“Yes” he said, and we both knew what that meant. It meant Juan Changs, the blessed union of Mexican and Chinese that only a city like Los Angeles could produce. Not one of those phony “fusion” restaurants dressed up for tourists and yuppies, but an honest to goodness Mexican-Chinese restaurant that had been founded when neither food was in vogue.
We slid into a high backed booth and ordered from slightly sticky plastic coated menus. I had the Kung Pao Chicken with a side of tamales, while Matt favored ceviche with hot and sour soup. A cold Tecate helped wash down the frustration from our meeting with Accipiter.
“They’ll never call” said Matt. “They don’t have the discipline or the desire to change their culture enough to be successful at a sustained innovation program.”
“Accipiter needs new products” I said “and may simply create a short term program to use some innovation tools to generate new ideas. They’ll call that ‘innovation’ but it won’t be very successful, since they won’t stretch their thinking or take many risks.”
“Did you know they were so invested in Seven Schema and cost cutting?”
“I knew they were invested in Seven Schema, but I don’t see that as a problem. I think innovation and Seven Schema or continuous improvement can exist, side by side, in the right companies.”
Matt eyed me curiously, so I continued.
“Look, there’s innovation that makes your firm really interesting and disruptive. That only happens in firms that are willing to change and take risks, and it doesn’t happen every quarter. You can’t predict disruptive innovation. Then there’s innovation that keeps the organization humming along. That’s incremental innovation – real changes to existing products and services. Then there’s continuous improvement – generating ideas to cut costs or improve efficiency. The problem is that too many executives want disruptive innovation but are comfortable with continuous improvement – they confuse the purpose of Seven Schema with the need for disruptive innovation.”
Matt only nodded at this explanation. I think he bought about half of it, and thought the rest was some seat of the booth thinking. He was probably right at that.
“What I’d like to see, just once” he said “is a firm that understands the importance of the culture. When people point to firms like Apple, they think there is some mysterious force at work. I think a significant portion of their success is tied up in the way Jobs directs the firm, makes decisions and pushes the organization for innovation. You can’t work there and not have an innovation expectation.”
“No doubt” I said “but many of the executives have risen through the ranks meeting revenue goals and cost containment goals quarter on quarter. That’s what Wall Street expects, and that’s how they are measured. Most aren’t rewarded by taking what looks like a big gamble.”
We’d finished our lunches and pushed the plates to the center of the table. A second Tecate was calling faintly to me as the dregs of the first were sloshed around in the glass. Matt stepped out of the booth to pay for our lunches, and my phone rang.
“Marlow” I said.
“Mr. Marlow, this is Susan Johansen — we met today in our discussion here at Accipiter.” I wondered if the woman felt I had faulty short term memory. Perhaps all of us innovation consultants seem a bit addled.
“Yes, Susan. We enjoyed meeting you and your team. How can I help you?”
“I want you to know that Accipiter needs to hear what you and your colleague have to say. Bill needs to hear it, Fred needs to hear it. We’ve become so careful and so safe in our decision making, and so concerned about Wall Street that we’re failing to work aggressively to ensure the future of the company.”
I mumbled some vague and reassuring statements. I was trying to decide what her angle was, especially since I hoped to win some consulting business with her firm. She clearly was passionate, but I didn’t think she was the decision maker. Phillips was clearly an influencer, and Thompson would probably have to find the cash.
“I wanted you to know that after the meeting, we sat and talked for close to 30 minutes. I’ve never had that much time with Bill. Clearly he understands the need for innovation, but he doesn’t understand the challenges we face and the investment necessary to get an innovation initiative off the ground.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, what was Fred’s take on the meeting?”
“Fred is deeply invested in Seven Schema, and believes that methodology can be successful for much of what we need, but I think he recognizes that we need new products. Seven Schema won’t help us there. Fred’s probably not going to do anything to disrupt Seven Schema and the investment we have in that, but I don’t think he’ll do anything to block an innovation project.”
I still didn’t understand the purpose for the call, and I didn’t want to talk myself into a corner if there was an eventual opportunity at Accipiter.
“Susan, I assume that you want the innovation project to move faster. Is that the case?” I was buying time and information like a wealthy man buys medical care in his last days.
“I want this project to succeed, for my own success and for Accipiter. I need your help to sell this internally. Sam, we need this, and I need this. If we don’t move on innovation soon, Accipiter will probably become a takeover target. I see this as the last real chance for change, and I want to grab it.”
I agreed with her and begged off, claiming a previous engagement. Johansen was offering to be our inside influencer, but we’d yet to decide if this was work we wanted to win. Having someone on the inside is always helpful, but I’d have preferred any of the other participants. She was clearly the low man on the totem pole in the room.
Matt slid in across from me and gave me that quizzical look.
“New developments at Accipiter” I said and nodded toward the door. “I’ll fill you in while we drive back to the office”.
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.