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.

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