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.

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