Bill Thompson walked into the conference room. He had a presence that I’ve usually associated only with big city politicians and high level mob bosses. There was an aura about him that oozed control. He had what a good friend calls “executive hair”, every strand numbered and lying in its apportioned place. He had a newscaster’s jaw and the physique of a distance runner. His skin was perfect, like George Hamilton and his suit was tailored to show off his athletic build. Like an actor in a well-rehearsed play, he hit his spots and the audience was drawn to him. Without a word of apology he sat gracefully in the chair opposite me and said “Where are we?”
No notice or apology for keeping us waiting over 45 minutes. No notice of a rather interesting dialog that was underway. We were going to reset our discussion to his timing and expectations. Well, I thought to myself, it’s good to be king.
“Bill” said Briggs “this is Sam Marlow and his associate Matt from Marlow Innovation. We were providing some background on our needs from an innovation perspective.” Briggs seemed more at ease now that Thompson was in the room, as if his mere presence would somehow balance the many competing interests that we’d discussed so far.
“Mr. Marlow” started Thompson.
“Please, I’m Sam and this is Matt.”
“Sam, thanks to you and Matt for coming out today. I’ll assume that Fred, Tom and Susan have given you a sense of the goals we have for Accipiter and for innovation. Your work comes highly recommended by Tom, and of course we’ve seen your recent publications. Can you tell us about Marlow Innovation and your experience?”
How do you tell someone about making the decision to become an innovation consultant? There are a thousand stories in the street, and most of them start with a dream. Mine was to see more firms get better at something I couldn’t believe they weren’t good at. The importance of innovation seemed so obvious to me, the lifeblood of any company, yet firm after firm had lost the innovation gene, become comfortable and complacent. Meanwhile brash upstarts, entrants from other geographies and markets constantly blindsided the firms like Accipiter. How do you describe your start in a field that seems self-evident to you?
“Matt and I started working in the innovation space over ten years ago, in the product development team of Xcelent Industries. Over time we grew convinced that we could package a suite of products and services to offer other firms that were in the same shape as Xcelent. Once we completed several innovation projects at Xcelent we decided to form our own company to provide innovation consulting services based on what we’d learned, and best practices. Since then we’ve worked for a number of different firms in a range of industries.”
“I see. What makes Marlow Innovation different, or better, than other innovation consultants?”
“Bill, there are as many different consulting firms as there are perspectives on innovation. We compete with the big strategy houses, the integrated consulting firms, ad agencies, design firms and a host of other consulting firms. Every one of those firms will tell you that their approach is what’s important. Design firms will focus on design and customer experience. They’ll approach every problem with a design perspective. Ad firms and marketing agencies will talk about positioning and marketing strategy. Firms that have brainstorming experience will advocate brainstorming as a solution. What makes Marlow unique from all of those firms is that we advocate a consistent methodology and innovation capability. We believe innovation is a business discipline. We seek to build, with your team, an innovation program that is sustainable, repeatable and focused on your strategies and goals.”
“Yes, we’ve talked to Antelope, the design firm and Adventure, the big consultants. Adventure installed and runs our ERP system. They have some experience in innovation but so far it’s not clear the value proposition they provide. Antelope does a lot of design work for some of our product teams, and they do bring a certain design sensibility to the table, but again it’s not clear they can help us fulfill what I think we need.”
“Accipiter is under significant pressure from Tynder and other firms in our space. We’ve had several new product launches or introductions in the last few years that were either late to the market or missed the market completely, or that were simply ignored. We need to regain some of the original focus of our founders, to reach back to when they were in a small shop and struggling to create their first products. We’ve lost that edge, and we need to regain a more innovative focus within Accipiter. We need to launch some very disruptive and valuable new products or our market share, and more importantly our share price, will suffer.”
What could I do but nod? Change a few words here and there, recast the founders’ story slightly and this same pitch could have come from any of our previous three clients. Everyone’s unique, and every firm is the same in the end. Tolstoy had it right. Every happy family is alike, and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
“How can we help you, Bill?”
“You’ll see, Sam, that I’ve asked Fred and Susan and Tom to join us. We have a big challenge and we need to understand what to prioritize and what to focus on. Our CEO, Angus Dowdy, is talking to the Street about our new focus on innovation. We’ll need to back that up with some new products and services soon. With the current market conditions, we don’t have a significant budget for new development, but we can scrape something together. All of the executives you see before you are very busy, and will be available less than 30% of their time, except for Susan, who we’ve freed up for this initiative. We can’t afford several projects working in parallel to achieve many of the same goals.”
I could see where this was headed, so I reached the pass first and reined in Bill before he could set any further restrictions and scope.
“Bill, I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about your innovation needs. However, in just the few minutes that we’ve been talking, you’ve set a rather high goal for innovation – creating some disruptive new products and services, but you’ve suggested that the funds and the resources are limited. We at Marlow work on a partnership model – that is, we work with you to build a team and educate them on a process so that they can successfully innovate, now and in the future. To do these things takes time, and money, and people, and won’t necessarily deliver a fast result. Perhaps we should recommend to you a firm that can come in, do some quick brainstorming to generate a few new ideas that can be converted relatively quickly to new products, and that will solve your challenges.”
Bill glanced at Fred, who shrugged and said “We’ve done that already. Last quarter we brought in a firm to do some brainstorming with one of our product teams. I can’t say it was successful.”
“Why do you think it was less than successful” I asked, thinking it was either poorly framed, poorly led or too incremental.
“Most of the ideas that were generated seemed old and rehashed, ideas that were already here. It became a way to document ideas that had already been considered and rejected, rather than generate new or disruptive ideas.”
“Why do you think it happened that way?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Marlow. What do you think?” Phillips’ neck just above the color had started pink and was now going to red.
If there’s one thing I believe in, it’s reaching a quick conclusion. I’d rather have the fast “no” than the long maybe, so I plunged right in.
“Our experience, Fred, indicates that brainstorming is often difficult unless it is well framed. That is, the individuals participating understand the end goal and the scope of the effort. Secondly, if the prevailing culture of the firm has been to reward incremental ideas and reject disruptive or really new ideas, then you can count on getting the kinds of ideas that you have in the past. Additionally, our experience is that many brainstorms start with all of the ideas that have been floating around in people’s heads, ideas that have been considered and rejected before. It takes real work to think up new ideas. All of these factors will contribute to a less than successful brainstorm.”
“But what you are suggesting is that the corporate culture gets in the way, regardless of what we tell the teams we want” said Briggs.
I turned to him but Matt beat me to it.
“Corporate culture is the biggest roadblock to innovation, bar none. It’s more important than the people you assign, it’s more important than the resources you provide or the money you spend. Innovative firms have cultures that encourage, even embrace innovation, and risk, and change. Most firms don’t have these features in their culture – in fact most cultures specifically reinforce safety, consistency and predictability.”
Briggs looked happier than I’d seen him look since we entered the room.