Bill Thompson, the COO of a large conglomerate, woke that day with a start. The smell of stale cigarettes and cheap perfume wafted through the air. His breakfast – Cheerios and a banana to help watch his cholesterol – was interrupted by breaking news on CNN. His major competitor was on the air, announcing record profits and new products, attributing the success to innovation.
“I’ve got to get me some of that” he thought.
The phone rang in the reception area. The girl in front took the call and patched it through to me. “Marlow” I said.
“Mr. Marlow, this is Carol Abelson from Accipiter, Bill Thompson’s assistant. He wants to meet with you as soon as possible. We’ve fallen behind our competitors and we need innovation now. When can you come?”
“Well doll, I’m busy with some brainstorming and scenario planning for another firm this week, but I can meet with Bill on Tuesday, say 9am.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, but Bill is booked and can’t possibly meet with you for two months. What does June look like for you?”
“I thought you said this was important” I said, clenching an unlit Cuban in my teeth, the taste of Old Granddad still coursing down my throat.
“It is – it’s just that Bill has many other priorities. Perhaps we can schedule a meeting with one of his direct reports. I’ll have Tom Briggs call you to set an initial meeting.”
I’m Marlow, and I help firms get out of difficult situations. Not with a gun or a badge, but with innovation tools – brainstorming, idea generation, training and the like. Yes, it’s a difficult, solitary existence, but one I like. I get all the tough cases, the difficult, dirty work, turning around one firm after another after they’ve fallen off the innovation wagon, gotten too complacent and lost their way. Firms that were once innovation leaders, looking for the quick return to grace. Or firms that never were leaders and hope to become innovative now. And the sad sacks, those firms that have missed the window and are using innovation in a desperate attempt to remain viable.
Tom called and scheduled a meeting later that week.
“We need to get some new, radical ideas that can help us create new products and services” said Tom, looking slightly shaken after reviewing the stock ticker. “We’ve lost our edge, and we need help. What will it take to get some disruptive innovation in here fast?”
“No problem. I’ll need a few of your best people who can break away from their work for a few months to examine the best opportunities, identify some unmet customer needs and work on scenarios. My team will investigate some trends and together we’ll identify the best possible opportunities. How do you feel about cannibalizing your own products, or radically disrupting your market?”
“Mr. Marlowe, this isn’t a joke. That kind of investment in manpower is reserved only for major initiatives, and we’d need to be very careful about dramatic change. Can’t we run a brainstorm or two and generate a few interesting ideas quickly? Do we have to make this a big commitment? Can we keep this under wraps?”
The fear hung on him like a two dollar suit. Cold flop sweat was already breaking out on his brow. I could see it would be the same as before, a joe who needed my help but wasn’t ready to face the costs, in time, in dollars or in lives. I lit a Camel, slowly pulled in the sweet smoke and exhaled, breathing fiery brimstone like a resurrected soul from purgatory. In that one moment I violated his personal space and about three smoking ordinances, but I didn’t care.
“Look Tom, don’t waste my time. Bill needs the big fix, and he needs it fast. That means people, and risk, and money. You don’t get the big ideas by standing on the sidelines. You’ve got to be in the game, working the ideas. No big risk, no big reward. Are you in or are you out?”
Tom paused. In the hermetically sealed conference room, no sound filtered in. I could have heard my own heart beating, but I’m not sure it was. I could see him totting up the costs in his head, balancing the risks and the rewards. I knew what was coming next – the half-measure.
“What if we gave you one or two people, for a week or so, for a few hours a day. Could you come up with something interesting, even radical, but safe and within our current business model? We want the big payoff, but the risk and the change to our business models are too difficult.”
“Risk? You’re businesses are already at risk. You competitor is stealing your market share like a smiling politician, out in the open. He’s pocketing your cash and dating your daughter. Get a grip man. The way to disruptive innovation lies through the dark valley of big change, big investment and risk. You need someone with experience, a shamus to guide you through. It won’t be easy or pretty, but we can get you to the other side.”
Asking a company man, a man used to soft work behind a desk, who never risked anything other than a lunch appointment, to take that news to his boss, well, that might have been too much for any mid level flunky. But the truth’s the truth, spoken by a two bit innovation consultant or from the working end of a PowerPoint presentation.
“We’ll get back to you, Marlowe. I can see that your approach will require a significant investment and force us to think differently. We’d prefer to use our existing methods and investments. We have our investors to think of, and a profile in our marketplace. Our customers and investors expect certain things from us.
“How’s that working for you so far” I asked, already aware that their stock had fallen another 15%.
“It’s not a question of how well our processes and models are working, it’s a question of changing the culture to face the risk of change.” By now the meeting was over. Tom was already consigning himself and his firm to the dustbin of history, unwilling to make significant changes now, knowing that the eventual outcome could only end in disaster.
“Tom” I said. “Look at it this way. In a year or two, if you don’t change, it won’t matter. Your competitors will continue to innovate and your firm will be forced to leave this market or will be bought for cheap. Either way, you’ll change. It will just be a question of change that you create or change that’s forced on you. Call me when you decide that you want to lead that change”.
I turned and walked down the hall. I tried to imagine Tom’s life. A corporate man through and through. Gray suit, black shoes. Neat desk with pictures of his kids. A quiet, safe job in a stodgy company. Holding on until retirement. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, said Thoreau, and go to their graves with the song still in them. Most aren’t ready or able to step out on faith in uncharted waters and dark innovation alleys. They aren’t prepared for the ambiguous and uncertain. They go through their days not making decisions, not causing waves, just holding on. They need guys like Marlowe to do the dirty work. While my song may be a bit ragged and off key, I’m out there singing it every day.
It was five o’clock somewhere and I couldn’t overcome the melancholy that Briggs had foisted on me. I left his office and entered the first cheap speakeasy I could find. The sense of fear and helplessness clung to me like mud on my shoes. A stiff drink and a glance at Christensen brought me back to my senses. Building a safe innovation program, I said to myself, the definition of an oxymoron.