The face that confronted me was weary and lined. It demonstrated evidence of rough living, little sleep and abuse somewhere in the past. The nose was bent slightly out of true, as if it had been wrenched to the side. Dark circles under the eyes gave the face a haggard, hangdog expression. It could have been a handsome face. It was a handsome face once, before I took on the life of an innovation consultant.
After the royal summons, I finished my cigarette and called my trusty sidekick, Matt Downing. Matt gave me roughly the same treatment over the phone as I had given Bill Thompson. No one likes to be woken early with a brusque summons to a meeting, ill-slept and ill-prepared. Matt and I are a two man team. Matt is what we’ll call a synthesizer – he can organize ideas and facts and lay out a plan of action in no time. Fairly amazing for a guy who can’t seem to match his shoes to his belt on a good day. Matt and I have teamed on a number of these engagements. I’ve found that four ears are better than two, and when I stumble with the quick patter, Matt’s right there with an honest quip. Witty sayings and consultant speak are definitely expected by our clients, and we aim to please.
“Matt” I said, “We’ve got a meeting with the COO of Accipiter. Yes, the same issues. His CEO needs innovation like yesterday. Put on your miracle worker hat and meet me at their offices at 9:30.”
I listened to him grumble and groan for a moment, then said “We’ll lay out a plan of attack when we get there” and hung up the phone. Matt has another gig later in the day, a scenario planning workshop for an aerospace firm. Hopefully, he did his prep work yesterday.
While shaving it occurred to me that I knew little about Accipiter, so I made a note to check out their product lines before I left the apartment. What I knew for sure was that Accipiter was a conglomerate, made up of a number of firms that produced manufacturing equipment for the defense industry. I knew just enough to be dangerous, and that’s the way I preferred it. I never considered myself an expert in any industry – that puts you too close to the action. An expert in an industry is one who often has difficulty recognizing the changes that are happening just around the corner, and gets locked into the rightness of his thinking and position, just as the industry is changing. No, we at Marlow Innovation believe that innovation is a consistent capability or a discipline, something that any firm or industry can adopt. Innovation doesn’t care about industries or markets. Innovation is its own process, unyielding to the existing requirements and to a certain extent amoral. It doesn’t care about your investments or sacred cows – in fact it will seek them out to destroy them. Innovation is like a leading lady in a cheap detective film, alluring but full of danger and unanswered questions. Like moths to a flame we are drawn to her, yet we often recoil when we understand the costs.
My meeting prep consisted of a short investigation into Accipiter Industries. It was a fine company with a long legacy of success. Probably a little too successful, a little too comfortable for the changes. In the last few years Tynder Enterprises and a few other smaller firms had chipped away at Accipter’s markets and customers. Over the last six months, the analysts on Wall Street had stepped up their comments on the need for new products from Accipiter, and the stock had been falling steadily for months. It was the classic situation – a former high flier that had become safe and comfortable, and now found itself the subject of a number of attacks and disruptions. The management team was made up primarily of men and women with long tenure, few of whom had worked in other industries. From the reports I could find, Accipiter seemed fairly insular, promoting from within and relying primarily on its own research, rarely partnering or working with customers effectively. A closed, safe, content culture, ripe for disruption.
A cup of coffee and some dry toast settled my stomach and I was off. I had my briefcase, which contained some business cards and a few success stories that described the work we’d done and the results we’d accomplished in a few similar firms. And a consulting contract – if Thompson was serious we’d close the deal today. The tools of my trade, at least at this point in the process, involve detective spade work, to understand the real needs and the depth of the urgency of the customer, and the ability to tell stories about the work we’ve done previously, and how that work might relate to the needs of my newest prospect. Industry to industry, firm to firm, many of the challenges are the same – too comfortable, too risk averse, too set in the old ways, unwilling to challenge the status quo. No matter how technically advanced or how innovative they once were, many of these firms have simply exercised themselves of the people who experiment and seek new, different methods. The high religion of operational excellence has become the mantra, and that demanding religion requires a tight adherence to consistency, limiting variance and controlling risk. These concepts are great if you want to turn out a lot of very high quality ball bearings, but these attributes often stifle any innovative thinking.
I could see that Matt and I would have our work cut out for us. Accipiter had broadly adopted the Seven Schema program, which meant tight controls and limited variance in all of the operating processes. Seven Schema black belts would probably pervade the entire organization, influencing how people were evaluated and compensated. I knew we’d need to probe this with Bill in the meeting.
At the Accipiter headquarters building I turned into the parking area and spoke to the guard. “Marlow” I said “From Marlow Innovation. I’m here for a 10am appointment with Bill Thompson.”
He seemed unimpressed, as if all hangdog innovation consultants were all the same, and he saw any number of them every day of the week.
“Park in spot 34. Thompson is in Building Three, just to the left of the fountain. Check in with the guard there and get a building pass.”
I met Matt on the way in, and we sat in a quiet corner of the lobby. We used the few minutes before our meeting to plan our discussion with Bill.