A week or two passed with no word from Thompson, Phillips or Johansen. I was ready to write off the Accipiter opportunity and start working with Matt on a new client when Susan Johansen dragged me back into the Accipiter melee.
The phone rang. “Marlow” I said.
“Sam. Susan Johansen.”
“Good to hear from you. I was considering putting out an APB”.
“Funny” she said, in a way that indicated it wasn’t. “Bill thinks it’s important for the rest of the management team to have a presentation on innovation. He wants to educate them on the effort, the costs and the opportunity. We wanted to know if you or Matt would join us for a management meeting next week to present some of the best practices for innovation.”
I had nothing to lose, I felt, so I asked the usual questions. Where is the meeting? What content is expected? What are the likely outcomes if the management team likes what they hear? Susan wasn’t sure what the ultimate decision process was, but felt that Bill could provide more insights. We scheduled a call with Bill later that day.
I pulled some client files and reviewed presentations we’d done to other management teams. This was a typical approach, to introduce an innovation initiative or program and educate the executive team. It was one way to gain consensus or to flush opposition out into the open, and to set expectations very quickly. I thought what Thompson was trying to do was to get a sense of the support or opposition to an innovation program. If there was a lot of opposition or concerns expressed, he could claim that the meeting was exploratory and clearly there was not enough need for an investment in innovation now. On the other hand, if there was little opposition, Thompson might push for a project to move forward quickly. No use, I thought, in leading them down the primrose path. I pulled the standard “educating your management team about innovation” deck from the folder and prepared.
At some point in any client engagement, we’ve been asked to do this. Unlike a lot of other initiatives, innovation attracts onlookers and interested bystanders the way an accident on the side of the road attracts rubberneckers. Further, innovation projects also attract people who have something at stake or feel they have something to defend. Anyone who feels compelled to start an innovation initiative is led to educate the others around him or her, since innovation is often poorly defined. Anyone not involved wants to watch what could be a spectacular train wreck or a great success, and be able to say in either case “I saw it coming from the start”.
Our standard management education slide deck was built in three parts: defining innovation and building a rationale for innovation, explaining the “best practices” and outlining the resources and investments required. We didn’t short-sell the effort. We believed the executive team needed to know the kinds of decisions, investments and changes that were necessary to create a real capability for innovation in most businesses, starting with senior management involvement and cultural change.
The phone rang promptly at 3pm.
“Marlow” I said.
“Sam, this is Susan Johansen from Accipiter. I have Bill Thompson with me.”
“Hello Susan. Hello Bill. What can I do for you?”
“Sam, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. As Susan has informed you, I’ve decided to include a discussion on innovation in an executive offsite next week. We are meeting at the Excelsior Hotel most of the day, and I’ve included a section on innovation. We’d like to invite you to speak about innovation, to help educate the rest of the executive team. Would you be able to present to us from 3 to 4 next Thursday?”
The Excelsior hotel was the largest and the most elegant of the old hotels in town, with a courteous staff and deep, quiet conference rooms that echoed board room decisions and backroom deals. Everything about the Excelsior spoke of old money, old ideas and old ways of thinking. Innovation consultants in cheap suits with radical ideas were rarely seen to darken its doors, although I had spent some considerable time in the Distillery, the bar off the main lobby. Its primary attraction was a long, dark mahogany bar, an attentive bartender with a good memory, and a selection of Scotch unmatched this side of Edinburgh.
“Bill, I’d be happy to speak with your team about innovation. We’ve done similar presentations for a number of our customers and prospects. What is the main message you want to convey in the meeting?”
“Sam” he said, taking on the stentorian voice of a senator or congressman on the hustings “we need to help the rest of the executive team understand why innovation is so important, and how we at Accipiter can gain differentiation and increased organic growth using innovation as one of our tools. As you’ve probably guessed, while our CEO wants innovation, there are a number of opinions on innovation and whether or not that’s the right focus and investment right now.”
At this point Johansen jumped in. “Sam, I’ll be arranging Bill’s presentation that is just ahead of yours. Bill’s going to report on the quarter that’s just ended and identify some opportunities, and some real competitive threats that we see on the horizon. We hope to use our results from the last quarter to build some consensus for change, and have you speak about what we could expect from an innovation program.”
“I have a standard set of slides that we use when we talk to executive teams about innovation. Perhaps I should send them over to you for review. Our approach is to introduce the concept of innovation as a sustainable capability, talk about the issues and investments, and outline some of the changes necessary. We don’t pull any punches.”
“Send it over” said Bill. “I’d like to review it and provide you with comments. You’ll only have an hour, so please consider that timeframe and our need to educate the executive team.”
“What’s your ‘end goal’ for this presentation?” I asked. “Are you trying to get approval to move ahead or identify concerns or issues that must be addressed?
“I have the CEO asking for more innovation, and a peer group that has a number of perspectives about innovation. We need to reach some sort of consensus on the timing of an innovation project and the investment we’re willing to make. Also, there are a number of vested interests that will need to be placated or at least addressed. I want to use this discussion as a means to get my peers talking about innovation and expressing their concerns. With that accomplished, we hope to define a way forward, or make the decision to place this on the back burner.”
I told him I understood and concurred, not that my opinion seemed to mean much. We negotiated a small speaking fee for preparation and my time with them and I made plans to revise the presentation and send it via a courier to his office the next day. With luck I’d have his comments back by Tuesday, and a day or so to prepare for the presentation, which would either create a nice new opportunity for Marlow Innovation, or prove an exercise in gum flapping.
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.