The perky Chihuahua led us through the hushed hallways of Accipter’s headquarters and parked us in a conference room adjacent to Bill Thompson’s office. We passed a display of Accipiter products, gleaming brightly in a glass case, like specimens in a museum. Given the inertia I’d seen so far, perhaps the Accipiter logo would soon be placed behind the glass as well, to collect dust for future museum visitors to review, to wonder “What ever happened to Accipiter?”
“They couldn’t adapt to new technologies. Like the buggy whip makers they didn’t see the changes on the horizon.”
We entered the conference room. It was a standard issue corporate conference room with dark paneled walls, an overlarge table topped with coffee and sliced fruit. Low high backed leather chairs circled the table. Three of the chairs were occupied when we entered.
A tall, thin, nervous looking man popped up quickly out of one of the chairs, as if he’d been caught trying out the boss’s seat.
“Mr. Marlow, I’m Tom Briggs” he said. “You’ll recall we spoke a few days ago about innovation.”
“Yes, I said. Pleased to meet you Mr. Briggs”. I shot a glance at Matt. This was the same Briggs who had informed me that Thompson couldn’t meet with us for weeks. “This is my associate, Matt Thompson. Matt, meet Tom Briggs.”
Briggs went into MC mode, introducing his two compatriots.
He turned first to a short, dark gentleman across the table. “This is Fred Phillips. Fred heads up all product development.” I nodded at Fred, since the table was at least 10 feet wide. “And this is Susan Johansen” he said. “Susan has been selected to head up our innovation program.
Phillips had a cool, confident look about him, a look I was very familiar with. He was a skeptic about innovation, through and through. I pegged him as the Seven Schema advocate in the room, but with his role as head of product development, he’d be important for any product innovation we’d want to do.
Johansen, on the other hand, struck me as out of her element. In a fairly staid, conservative company she stood out in that boardroom, brassy, blonde and just a bit too fashionable for her own good. She was a character, a climber. That could be good in an innovation role, or disastrous if she couldn’t play the politics correctly. Neither struck me as having the perspectives or skills necessary to lead an innovation effort, but that was first glance thinking.
“Nice to meet you Ms. Johansen” I said.
“I’m looking forward to our discussions today Mr. Marlow” she said.
“Call me Sam. We tend to be fairly informal.”
Briggs glanced around the table and offered us coffee and fruit. He began what I suspected was a well rehearsed apology for Thompson. “I can’t imagine what’s keeping Mr. Thompson” he said. “I’ll check with Carol about his calendar.” As he left the room I’d swear a kilowatt of nervous energy left with him.
In the vacuum left by Thompson’s departure I turned to Susan and Fred and started to introduce Marlow Innovation.
“We, Matt and I, head up a small innovation company here in town. We’re not the biggest, but we do believe we are the best, especially when firms are having trouble getting started on an innovation journey” I said. “Do you care to give us some insights on what your goals are while we wait for Bill and Tom?”
Susan shot a glance at Fred Phillips who gave a barely perceptible nod, almost a dispensation. Clearly Phillips had rank, but was offering to allow Johansen the opportunity to set the stage for us until Thompson joined the meeting.
“Accipiter has a long history of successful product innovation and introduction” she said, working straight from the PR script. “However, over the last few years we’ve seen our product life cycles extend. Our new product pipeline has dried up significantly and we’re being outpaced in the market by Tynder and other competitors.”
At the mention of Tynder Phillips shifted irritably in his seat, as if suddenly discovering a loose spring.
“We’ve had several discussions with other “innovation” firms (yes she did use the finger quotes) and also had Krishna in to speak to our board of directors. We understand that we need to be more innovative and recapture some of the founders’ vision for Accipiter, but we aren’t sure how to do it or where to begin.”
Phillips’ face grew more twisted as the discussion went on, as if he was munching on a very sour lemon. It took little to see how painful the discussion was for him. It wasn’t clear at this point if he was the problem or one of the solution points.
Johansen continued “Over the last few years we’ve implemented Lean and Seven Schema, and the programs have done wonders for our quality. Fred, Tom and I are all Black Belts, and the entire senior management team has received the training.”
I glanced at Phillips and he beamed. “My team” he said “scored the highest on the tests and has identified over 100 type one and type two issues which we’ve resolved, savings the firm hundreds of thousands of dollars. We were recently written up in Seven Schema Solutions. Did you see the article?”
“No” I said “I’m afraid I don’t regularly read that journal.” In fact I keep a stack of copies that I use for kindling on the few occasions I get to use the fireplace.
“I happen to have a copy with me.”
“I’d be happy to review it, and congratulations on your accomplishment.”
Matt shot me the “I’ve seen this play before” glance and made me wish I’d had more time on the phone with Thompson as Tom Briggs re-entered, looking more distracted and anxious than ever.
“Carol tells me that Bill is still tied up on a call with the director of one of our biggest plants. He should be finished any minute.”
No surprise. We were 30 minutes into our planned hour long meeting and had already identified a couple of significant issues – a corporate focus on Seven Schema had been too successful and reduced opportunities for risk and variance, and a successful product line had built complacency about the market just as Tynder was coming on strong. Inertia, complacency and a focus on cost cutting and eliminating variance and waste. Nothing necessarily wrong with any of that, except that these factors were consistent barriers to innovation in all the firms we worked with.
Johansen continued “We know we need to speed up our innovation efforts. We’ve done a terrific job cutting costs and improving our operational effectiveness. We’ve achieved most of our profit goals over the last few quarters, but almost entirely on cost cutting. Our top line is flat. Our research shows we have one of the leanest, most efficient manufacturing processes in our industry. However we need to introduce more new products and services to kick start new growth and recapture some of the share we’ve lost to Tynder and others. If we can combine a consistent innovative pipeline with our manufacturing and distribution capabilities, we can easily retake the leadership position in our industry from Tynder.”
“What’s going to be required to change the dynamic?”
“We need some really disruptive ideas that can shake up this industry” she said. “Tynder has been aggressive about releasing new products and in some cases has developed new business models. We can’t simply create some incremental products and hope to catch Tynder. We need disruptive ideas and we need to implement them quickly and effectively.”
At this point both Phillips and Briggs were shifting in their seats, nervously eyeing the doorway. I think they were both hoping Thompson would come in, shut down this line of discussion and take us back to more safe, comfortable discussion.
“Susan, tell me about your role here at Accipiter and how that maps to innovation.”
She glanced at Fred, who sighed and nodded. At this point Fred seemed almost deflated, as if he were giving up something of value.
“I’ve been working for Accipiter for almost eight years” she said “most of them in new product development. For the last two years I’ve worked with Fred to streamline and improve our product development pipeline. Last month Fred and Bill asked me to move into a corporate role, as director of innovation. My primary focus is on new product innovation, but we also are very interested in working on innovations for services and possibly to innovate around our business model.”
At this point, Fred stood up and poured himself a cup of coffee, and walked to the picture windows at the end of the room. He seemed captivated by the lawn care specialist trimming the hedge just a few feet away. His abrupt movement caught Susan off-guard and she faltered slightly.
“Of course most of our early innovation work will be focused on product innovation” she said.
Briggs glanced from Susan to Phillips and then to me. “I’ll step out to check on Bill again” he said.
Matt spoke up for the first time.
“So, what we have at Accipiter is a company with a long history of great product innovation and development that needs to re-kindle some of that innovative spirit. Clearly the goal is to focus on disruptive innovation for your products, and possibly for services and business models. What’s the corporate culture here at Accipiter, and how does that influence innovation?”
Fred turned and glanced at Susan. She in turn glanced at Briggs, who had just re-entered.
“Tom” she said, “would you like to tell the Marlow folks about our corporate culture and how that influences innovation?”
Briggs seemed to choke slightly on his coffee as he regained his seat.