We’d thrown the gauntlet, so it was our turn to put up or shut up. I glanced at Matt, who nodded slightly. He was in, and so was I, but only if we could convince Accipiter to do it our way.
“Bill” I said “we’ve reached the portion of the meeting where we at Marlow tell you what great innovation experts we are and how we can best help you succeed.”
He nodded, so I took that as a sign to continue.
“Marlow Innovation has been in business for the last six years, focused primarily on building innovation teams and innovation capability. There are a number of facets to innovation success, and we believe that the firms that are successful from an innovation perspective have several key factors in their favor. The significant enablers to innovation are what we like to call the three C’s: compensation, communication and culture.”
Briggs perked up even more at those words. He could tell we felt strongly about influencing the corporate culture. But that was small beer for Marlow Innovation. The real decision maker – Thompson – wasn’t convinced. Also, Johansen seemed less than pleased.
“Communication, culture and, what was it, compensation? What do those have to do with an innovation project?”
No. She didn’t say that. I tried to interject but it was too late. From Matt’s perspective she’d stepped on the third rail, called his baby ugly and asked to do the impossible all in the same sentence. Hard to believe something so innocuous could be so distracting.
“Let’s talk about ‘innovation projects’” Matt said. “We like to think of innovation as a sustainable capability that may help create new products and services. When you focus on using innovation as a tool to create a new product or service that may be a project. However, you can’t simply turn on, or turn off creativity and you’ll find that once you’ve asked people for their ideas, they’ll want to stay engaged. Thinking of innovation as a project is exceptionally risky, since it suggests you can turn these capabilities on and off, and keep your teams engaged.”
Thompson broke in – he could see where this was heading. “Sam” he said “we clearly need help from an innovation perspective. We have some cultural issues, to be sure, and will need help to address those. We also have some significant near term needs that require the development of new products and services. We’ve got to place the emphasis on the development and release of those new products to maintain our position in the marketplace. I think I understand your three C’s concept, but do those factors have to be deployed and worked in conjunction with the development of ideas for new products and services?”
“No” I said, and I saw the relief in his face. “You can focus on new products and services without trying to change the culture.” At this point Briggs became very interested and looked very uncomfortable. “However, what you’ll find is that the innovation teams won’t be willing to create new and interesting ideas. Anything that seems risky, new or uncertain will be immediately rejected. If all you want is one big new product or service idea, call in MacDoman or NorthEast Consulting Team (NCT). They can help from a strategic point of view and will bring back two or three ideas that can become new products and services. That won’t require any cultural change, and probably will result in a new product or service.”
“You’re saying partner with a strategy firm and have them do the research and generate ideas, and present us several product or service ideas, rather than try to ramp up to become more innovative internally” Thompson asked.
I turned to Phillips. “Your firm is a big Seven Schema firm, isn’t it?”
Phillips brightened. “Oh, yes, we’ve deployed it globally”.
“Congratulations. Over what period of time did you deploy the methodology, and how many people are trained in it?”
“We’ve been working with the Seven Schema folks for about four years. We have approximately 100 black belts throughout the organization, and most of the management team has been through green belt training.”
I turned to Thompson and could see the tumblers falling into place. “Bill, you’ve spent years and trained hundreds of people in Seven Schema, which is primarily a cost savings tool for incremental change. Today, you can proudly say that Accipiter is a Seven Schema firm and people understand what that means. It has permeated the culture and the management team has demonstrated its investment by attending the training. Innovation needs the same investment and commitment. You’ve also pointed out that there are some cultural barriers to innovation, yet you don’t want to work on the cultural attitudes of the team to generate new ideas. I have to tell you that I think your team will find it difficult to be successful.”
Johansen spoke up at this point. “What if we create a skunkworks, and recruit the people we want to that team and compensate them differently? Can we expect more innovation from a team that’s separated from the rest of the organization?”
“Yes” Matt said, warming to this subject. “You can isolate a small team and expect them to be more disruptive and more open to innovation. You’ll still need to consider their compensation while they are part of the team, and what they return to when the team is finished, but you will definitely obtain better ideas in that model if you won’t address the cultural and compensation issues more broadly.”
Johansen looked triumphant until I burst the bubble.
“All of that is true” I said “until your team decides to move one of those ideas into product development and discovers that there is no funding, no resources and no one willing to become the product manager for the new product, since none of the rest of the organization was involved. You may create new products in your skunkworks that cannibalize existing products, or that merely threaten existing products. Additionally, your firm, like most, only allocates fund in the annual plan, so more than likely there’s no money set aside for completely new product development schemes, especially ones that the rest of the organization hasn’t been a party to.”
At this point Phillips and Johansen were frowning, Briggs looked perplexed and Thompson was shifting in his seat, ready to go to his next meeting.
“Mr. Marlow” Thompson said “we need to discuss our approach for innovation internally. As we’ve told you previously, there are several other candidate firms we wish to speak with as well. We greatly appreciate your time today and we’ll follow up with you in a week or so, as we make decisions about how to proceed.”
“Mr. Thompson, Fred, Susan, Tom” I said “we thank you for your time. I wish you the best of luck with this project, and want you to know we at Marlow would be happy to work with you. Please contact me if you have any questions as you consider whether or not to work with a consulting firm.”
With that we exchanged the usual pleasantries, performed the ritual card exchange, moved slowly out the door and down the hallway to the atrium. Matt and I returned our badges to the security desk and walked out into the bright morning sun.
“What do you think?” Matt asked me.
“No way of knowing” I said. “Don’t know whether the need for new products and services is so acute that they’ll be willing to change their culture. Perhaps a skunkworks will work. It may be the best solution for them in the short run.”
I slid into the driver’s seat and turned to him. “Mexican or Chinese?”
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.