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This past fall our columnist the innovation architect Doug Collins began to tell the tale of how the Dirty Maple Flooring Company came to embrace the Digital Age through the practice of collaborative innovation. The latest episode appears below. Readers may navigate the full series here.
Time. Time Time. Time, the perpetual constraint; the lack of time, the perpetual complaint.
Charlie heard the front door slam. Counting to two he heard the thunk of the book bag. Counting to five he heard the refrigerator door open, then slam shut, the bottles of juice and Pabst beer clanging in protest of their rough treatment.
“How was your day, sweet Kaylee Jo?”
Silence. Charlie learned this year that his conversations with his daughter would run from the very long to the very short to nothing at all unless he pushed. He pushed.
“Do you remember your friend from Brazil, Lupe?”
“Do you remember your friend from Canada…?”
“How are they doing?”
Kaylee consulted her laptop.
“Lupe is fine. She’s on summer break. It’s summer down there. Carlos is fine. His folks are giving him a hard time about something.”
“Just wondering. Just thinking about something.”
Charlie’s answer satisfied Kaylee. Both extroverts, they could at times drift into long, pensive stretches.
Charlie wrestled with the belief that his daughter had a more tactile sense of her global network than he, with the benefit of a fully staffed IT department, did at Dirty Maple. The company seemed to be missing the beat in ways that would make strategic planning—success, overall—ten times harder than it needed to be, if his pre-teen daughter’s ability to place relevant intelligence at her fingertips was any guide.
Can there be agility in planning and execution without a strong sense of community and real-time connectivity between people?
Charlie made notes in long hand on a piece of paper. He then turned his attention to dinner. The cadence of preparing a meal of tagliatelle pasta with a nice red sauce, so familiar to him, allowed his mind to wander further afield as his hands guided themselves up and down the counter.
The next morning Charlie sat down with his boss, Maple’s chief executive officer Harry Lundstrom. Harry’s great grandfather and great grandmother started what became the Dirty Maple Flooring Company in their 10-stall timber frame barn, doing flooring jobs during the slack times on the farm, when the snows reached the first-floor window sills.
The Lundstroms earned a reputation for quality work in a field that, at the time, was peopled by hucksters and tyros. The business grew. The market came to them as the Milwaukee suburbs reached in their direction.
Between the war years, successive Lundstrom generations, seeking greater control over their fortunes, vertically integrated the business until they came to own mills, worldwide, along with the finest timber lands the Upper Midwest in the U.S. could offer.
Dirty Maple dabbled with maintaining a retail operation for a while, but eventually retreated from that side of the business for the most part so as to avoid channel conflict with the chains that emerged in force in the 1980s.
Charlie respected deeply the sense of familial responsibility that influenced the outcome of each of Harry’s bigger decisions.
“We need to do it differently, Harry. We need to do two things in particular differently if we’re going to succeed in this new age of ours.”
“Okay, okay. I am listening.”
“Last night, it occurred to me that my eleven-year-old daughter had a more tactile sense of her world—her connections, her friends—than we do here at the office. How did that happen?”
Harry laughed. He knew Kaylee was the light of Charlie’s life.
“If we’re going to have effective strategy, then firstly we need to know more of what people at Maple are thinking about the business—especially the people on the front lines—in real time. What are they seeing?”
Harry grew thoughtful. His parents—his whole family—had drilled into his thick Nordic head that the responsibility for the business rested with him, ultimately. The board could be counted on for guidance and at time debate. However, they exhibited always deference to him, partly on account of respect and partly out of habit. Harry at times felt vulnerable as the business grew beyond his immediate grasp. All eyes appeared to be on him.
“Secondly, we’ve got to help our people become better problem solvers, as opposed to looking elsewhere for answers. The second is we’ve got to find a way to channel their insights—the ways in which they would go about solving certain problems—into our strategy—where do we go to grow the company?”
“I can’t argue with anything you’re saying. I’m not in love with the sound of my own voice in giving theses all hands presentations about what’s coming next. Frankly, I find myself boring myself, I’ve done them so often. I’d love to be the one asking the questions for a change.”
“I’m so glad you feel that way.” Charlie shifted in the leather club chair, relieving a fart into the crease of the unsuspecting upholstery.
“Look, we’re just getting started. We know we need to develop a financial plan for the new year. Frankie and I have talked about that. But, beyond the baseline plan, we know we need to fix some things in order to take the plan to the next level.”
“I agree, Charlie. I was just talking to Frankie this morning. We both agree that we’re going to run the business into the ground if we don’t do a better job of forecasting demand. As much as I want to believe all our product lines will grow year over year at nice, even rates, experience tells us that’s never the case. Frankie says each percentage miss costs us $23 million, largely due to increased carrying costs and returns.”
Charlie smiled. Frankie rarely lent her unambiguous support to anyone. However, if she felt that an idea had merit, she would put in the good word with the right person, unbidden. This tacit support felt more real than the many outward signs of approval Charlie received from other peers. He owed her the next round at the Wellington.
“That’s great, Harry. So, what if we modeled the scenario like this… .” Charlie sketched a balanced scorecard—a version of which he had been noodling on the kitchen counter the previous night, minus the carbonara sauce stain.
Figure 1: Charlie’s strategic noodling
“Well, Mr. Charlie, that the best strategy I’ve seen in a long time. Now what?”
“We start by asking the right question. The right question. It all comes down to asking the right question.”
Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations such as The Estee Lauder Companies, Jarden Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, The Procter & Gamble Company, and Ryder System navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation.
Doug develops approaches, creates forums, and structures engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the ideas and to the collaboration that result.
As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series / Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL).
Today, Doug works as senior practice leader at social innovation company Mindjet, where he consults with a range of clients. He focuses on helping them realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.