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.
Charlie moved the dry marker eraser across his white board slowly and methodically. Noodles, doodles, and stick figures from brainstorms past faded and disappeared as he applied pressure to the block. He retrieved the spray bottle that held the dry-erase cleaner to finish the job.
A cleaned slate gave some people pause: What next? To Charlie, however, a cleaned slate represented a chance to learn from and move beyond an imperfect past. What might we do next? His native optimism came to his aid many times in his career and with his family.
Dirty Maple, by the nature of its business, attracted many skilled craftsmen: people who embraced woodworking as both vocation and hobby. Charlie fell into this camp. At his core, he believed that if challenged, he could literally build his way to a better future. His native confidence inspired others, helping him to more fully express his leadership potential. He loved his work.
Charlie took a straight edge and, with marker in hand, mindfully recreated on the whiteboard the scenario that Harry, Frankie, and he devised for the first collaborative innovation challenge (figure 1).
Figure 1: Charlie sets the stage for the challenge on his white board
Charlie looked at his hands. By a miracle of the office gods, he could not come within five feet of the white board without coloring his fingers.
His assistant Janet Sims-Raygun entered the room.
“Is it time to color, Mr. Charlie? Oh, looks at those hands.” Janet handed him a towelette that came with the marker pack. Charlie felt grateful and five years old.
“Your guests are asking about a call-in number. Should I send them to the video conference?”
“Yes, thanks—please do.”
Janet turned on the camera and left the room to connect the remote participants. She passed Frankie at the door.
“Hi, Janet. Are we ready, Charlie?” Frankie asked.
“Yes—believe so. Janet is bringing Carlos, Ivete, and Benyamin online now.”
The camera came to life, blinking red and focusing itself on the whiteboard. Charlie and Frankie heard a quick succession of beeps and then ambient noise over the ceiling speakers.
“Hello—can you hear me now?”
“Yes—can you hear me now?” came the overlapping replies.
“Yes.” Nobody enjoyed the awkwardness of the halting conversations that teleconferences offered.
The group heard a dog barking in the background, footsteps on a hardwood floor, and then a door slam. Charlie and Frankie looked at one another. It was late evening for Benyamin in Sumatra.
“Enjoying some Nasi Goreng, Benyamin?” Charlie asked. Benyamin had hosted Charlie a number of times when he visited Indonesia. Charlie, raised on a steady diet of bratwurst and potato pancakes, found that he loved the way the Sumatrans flavored their foods with curry and the many spices that grew within walking distance of the kitchen.
“Yes, Charlie, always—how are you doing?” Benyamin replied.
“Good, good. Can everyone see the board here?”
“Yes.” The miracles of videoconferencing, thought Charlie.
“Great. Look, I want to thank each of you for making time for this project. As always, it’s a bear to accommodate planning and accommodate Frankie and me, sitting here in Wisconsin on Central Time. Thank you.”
“As you know from working with Frankie and with Harry, we’ve had our challenges with forecast accuracy as we’ve grown. It’s tough to plan for the long term when we’re not sure enough about what the next six to twelve months are going to bring in terms of demand.”
“True, true,” the group heard Ivete confirm. “I feel as if I am on a roller coaster.”
“Frankie and I don’t claim to have all the answers. In fact, we suspect that that’s part of the problem: we haven’t as a group spent enough time figuring out the questions we should be asking ourselves before we go after the answers. Let me draw your attention to the board here.” The camera refocused on the board.
“So, here we have our scorecard view. It’s not War and Peace. It simply shows the linkages we see between the incremental income we leave on the table through sub-optimal forecasting and the reasons why the gap exists. Next we have a two-by-two matrix that shows what we think are the primary tangible factors—or levers—that drive inaccuracy at Dirty Maple. The vertical axis shows factors that the consumer directly influences. Do they like our designs? Will they spend with us versus the guy down the street? The horizontal axis shows factors that influence consumer confidence overall, for better or worse. Is a dollar today worth a dollar tomorrow? Do they feel secure enough in their employment to invest in hardwood flooring? So, tell us, what do you think?”
Silence ensued for a bit. Charlie was careful to select for the first challenge team a group that did not suffer from what Carlos unsubtly called, “diarrhea of the mouth”: an inability to accept quiet during conversations.
Benyamin spoke first, “Frankie knows where I stand on this question, Charlie. We may just be getting past one of the worst economic slowdowns in recent memory. The consumer here loves our designs. We stay very close to remain current. The bigger issue is whether they can afford the sort of hardwood they want to add to their homes. Inflation is the larger issue, but then that drives price sensitivity at the consumer level.”
Carlos and Ivete concurred. Local currencies in the developing world were tracking closely to what the U.S. Federal Reserve was forecasting, relative to continuing to pump money into the economy. Charlie though about how easy it was for him to forget the strong, digital ties that linked each country’s finances. They were as real and as immediate as the ties that made the digital video conference possible.
“Okay,” Charlie said. “Let’s start there then: price sensitivity. How do we get our collective heads around price sensitivity?” (figure 2)
Figure 2: the challenge team picks its focus
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.