senior individuals. What's the value of the volunteers?"

"The senior people have connections and knowledge, and don't expect much to change. The volunteers have passion and ideas, and expect to change everything. Somewhere in the middle of all that is what we really need - connections, ideas and passion. This isn't easy work, and will have many false starts. We need a few people on the team who are true believers, to push the rest of the team when it loses heart."

"Wait. Are we talking about climbing Everest or conducting an innovation project?"

"What's the difference? Both are monumental tasks that require significant planning, good guides and teamwork, and both are subject to huge failures and few clear successes. About the only difference I can see is that no one will fall off an ice field on our project."

"A bit dramatic, don't you think?"

"Machiavelli said once that you should make no small plans, as they have no power to stir the soul. I don't want to do small things that will quietly disappear, and neither do you. And, Accipiter can't afford to fail."

And that was how we built the team that created the concepts that saved Accipiter.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pulp Innovation Chapter Sixty

The sun broke over the hills early that morning and bathed the city in a soft white light, emphasizing the pastels of the buildings and the green of the palms. Or so I was told. I'm never up that early, but the sound of people describing their morning routines and the beauty of the city is always captivating. However, rather than risk disappointment in the breaking of the day, I usually prefer to have it reported to me by others.

That day I felt like I had finally gotten my feet firmly placed on solid ground. All the waffling, dodging and corporate misdirection that had plagued us seemed to be well in the past. It appeared we had a definitive rationale to move ahead and a senior sponsor who was in our corner. We even had a budget and an imperative to move quickly.

Now, I'm not naive. Some would say more likely cynical, but you'd be as well if you walked a mile in my brogans. Working in the innovation game, you discover that virtually any corporate issue, distraction or "fire" becomes immediately more important than the possibility of creating something new over time. I recognized that support today is interesting, and support tomorrow is fleeting, so I was determined to strike while the iron was hot and move quickly to finalize our project plan and kick off the project, before another distraction came hurtling at us. The most common refrain from my clients at this point is: why aren't we further along with this project? We started talking about it six months ago. If talking were doing then I could build a house on words. So far, lots of words and excuses and dodges, but not structure.

That's how I almost saw the sun come up that day. Susan and I were locking ourselves away in a conference room to develop a project plan to create an innovation team and kick off an innovation effort within Accipiter. I think she felt the same, if not even more urgency, than me. There was literally electricity in the air, the sense of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would be fleeting and once gone, was gone for good. She knew, and I knew, that this was our chance.

I met her at the reception and we went immediately to a small conference room near her office. It was clear the pressure was on since the pleasantries were cut to a minimum, and we launched immediately into some sample project plans I'd brought along from my previous work. I'd meant to break the news to her earlier that I planned two concurrent projects, but she noticed the concept before I could couch it.

"Why are we running two projects at the same time?"

"Good morning to you, too."

"OK, sorry, good morning. But the question still remains."

"We are running two projects simultaneously for two very different but equally important goals. One project is meant to build an innovation team and define innovation processes for Accipiter. That's what George and Jim want."

"Right" she said, since this was a recap of the obvious.

"And the second concurrent project is a focused innovation effort in one product line or business area, to use as a test bed for our processes and ideas, and to demonstrate some real deliverables in the next four to six months."

"OK. What you're saying is that the team development and innovation process work won't be complete..."

"And more importantly, won't generate any ideas in the first four or five months. Even if we build a great team and process, we won't have any ideas to show for it, and the most obvious measure of an innovation program is..."

"Ideas. Got it. So we kick off a smaller innovation effort very focused on a product or business and generate and manage ideas in an ad hoc fashion while building the permanent process."

"Right. So we buy time to get our permanent team and process in place and generate ideas with a willing partner in the meantime. And with any luck, we'll have some good results to point to from that work just as our innovation team gets up to speed."

Still a bit uncertain but much more comfortable, she settled in to work. Together we built a plan that called for development of a small, central innovation team, the definition of an innovation process that contained the usual steps: linking to strategy, trend spotting and scenario planning, qualitative customer insights like ethnography, idea generation, idea evaluation and selection and prototyping. We also planned for quarterly and yearly events for managers and executives who had an interest in innovative topics, and a review of idea management software to capture ideas and create internal and external innovation communities. The combination of my plans and experience, and her knowledge of the organization and how it preferred to work meant we were able to create a rough outline of the plan by the end of the day. Now we both needed to refine the plan and make sure it aligned with our goals and the budget we'd been given by Jim.

That night we sat at the bar and told each other old truths and new lies about ourselves and our goals. There was definitely a there, there, but the question remained - what's the risk of getting involved with your client? I decided not to find out the answer to that question, at least that night, and we went home our separate ways. Another morning would break, cool, clear and pastel, and I'd miss it alone.