The sun broke over the hills early that morning and bathed the city in a soft white light, emphasizing the pastels of the buildings and the green of the palms. Or so I was told. I’m never up that early, but the sound of people describing their morning routines and the beauty of the city is always captivating. However, rather than risk disappointment due to an unusually drab morning, I usually prefer to have it reported to me by others.
That day I felt like I had finally gotten my feet firmly placed on solid ground. All the waffling, dodging and corporate misdirection that had plagued us seemed to be well in the past. It appeared we had a definitive rationale to move ahead and a senior sponsor who was in our corner. We even had a budget and an imperative to move quickly.
Now, I’m not naive. Some would say more likely cynical, but you’d be as well if you walked a mile in my wingtips. Working in the innovation game, you discover that virtually any corporate issue, distraction or “fire” becomes immediately more important than the possibility of creating something new. I recognized that support today is interesting, and support tomorrow is fleeting, so I was determined to strike while the iron was hot and move quickly to finalize our project plan and kick off the project, before another distraction came hurtling at us. The most common refrain from my clients at this point is: why aren’t we further along with this project? We started talking about it six months ago. If talking were doing then I could build a house out of words with a landscape of excuses. So far, lots of words and excuses and dodges, but not structure.
That’s how I almost saw the sun come up that day. Susan and I were locking ourselves away in a conference room to develop a project plan to create an innovation team and kick off an innovation effort within Accipiter. I think she felt the same, if not even more urgency, than me. There was literally electricity in the air, the sense of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that would be fleeting and once gone, was gone for good. She knew, and I knew, that this was our chance.
I met her at the reception and we went immediately to a small conference room near her office. It was clear the pressure was on since the pleasantries were cut to a minimum, and we launched immediately into some sample project plans I’d brought along from my previous work. I’d meant to break the news to her earlier that I planned two concurrent projects, but she noticed the concept before I could couch it.
“Why are we running two projects at the same time?”
“Good morning to you, too.”
“OK, sorry, good morning. But the question still remains.”
“We are running two projects simultaneously for two very different but equally important goals. One project is meant to build an innovation team and define innovation processes for Accipiter. Hopefully this work will also impact the culture, to make it more open to innovation. That’s what George and Angus want.”
“Right” she said, since this was a recap of the obvious.
“And the second concurrent project is a focused innovation effort in one line of business or product group, to use as a test bed for our processes and ideas, and to demonstrate some real deliverables in the next four to six months.”
“OK. What you’re saying is that the team development and innovation process work won’t be complete…”
“And more importantly, won’t generate any ideas in the first six months. Even if we build a great team and process, we won’t have any ideas to show for it, and the most obvious measure of an innovation program is…”
“Ideas. Got it. So we kick off a smaller innovation effort very focused on a product or business and generate ideas in an ad hoc fashion while building the permanent process.”
“Well, not ad hoc per se. Just that you and I are the only ones who really understand the process. We’ll just ladle out enough definition and process to the working team while we are generating and managing ideas. In that way we’ll have some ideas for a specific unit when the inevitable questions about our progress come down, and we’ll have the larger cultural change and team building underway. We buy time to get our permanent team and process in place and generate ideas with a willing partner in the meantime. And with any luck, we’ll have some good results to point to from that work just as our innovation team gets up to speed.”
Still a bit uncertain but much more comfortable, she settled in to work. Together we built a plan that called for development of a small, central innovation team, the definition of an innovation process that contained the usual steps: linking to strategy, trend spotting and scenario planning, qualitative customer insights like ethnography, idea generation, idea evaluation and selection and prototyping. We also planned for quarterly and yearly events for managers and executives who had an interest in innovative topics, and a review of idea management software to capture ideas and create internal and external innovation communities. The combination of my plans and experience, and her knowledge of the organization and how it preferred to work meant we were able to create a rough outline of the plan by the end of the day. Now we both needed to refine the plan and make sure it aligned with our goals and the budget we’d been given by George.
That night we sat at the bar and told each other old truths and new lies about ourselves and our goals. There was clearly an attraction between Susan and me, but I wasn’t sure if it was based on mutual interests or shared sacrifices. Plus I knew that getting involved with a client during the ups and downs of a project was a recipe for disaster, and I had the alimony payments to prove it. I resolved to let my rational brain do the thinking, at least that night, and we went home our separate ways. Another morning would break, cool, clear and pastel, and I’d miss it alone.
By Jeffrey Phillips