Pulp Innovation Chapter LXXIX: The Dreaded Progress Report

Just as the Accipiter innovation team starts catching their stride, an executive requests a report on their results. Having to spend time creating reports which remind executives that it will take several months to get the project off the ground takes time and focus away from the real work, and sparks questions in even the most committed team members mind. How will Marlow proceed?

The honeymoon, as it ever does, came to a screeching halt later that week.  My communications with George and Susan prior to the project consisted of sudden demands from out of the blue from Accipiter, followed by weeks of silence where my calls and emails went unanswered.  Once the project got started, and on the right foundation, George had mostly left us alone, but had been good about providing information or removing roadblocks when we needed help.  But there was a three month clock ticking, and George was becoming ever more insistent to understand our progress, and more importantly, our results.

I knew this inflection point was coming.  It comes in every innovation project, and really, in any project that has any importance.  There’s the honeymoon when everyone is finally on board, the struggle to form and norm the team, and finally the horse is out of the gate and running at stride.  Unfortunately you’re only into the first turn and at full gallop when an executive will demand minute reporting details and evidence of valuable results.  This is as inevitable as the sunrise, and as helpful as a fist to the guts.  Having to spend time creating reports which remind executives that it will take several months to get the project off the ground takes time and focus away from the real work, and sparks questions in even the most committed team members mind.   You could see that happening when we got together as a project team.

George had sent down what the team called pigeon droppings – a fly in and request for information.  He wanted a report on progress and likely outcomes.  Gregg noted the request from George.

“George wants a report from us about our progress.  At Accipiter, any initiative like this must report fairly regularly, but I’m not sure we have much to report yet.  We’re almost three months in to a nine to twelve month project, yet much of our time has been spent getting the team on board and defining our innovation opportunities.”

Susan glanced at me, and I saw a warning signal flashing there, so I pulled back on my recommendation to tell George what to do with his request.  In my mind George knew exactly where we were, and it was a waste of our time to create reports.

“Gregg, let me take on the reporting to George.  I think I know what he wants, and that will save the team from any distractions.”  Susan was playing the “go-between” and her recommendation probably made sense.

“What we need to do as well” I said “is establish some formal reporting methods and timeframes.  If we aren’t careful, we’ll find that we receive many requests for information and insight from many different executives, each of whom have different goals and agendas.  Perhaps we should create a status report for the team, publish it weekly, and post it on our intranet site.  Then, we can direct George and others to that report, and we’ll only have to respond to these requests occasionally.  Otherwise we’ll be distracted by too many demands for too much information and reporting.”

Sally looked a bit apprehensive.  “Well, what do we have to report.  We are in the third month of the project plan, and I for one don’t think we’ve moved very far.  We certainly don’t have any ideas generated.”

“We’re following a methodology that Marlow has provided and it has proven successful in other places” said Susan.  I knew I liked her.  “We’ve decided to take a more contemplative approach to innovation – spotting trends and gathering customer needs before generating ideas.  I know that the list of ideas seems like the real output of the activity, and we’ll be doing that work soon enough.”

“Plus” I added “ it took longer to get this team pulled together than we expected, and longer to reach agreement on the right problems to solve”  Longer than Susan had thought possible, but we were right where I thought we’d be, given my experience in other innovation projects.

“George is making a reasonable request for information, especially since he is funding some of this project.  I like Sam’s idea about a regularly published status report, available for any executive.  In that way everyone gets the same information and hopefully draws the same insights and conclusions.  I’d rather take this approach, rather than brief every executive separately.  Are there any concerns or objections to this idea?”

James, Susan and I shook our heads.  Sally still seemed pensive.

“What’s the issue Sally?”

“I’m concerned that our approach and plans won’t be well understood and it will look like we are wasting time and haven’t accomplished much.  Gregg, I know you and Sam met with Marjie to provide some cover for us to try some new approaches, but my marketing research team is still questioning why we are doing things the way we are doing them, and I’m concerned about how my efforts will be evaluated.”  While Sally provided marketing research for Gregg, she was a dotted line report and had formal reporting to the head of market research, who, it appeared, wasn’t thrilled with our denigration of customer surveys and the introduction of ethnographic tools.

Susan glommed on to the problem.  “We’ll work with the marketing team to take some pressure off of you, and we’ll meet with George to ensure our reports are read in the right context.  I’ll also meet again with Marjie to see what she can do to speed up some changes to evaluation and compensation for those of you on the team.”

Sally seemed a bit more appeased by that, but it was clear to see that using different methods and different tools than she was used to was making her uncomfortable.

“Team” I said “Sally is indirectly raising an interesting concern.  That is, we are doing things very differently than have been done in Accipiter before.  Yes?”

Heads bobbed throughout the room.  Everyone was watching me with great expectation.

“So tell me.  If we followed the traditional “business as usual” approaches, is it likely we’d generate interesting, new ideas?  If we used traditional marketing research, for example, would we get valuable new insights?”

“You’ve put me on the spot” Sally said “so, no, we wouldn’t get innovative ideas following our business as usual methods.  As for research, we haven’t done enough ethnography for me to speak to that, so it’s an unknown.  And in my reporting structure, that unknown is dangerous and unsettling.”

“Fair enough.  My point is that typical, business as usual approaches are fine for typical, business as usual solutions.  What we need are radical, game changing solutions, and they aren’t going to come from business as usual processes.  We need to think and act differently.  George understands that, I think, and we need the rest of the management team to understand that as well.”

So we’d come to the end of the beginning, where the honeymoon fizzles and the suits demand to see real results rather than planning and team building.  Yet Accipiter was far from comfortable with the fact that radical new ideas require new techniques and methods.  We’d be managing on two fronts.  On one front we’d be fighting off the desire by some team members to return to business as usual methods, and fighting off others in the organization who expected us to follow business as usual methods.  On the other front, Susan and I would be constantly pulling the rest of the team to new methods and tools, to achieve our goals.  I think St. Paul said it best.  Forgetting what lies behind and striving only for that which lies ahead, I press on toward the goal.  All the time recognizing that it may take powers of biblical proportion to create real innovation at Accipiter.

By Jeffrey Phillips

About the author:


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,” 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.

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