To give a name to what we were doing isn’t easy. In consulting speak we’d call it too simultaneous parallel projects, but that sounds too neat and simple. From Gregg’s perspective we were defining an innovation project that would help the aerospace team find interesting new products and services that they could commercialize quickly. But that potential success wasn’t nearly enough to begin to transition the culture at Accipiter, and we knew we didn’t have much time. One or two quarters without “results” will bring an abrupt halt to any innovation project. And, as they say, it’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end.
So, while we were working with Gregg and his team to outline the project plan and start collecting ethnographic insights, we were also laying out a plan to gradually shift the culture of Accipiter to encourage more innovation. This project promises to be a long, slow burn, since it is composed of so many moving parts and requires not just a “project” mentality but a change management mentality as well. It was eminently possible for us to create a valuable and innovation product or service for Gregg, and to fail miserably at changing the culture at Accipiter, which would leave us with one strong champion in one business unit, and 85% of the business wondering what all the fuss was about. We had to move quickly, find the right influencers, educate them about the importance of cultural change, and start the process of changing that culture. Fortunately several of the key members were already in our sights, if not fully on board.
We scheduled a meeting with George Brockwell, Fred Phillips and Marjie Hering, the VP of Human Resources. In these three people we had the folks who managed the money (finance), the individual who had successfully implemented Accipiter’s Seven Schema program (Phillips) and, most importantly, the person in charge of hiring, training, compensation and evaluation. Marjie didn’t know just how valuable a role we thought she could play.
Susan and I arranged to meet Marjie a day before the meeting with Fred and George. We didn’t know what she’d heard about our project and our goals, and we wanted to set the expectations about the importance of innovation, and the role we felt HR could play. We couldn’t have had a better champion.
Marjie invited us into her office. Of all the executive offices at Accipiter, her was the only one that appeared to be inhabited by a human. Many of the other executive offices were clean, sterile and austere, with one or two photographs of family or an individual on a golf course meant to round out the room. Marjie’s office, on the other hand, looked like a place where people came to kick back, talk, laugh and get stuff done. From the stacks of papers on the floor to the Bert and Ernie dolls on the desktop, her office had a lived-in feel that was rare at Accipiter. Marjie was a bit of a rarity as well.
A woman in the top echelon of an engineering company, she was short, dark and rotund. She was probably one of the funniest people I’d ever met in a corporate setting, very comfortable in her role, and a champion for the people she called “her people”. She was definitely different from many of the executives at Accipiter, from her attitudes, her personal skills, even her hair, which was short and twisted into braids, a far cry from the rigid executive hair that Dowdy and Brockwell sported.
“Mr. Marlow, Susan, come on in.”
“Um, it’s just Sam, Ms. Hering.”
“OK, Just Sam, as long as we are getting acquainted, it’s just Marjie.”
“Right. We, Susan and I, are here today to fill you in and understand what you know about our innovation efforts. I’m sure you’ve heard from George Brockwell about the project we are leading in the Aerospace group with Gregg Flynn” she nodded “and we want to kick off another project to start implementing some cultural change to help Accipiter embrace innovation more broadly.”
“You’ve come to the right place, Just Sam. George, and Angus before him, have made it clear they need Accipiter to be more innovative, and I’ve got a real desire to see us do a better job with employee engagement. My understanding from your articles is that the two go hand in hand. I’m happy to know you are working on innovation, and interested to know how I can help you, and how you can help me.”
This was a first in my experience in Accipiter, an executive who spoke directly, clearly and without distractions or obfuscations. She didn’t bother with compound phrases or empowerment words that many human resource executives grow to love, like “skills-based” or talent management. I could grow to like Marjie very quickly.
“We at Marlow believe it is important to conduct two simultaneous, parallel projects if at all possible with our clients. One of those projects is a typical innovation effort – identifying a key problem or opportunity, generating ideas and working to develop and commercialize the product or service quickly.”
“And the other?”
“The second project is to start the process of building an innovation team, training people in innovation tools and techniques, and beginning to shift the culture to embrace innovation. If we do only the first project, then we may, or may not be successful in Aerospace, but we’ll have little impact to the rest of the organization, and won’t have made a difference in one of the biggest innovation barriers.”
“Which is our corporate culture?”
“Well, I can’t speak specifically about Accipiter, but corporate culture is in most cases a real barrier to innovation.”
“If it’s a barrier in other firms you’ve worked in, I’m sure it’s true here too. Accipiter is an engineering firm, and while engineers are great people, they tend to be a bit single minded, if you get my drift. We reward excellent engineering, and have low tolerance for failure or for coloring outside the lines. And yes, my Burt and Ernie are just a small way to push the edge of the envelope in a very technical organization.”
She had caught me staring at the Sesame Street characters, which looked as out of place at Accipiter as a socialite at a homeless shelter.
“You are wondering about me, thinking I’m a bit unusual for Accipiter” she said. “Well, I am. I’m not an engineer, not technical in the least. I’m not a man, which is unusual for the senior executive ranks at Accipiter and many of our competitors. I’m not white, again, unusual for the industry. What I am is an excellent judge of character and a damn good developer of talent. Just Sam, I’ve worked at Accipiter in human resources for twenty years. I started as the most junior human resources assistant and worked my way up to the top. Angus Dowdy and I partnered on some projects back when he was running a division, and he had the good sense to promote me into this role when it became available. Angus has real vision, and it’s a shame we haven’t done more to make the changes I know he wants.”
“Angus knows Accipiter needs to change. He doesn’t need financial analysts still wet behind the ears from MBA programs to tell him we’ve slipped behind our competitors. Angus has a vision, but as you know it takes time to steer a battleship, even in calm seas. Well, we’re steering the battleship while taking shots from all sides. Plus, we have a strong “not invented here” culture that we are only beginning to try to change.”
“OK. Believe me, we are aware of some of the cultural biases. Susan and I want to talk to you about the cultural changes we believe are important and necessary for innovation to take root, and we think you are vital as a sponsor for these changes to occur.”
“Susan, Sam, let me tell you something as well. Employee engagement is my top priority for this year. We have lost too many good people, and I interview many of them as they leave. Too many say they felt their ideas weren’t heard, and that they didn’t have a voice in what was happening. Tynder and other competitors have reputations for open management and are probably more innovative than we have been lately. I have the responsibility to slow, or stop, the exodus, and create an environment that’s more inviting and more interesting for our existing employees and new hires. If you can help me achieve that goal, we’ll be best friends. Understand that’s my number one priority, and as long as you can help me achieve that, I’m all in. Otherwise, anything that distracts me and my team from those goals won’t find a real welcome here.”
After months of doublespeak, corporate headfakes, false starts, half-hearted gestures I had finally found an executive willing to identify what was important and who had no fear of actually stating what most of us could witness with our own eyes. Marjie was going to be a great partner, I was sure, but one who had subtle influences and power at best. Even with her clear focus and desires, human resources was still a cost center, still part of overhead, and not considered strategic by all the lines of business. That said, I was happy to have her on our side.
“Marjie, in our experience most innovative firms have very engaged employees, and the reverse is also true. Firms that have very engaged employees often are innovative. What Susan and I are interested in is focusing on three factors we think can make the culture more amenable to innovation.”
“OK, Sam, I know Larry, Moe and Curly, and the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. Those are the two holy trinities in my life. What trinity are you proposing?”
“The factors that create and support an innovation culture are communication, compensation and atmosphere.”
“The first two I get. What do you mean by atmosphere. This isn’t a nightclub, it’s a place of business.”
“By atmosphere we mean the cultural attitudes and norms. Earlier you said Accipiter has a strong “not invented here” focus. When we talk about atmosphere we mean the environment and biases ideas must exist in. If a firm has a high skepticism level, it is more difficult to innovate. If a firm has a strong “not invented here” mentality, it can be difficult to receive ideas from customers and partners. If a firm has a bias toward eliminating variance and uncertainty, creativity suffers. We like to examine the cultural norms and try to inject some new ways of thinking.”
“So we’re back to Burt and Ernie again – trying to encourage people to color outside the lines.”
“Or ignore the lines all together” Susan decided to chime in.
Marjie gave Susan a significant glance.
“For a while there, I was worried about you. Don’t look surprised, mama Hering knows all, sees all. And I know you got jerked around a bit earlier in this project. Doing better now.”
Susan blushed, smiled and said, mostly to me “Nothing escapes Marjie Hering.”
“And we aren’t telling you anything you don’t know” I said. “What I’d like to do is draft a plan with you to consider increasing communication about innovation, and examining the evaluation forms and methods that your teams use to evaluate the Accipiter employees. We’d like to ensure that people who work on innovation projects aren’t putting their jobs, careers or compensation at risk.”
“It’s not enough to ask people to innovate” she said “We’ve got to find ways to ensure that they can take big risks and dream big in order to create new products. If they feel threatened, or if their progression or pay is at risk, they’ll just keep doing what they are doing. Sam, we have a standard yearly evaluation process coupled with a 360 feedback program. There’s not much in the evaluation process that would tamp down innovation, but I can see how the evaluation process, especially since it’s tied to compensation and promotion, would impact innovation. We can work on that.”
And in that way the most unlikely Accipiter executive and the most unlikely Accipiter consultant became fast friends.
By Jeffrey Phillips