I arrived early at the Excelsior that day. I’d received a summons to present on innovation topics two weeks earlier, and had submitted a draft of my standard management presentation over ten days ago. There’d been no response or questions on the draft, and I was prepared to present it now.
The reception area of the hotel, which could have easily held a tennis court and spectator gallery, was bustling with doormen, clerks, a concierge and a number of other hotel flunkies. I sidled up to the concierge and asked for directions to the Accipiter meeting. He looked at me with poorly concealed disdain, as if I was a slightly lower life form than he expected from individuals working for or associated with Accipiter. I almost felt I should apologize for my slightly wrinkled suit, which I thought held up rather nicely after spending the last few weeks crumpled in the corner of my closet.
“Accipiter is meeting in the North Wing. The executive team is meeting in the Stanton conference room. That’s the North wing, second floor. I believe they have a table set up just outside of the conference room.” I couldn’t tell if he were happier to have me out of the reception area, or somewhat apprehensive that he was sending an impostor off to meet an important client.
I felt the Stanton conference room particularly appropriate. Tom Stanton had been a non-descript governor in the previous century whose most notable accomplishments apparently had been to ignore all signs of progress and innovation. He’d ignored the demands for new waterways and canals and had blocked the development of new rail corridors. Stanton had been the classic one term governor who accomplished little, and it was reflected by the fact he was remembered only in hotel conference rooms.
The carpet was soft and spongy under my feet, like walking in soft sand at the beach. I turned into the elevator and was surprised to recall the final anachronism – an elevator operator. “Which floor please”.
“Second floor”. I tried to think of a witty excuse for riding an elevator one floor, or to query him about his future job prospects, but nothing interesting popped into my mind.
“Second floor” he said and I exited right, to the north, and saw ahead of me a host of junior executives working crisply and frantically. An attractive blond sitting at a small table off to the left halted me in my tracks.
“Welcome to the Accipiter Executive offsite” she said. “How may I help you?”
I had already spotted my name tag on the table in front of her.
“Marlow” I said, pointing at the name tag “I’m the speaker at 3pm for the executive team.”
She glanced at me quizzically, as if uncertain of my parentage, my reasons for existence or my truthfulness, or perhaps all three. She glanced over her shoulder and called for Tom Briggs.
Briggs, who’d been one of the busy executives in the hall, looked up and rushed over.
“Sam” he said. “Glad you could come today. As you’ve probably guessed, we are running on Accipiter time, meaning we are about 20 minutes behind on the agenda. Could I ask you to wait for another 20 to 30 minutes for your presentation? Can I offer you some water?”
“A coffee would be appreciated” I said.
Briggs turned and eyed the youngest, most junior executive in the hall, and called him over. His new task in his management journey was to make a simple innovation consultant happy by delivering a hot, black coffee with real sugar, not that artificial stuff. He took the news with a straight face and left to find my coffee. Clearly this was just the first step in a long, upward journey to senior management.
“Many of us on the management team are glad you are here and that there will be an open discussion on innovation today. I’m looking forward to hearing your presentation.”
“Thanks, I think you’ll enjoy it. I’ll spend a significant portion of my time on the cultural impacts necessary for success when building an innovation capability.”
He seemed both pleased and worried by that statement.
“Understand” he said, beckoning me into a small conference room with a subtle head nod “that some of the management team doesn’t understand the importance or urgency for innovation here at Accipiter. There may be some resistance to your presentation or difficult questions.”
“Nothing we don’t see every time we talk to executive teams” I said. “When firms decide to innovate, you can always find out where the fault lines lie in the business, and which people believe they have turf to protect. Anyway, a project like this is always competing for limited funds that other executives would prefer to be spent on their projects.”
He nodded. “None of the other projects is as important as innovation to me.”
Briggs, and the entire HR and Talent Management team, were behind innovation, he told me. They saw it not as an immediate opportunity for HR, but as a program that would have many positive secondary benefits. “Firms that are more innovative are more exciting, and it’s generally easier to recruit new candidates to a firm that has a reputation for innovation. Also, I think it will be easier to retain people if we are more innovative” he said.
I agreed with him but noted those changes could take two or three years to manifest, even in a successful innovation program.
“That’s why it is so important we start as soon as possible” he said as he stuck his head out of the door.
Young Mr. Executive stood just outside with my coffee and a brief update.
“Tim let me know they are still about 30 minutes behind schedule. The team is going to reduce a break that’s planned at 3:30 and have you start just then. They can now only spare 45 minutes, given the slip in the schedule.”
I had expected as much. In over ten years of speaking to management teams, I’d rarely seen a meeting stick to the agenda. Knowing I was one of the last speakers for the day today, I’d already prepared myself for a shortened time slot.
“No problem” I said, pulling a Raymond Chandler from my briefcase. “I’ll be here when they are ready. I suppose my presentation has been loaded on the computer?”
Briggs went off to confirm, and I opened a collection of short stories from Chandler.
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.