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.