The call, when it came, was both what I expected and what I feared. It came, not from Thompson but from Phillips. Phillips called not to suggest we move forward on an innovation project, but wanting to know more about idea management software.
“Marlow” I answered as Jane patched the call into my office.
“Mr. Marlow, Fred Phillips. We met with Bill and Susan in the discussion on innovation at Accipiter.”
“Yes, Fred. How are you today?”
“I’m fine. I hope you are the same.”
Not really. Not when you are expecting a call from the big dog and the guy at the end of the call you eventually receive seems the least interested in what you have to offer. I thought that Matt had probably been right, that Accipiter wasn’t in enough trouble yet to recognize they needed us.
“I’m doing well” I said, choking down the last dregs of my day old coffee and shoving the still smoldering butt of a cigarette into the ashtray. Those actions seemed to give the lie to my statement, if only momentarily.
“I’ve called you today to talk with you about a particular interest of mine in regards to innovation” Phillips said. “I’d like to know what you know about idea management software.”
My stomach, which was already complaining about day old, cold coffee, lurched and I shifted quickly in my seat. So this was the call I had feared, the distraction that could take weeks to recover from.
“Fred” I said “in our business we’ve worked with a lot of innovative firms, and many of them have used idea management software effectively. However, I think it best to set the expectation with you that most of the firms that have been successful with idea management software have a fairly robust innovation process, and a committed team. I’m not sure that’s yet the case at Accipiter, and you may be putting the cart before the horse, so to speak.”
In fact if Accipiter started down the software path in the state they were in currently, I’d predict a significant project resulting in a perfectly functional idea management software application that no one understood how to use. The team would generate a few ideas and then watch them carefully, waiting for the idea management software to work its magic. After a few months of little or no activity, the software would be abandoned, not because the software failed, but because there was no sustaining process around the software. Without a defined process and people trained to manage and evaluate the ideas, little progress would be made. After a few months the management team would declare that innovation had been a failure, and the firm would double down on Seven Schema to recover from the distraction.
Fred harrumphed at me. “We’re simply interested” he said. “All the news about Tynder points to their use of an idea management solution. If they’ve been successful using software, then we need to investigate it as well.”
“Fred, as I said earlier, we advocate the use of idea management software, but only once a few conditions are met. First, that you have a methodology or process to manage the ideas. Second, that you have clear innovation initiatives and goals established. Third, that you have people who have clear responsibilities for innovation and for the software. Fourth, that you either have a lot of people involved, or a lot of ideas to manage. If these factors are in place, idea management software can be very valuable. If you put the software in place before these other conditions are met, then I can assure you Accipiter will be less than satisfied with the results.”
“Are there a few firms you’d recommend we look at?” he said, not willing to let it go.
“Absolutely” I said and gave him the name of a few firms we thought were both credible and understood the alignment between innovation process and governance and idea management software. However, I feared the worst. Many of these applications are relatively easy to implement, and the vendors have great demos. If Accipiter did purchase and try to use idea management software given the lack of corporate commitment, there would be little chance of success. I don’t have kids, but I can imagine that parents encounter the same situation every time they hand the keys to the car to their children. Used correctly, the car can be a great resource. Used incorrectly, the results can be very ugly. Implementing idea management software is especially easy, now that Software as a Service allows your team to access the software from a browser. But deploying an application doesn’t mean that everyone is on board, or that all the oars are in the water. After the initial thrill of the new toy, there has to be some discipline about the use of the new tool, or it won’t be used at all and will become a barrier rather than an enabler.
“Fred” I said “If you decide to review these applications, please consider the need for a process to manage the idea generation and idea evaluation, and the people who will be necessary to support both the innovation process and software. Susan Johansen won’t be able to do that alone.”
Fred seemed oddly pleased with himself as he responded.
“I’m not sure Johansen will be involved in this part of the innovation effort” he said. “Thanks for your time, Mr. Marlow.”
“Don’t mention it” I said as I hung up the phone. No longer lurching, my stomach had subsided into a dull ache. I walked over to the board where we track our opportunities and marked Accipiter as now 10% probable, with a decision timeframe two to three months out. If Phillips pursued idea management software, on his own or with the blessing of Thompson, Accipiter would be distracted from the real work of innovation for at least two to three months, and at worst would consider innovation a failure within six months.
Matt watched me with that I-told-you-so look in his eyes. “Off the bandwagon and on to idea management software as the solution, are they?” he said.
“No good deeds go unpunished” I said.
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.