The line between commiserating and celebrating is a very thin line. A few weeks ago we’d had a beer together to commiserate the fact that nothing we did at Accipiter seemed to go as planned. We’d sat at the same bar, had the same drinks and we’d consoled each other over our hard work and lack of progress. Today, the beer was just as cold, the wine just as tart, but we were sitting in a nether world somewhere between shock and celebration. George Brockwell, probably the most unlikely candidate to improve our innovation chances, had broken the log jam and offered to take our proposal straight to the CEO. Given that Brockwell was the right hand man to Angus Dowdy, and the heir apparent, we believed this meant our project would finally gain some momentum.
Immediately after the meeting, Susan turned to me and said: “O’Malley’s. Five thirty.” She gathered up her things and left the conference room, never acknowledging Bill Thompson or anyone else in the room. As she stalked out of the room I could almost imagine that she was carefully placing each step directly on Bill Thompson’s face as she left the room. Based on the subtle smile on her face, I was almost certain I was correct.
I hovered, slowly gathering my papers and re-arranged my bag. I wanted to speak to Brockwell alone, away from Thompson and some of the other executives who’d been part of the innovation program all along. Slowly, one by one, some of the executives left the room, leaving me, Thompson and Brockwell. It was fairly clear Thompson wasn’t going to leave me alone with Brockwell, so I made my move.
“George, just want you to know we appreciate your confidence in our proposal and look forward to meeting with you and with Angus.”
Brockwell looked at me curiously, as if he had a bad taste in his mouth and was trying to clear it before speaking. His eyes never left mine.
“Sam, we are under attack from many sides. We’ve researched, and investigated, and piloted, but we have no compelling new products to release. In my mind, we have no alternative but to innovate, and quickly. I can’t for the life of me understand why it has taken this long to reach an agreement on this project.”
Thompson stiffened visibly but said nothing. I was on very thin ice, since Thompson was Susan’s boss, but Brockwell clearly held the whip hand now. My hand was flush, but I needed to know what cards he held.
“In my experience” I said, choosing my words with care “these projects always take time to approve, since the work requires a different approach and perspective than the existing culture is comfortable with, and introduces a lot of risk and uncertainty. I’m just glad we are moving ahead with you.”
If a glance could cut diamonds, I’d have ten or fifteen facets by now. I could feel Thompson glaring at me but did not bother to acknowledge his presence. All my attention was directed to Brockwell.
“Hmm. Yes, I suppose these projects do take more time and discussion. Call me tomorrow and let’s set a time to see Angus.”
“Glad to. I’ll get with Susan and we’ll work with your assistant to get on your calendar. What do you want to accomplish in the meeting with Angus?”
At this point, since neither of us had acknowledged his presence, Thompson stood, gathered his papers and left. He’d heard what he needed to hear.
“Sam, I want you and Susan to present the same material to Jim. He is passionate about implementing change and wants the organization to innovate. Frankly” he said, glancing at the open doorway “he’s frustrated that this hasn’t moved over the last three months, and has made clear to me that it is up to me to ensure it does.”
I could take the hint. Thompson, for whatever reason, had been stringing us along, doing nothing more than absolutely necessary, while Dowdy had wanted more. I never understand why CEOs allow their plans to be held hostage by their subordinates, but that’s another story for another time.
“Susan will be ecstatic to move forward more quickly” I told him. “I’m sorry she had to leave so quickly once the meeting ended.”
“No worries. I’m sure the last few months have been tough for her. Just talk with my assistant and get the meeting set with Angus.”
I thanked him and left. I walked to my car with the lightest step I’d had in weeks, and pointed the convertible to O’Malley’s. I had a beer at the bar and read the paper, waiting for Susan to arrive.
Promptly at 5:30 she pushed the door open and glanced around. I waved at her and she came over, sat down and made eye contact with my waiter. She ordered a Chardonnay.
“Sorry I walked out so quickly. I was afraid I’d say something to George or Bill that would end my career, so I felt the best thing to do was just leave.”
“You were definitely in a no-win situation. I know Bill’s your boss, but what game has he been playing?”
“No idea. I had no idea that Dowdy felt so strongly about innovation. Bill has been parsing out information to me, and I thought perhaps someone above him was pulling back on the reins. Now I feel like he’s misled me for several months. What do you do when you can’t believe your own boss?”
I told her about the conversation I’d had with Brockwell after the meeting ended. Her spirits rose as I told her that Brockwell was stepping in and clearing the way for us to meet with Dowdy as quickly as possible.
“What could Bill have been thinking?” I asked. “Clearly Dowdy wants more action around innovation.”
“I really have no idea” she said, signaling the waiter for another glass. “I was led to believe that Dowdy and some of the other senior executives were reluctant to move forward. What am I to do now? Bill won’t be happy that we are moving ahead quickly. I wonder what he’ll do now.”
Thompson didn’t strike me as particularly vindictive, and he’d been the bottleneck. It seemed strange to think that he’d continue to be a fly in the ointment now that Dowdy was stepping in, but who knows how things work. Clearly Brockwell would have the most important oversight, and that was all that mattered then.
What was important to me just then was that very soon we’d be meeting the CEO of Accipiter to pitch him on our plans for innovation.
By Jeffrey Phillips
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.