Pulp Innovation XXXII: Drafting a Skunkworks Proposal

Marlow's courageous yet nervous ally at Accipiter is almost ready to deliver her innovation proposal to the board. Marlow helps to outline the tangible and intangible benefits they could deliver with the skunkworks.

The phone rang as Matt and I were talking about how to re-arrange the office to make room for Meredith.

“Sam” said June “it’s for you, Susan Johansen from Accipiter.  Are you free to take the call?”

Why not, I thought.

“Sure, send it through”

“Marlowe” I said, gripping the phone a little more tightly than usual.

“Sam” she said “I’ve finished my proposal for Bill and I wanted to run it by you before I submit it to him.  Do you have a few minutes to walk through it with me?”

What’s a few more minutes invested on an inevitable failure?  At this point anything to kick start Accipiter into action was worth something.

“Send it over.”

“It’s already on your fax machine.”

“Pretty sure of yourself.”

“No, I knew you couldn’t pass the opportunity by.  Everybody looks at the accident on the side of the road.  They can’t help themselves.”

Hmm.  How to answer that one – too true for comfort.  I left it laying there like an orphaned cat.

“Hold the phone while I get the fax”

I left the phone lying on the desk, made a face at Matt and strode over to the fax machine.  There, in the tray, were ten pages of text, describing a proposed skunkworks for Accipiter, including projections for costs.  I noticed that we had a line item in the budget.

I picked up the receiver.  “OK, how can I help you?”

“I just wanted to walk through the proposal to ensure I didn’t miss anything, and to see if you had any suggestions or changes.”

“Tell you what” I said.  “Give me 30 minutes to read through it and I’ll call you back.”

“Hmm.  I’m going into a meeting in 20 minutes, and won’t be free until 4.”

“I’ll call you at 4 with my comments.”

“OK.  Thanks Sam, and please keep this confidential for now.”

Like I was headed for the rooftops.

“No problem”

“I’d like to shoot this over to Bill by Wednesday or Thursday of this week, so anything you give me I’ll incorporate tomorrow.”

“OK.  Give me a little while to review it and I’ll call you with my comments.”

“Thanks.”  The line went dead.  I admired her moxie.  She was playing chicken with the COO of a Fortune 500 firm.  It was going to be interesting to see who flinched first, and to ensure we didn’t get splattered with the remains.

I looked over her proposal that day.  Where do these people learn to write? Is there a corporate training program that teaches people to remove any purpose or passion from their writing?  Did I miss the new rule that every memo must be in the passive voice?   Most business propositions are as dull as a late summer Mississippi Sunday afternoon, languid and drowsy, with prose that an eighth grade English teacher would mark as incomplete and inappropriate.  I marked up the introductory pages, trying to breathe some life into rather staid corporate speak.  If we are going to innovate, and going to play chicken, we may as well make it interesting.

The proposal itself, once I’d waded through the various penumbras, passive voice hanging clauses and three dollar words, was OK.  It seemed Susan had captured the relevant costs for space, overhead, staff and cash expenses.  She’d included a generous sum for “consultants” which I assumed meant Marlowe Innovation.  The accounting for the costs was crisp and to the point, unlike the rest of the document.  What was missing, however, was the most important aspect of the skunkworks.  There was little mention of the result.  Bill, and anyone else who was going to approve this investment would need to understand what he was getting for his money, and in a very specific way.  We couldn’t present a tic’d and tied budget on the cost side in the order of $500,000 without describing in some detail what we expected the specific outcomes and benefits to be.

I drafted several paragraphs as a coda to her presentation, outlining tangible and intangible benefits we could deliver with the skunkworks.

Wasn’t it Einstein who said the definition of insanity was doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results?  Why couch a risky new venture in the existing corporate speak that never got approval for even safe projects.  We needed some robust, action-oriented language, to make some bold claims and to have our work leap off the page if it was going to stand out.  This proposal was written with to accept failure before it had been decided.  Susan and I had our work cut out for us.  Last I looked, pirates didn’t meekly and politely ask for the booty they took, they raised the Jolly Roger and took it, guns blazing.  Susan was going to have to step away from the corporate mentality to be successful – it simply isn’t possible to represent the culture and innovate against it at the same time.

About the author:


Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey 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.

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