Bill looked a bit pained.
“We understand that our corporate culture is probably not as conducive to innovation as it could be. However” he said, glancing first at Phillips and then at Briggs “our immediate goals are for new products and services. We can start an initiative to work on the culture, but generating new products and services has to take top priority. That’s why Susan and Fred are here, in this meeting.”
“By ‘new products and services’” I said, “Do you mean incremental changes to existing products and services or do you mean radical and disruptive innovation?”
“Mr. Marlow, we’ve tried the incremental approach” Bill said, nodding at Fred.
Fred nodded back, clearly uncomfortable with the direction of the discussion but backed into a corner.
“Our focus on Seven Schema has meant we’ve become very good at very incremental ideas. However, those ideas rarely create new revenue or new products. We need some new, game changing products and services, and we need them relatively quickly. Our product development pipeline looks fairly weak and our last few introductions have not been what we’d hoped. Those facts, along with the products that our competitors are releasing, place great pressure on us to get something done quickly.”
Quickly. The quarterly drumbeat was about to be introduced to our musical ensemble.
“What’s ‘quickly’? From your perspective, when should we have these new products or services ready for market?”
“I’d like something in the market by the fourth quarter of this year. I know that’s challenging but we need to respond now.”
There’s a corporate survival technique that allows successful managers to express surprise without either arching their eyebrows or dropping their jaws. I never mastered it, which is why I’m a consultant. But in this instance, even the experienced practitioners forgot to master their facial expressions, and eyebrows were raised throughout the room at Thompson’s statements.
Johansen, whose fate would rest on the result of this effort, seemed poised to spring right out of her seat. Phillips, on the other hand, ducked his head but had a twisted, half smile on his face. He didn’t need to speak his mind, his opinion of the effort and timeframe were written on his face. I decided to deconstruct the problem.
“Bill” I said “give me some sense of your current innovation pipeline. We are into the second quarter, so based on your request we are less than three quarters away from your goal. Does your team have any really interesting ideas or compelling customer insights that we can explore?”
“Sam” he said “This is the first official meeting of the Accipiter innovation team. We are in the process of interviewing several consulting firms to determine our best approach, and we’ll need to staff the team up once we select a consulting partner. Other than that, I doubt we have many compelling insights, trends or ideas that can become game changing products in a couple of quarters.”
Susan was nodding so vigorously at this point I thought perhaps a session of the DTs had kicked in.
“We’ll need to work through an entire innovation program and then move through product or service development, prototyping and piloting then on to the launch of a new product or service.”
“When I looked through your annual reports” I said “It seems to me that you have a six to nine month product development and launch cycle, at a minimum. That would be true for new releases of existing products. Would that be about correct?”
Fred nodded. “We’ve got a fairly well defined “path-portal” process in place. I’m sure you are familiar with that methodology?”
I was and I am. Path-portal, like Seven Schema and a number of other management tools and techniques, had made its way through the manufacturing organizations we’d worked with. A great methodology for creating a new product or service once the idea has been shaped and formed, but relatively unhelpful for identifying customer needs, tracking trends and generating ideas. A fine product development methodology, meant to create a more systematic product commercialization roadmap, but not especially useful for innovation. So Accipiter was constrained by both Seven Schema and path-portal. In other words, a lean, mean product development machine with no insights. Sort of like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. If they only had a brain.
“OK” I said, trying to sum up “Accipiter needs new products and services this year, but has no innovation methodology, and a six to nine month product development cycle for proven products. There is little to no customer insight or trend spotting going on, so the idea cupboard is relatively bare. There’s significant emphasis on innovation but no resources in place and little budget. Have I summed that up reasonably correctly?”
I got the sense that Bill had overcome his initial shock at my directness, and in fact was actually coming to appreciate my candor. Fred and Tom, on the other hand, looked a bit shocked as I confronted the naked emperor about his threads. Johansen was waiting and watching, like a prisoner condemned to the plank, waiting for Errol Flynn to swoop down and snatch her away from this disaster at any moment. I had the distinct impression that she wanted to lead this innovation effort, regardless of its outcome.
“I think you’ll find we can apply the appropriate resources and will ramp up very quickly Mr. Marlow. Accipiter has a great record of rising to challenges such as these, and we’ll do so again. Let’s shift the discussion from our readiness and capability to what Marlow Innovation can do to help us achieve these goals.”
Thompson was saddled up and ready to tilt. The gauntlet had been thrown. We’d gotten as much from him as we were likely to get today. We’d challenged his firm in the ring and he had accepted. The sparring would begin soon. However, both of us knew that we’d have to arrive at a conclusion fairly quickly. Could we shape this project to become something that would be successful for Accipiter and for us, or should we take my father’s advice and get out of the way of a man on fire?
Jeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.
Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.