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.
Consider, dear reader: Is it not in our nature that we devalue that which comes easy to us and hold dear that which vexes us in our attempts at mastery?
Charlie felt the warm comfort of old, precious memories enveloping him as he parked his Audi and walked with the lake breeze at his back west on East Michigan Street towards the Mackie Building. Years ago, before Milwaukee’s promenade of retail storefronts succumbed to the mortal wounds inflicted on it by the twin daggers of suburbanization and the attendant carving of highway canyons through the central business district, his mother and his sisters would convey him as a beloved appendage to Cathedral Square to attend to their holiday gift buying and to lend to the festive, freezing throngs their own radiance and vivacity.
Charlie wondered whether, once Kaylee Jo left for college, he might enjoy the next phase of his life looking through tempered glass at the blue, blue lake from one of the exposed-beam lofts being readied for empty nesters near the Rockwell Automation plant to the south.
The thought of resting his head where his many Nordic and Germanic ancestors had once milled wood, brewed beer, made love, and raised their children appealed to him. Perhaps Kaylee Jo would visit him more often.
Removing his sunglasses, Charlie paused in the white marble foyer of the Mackie Building to find the office number for the Diehl Marketing & Communications Agency on the directory board. The principal Laura Diehl typically met with her Dirty Maple clients at the company’s low-slung headquarters in Menomee Falls. Charlie proposed they meet at her offices today for the singular reason that the drive downtown and toward the lake had the beneficial effect of clearing his mind.
“How are you doing, Charlie? How is Kaylee Jo doing?” Laura asked as Charlie unlatched the gate to the steel cage of the ancient Otis elevator.
“She’s great. She’s great. We’ll have to make plans for Sarah, Paul, and you to join us at the Slice of Ice for skating one of these afternoons. Do you think its cold enough yet?”
“Almost, I think—I saw the parks crew setting up the benches earlier this week. We’ll have to do that.”
Laura directed Charlie to her office. A schnauzer named Karl stood guard at the door. His whiskers and seeming frown lent him the air of jaundiced wisdom. Karl gave Charlie a desultory couple of sniffs, sneezed, then retired to a felt bean bag chair.
“Well, I have to say, this is a very interesting project, Charlie. I had no idea that Dirty Maple had expanded as far as you had. Impressive.”
“Thanks, Laura. We have had the wind at our backs, especially as we have found ways to serve customers in the emerging markets. However, we have reached a point where we need to reconnect with our network to gain a better tactile sense of the business. In some ways, the carrying cost of our inventory serves as a very real, tangible proxy for how well we communicate with one another. That’s where I was hoping you might be able to help us.”
“Excellent, Charlie—excellent. So you will have to tell me if I am in the ballpark, now that we have had a couple reviews with Harry, Frankie, and you.”
“Let’s start again with the critical question that your challenge team decided: How might we take greater ownership of the near-term changes in client demand in the markets we serve?”
“From the outside looking in—I was not there at the moment of creation—the challenge has a plus and a minus. The big plus, of course, is the potential for leadership. Your challenge team invites the community to join with them in making meaning of how the consumer’s price sensitivity ripples upstream to your demand estimates. I see, too, that you avoid leading the witness. You do not embed the answer in the question, which is great.”
“Yes, that was the possibility they saw in pursuing the challenge. There is no reason in this day and age for activities that benefit from ‘networked intelligence’—the wisdom of the crowds—such as forecasting, to be treated as a black art to be practiced behind closed doors.”
“Very good. Now, the big challenge, as I see—pardon the pun—with the question is that the people you invite to participate may not immediately grasp the notion of ownership. As you say, for years at Dirty Maple, somebody else has owned this particular problem.”
“Okay, very good. Then, with that, we may want to introduce the challenge to the larger community with the following type of language. Here, it’s probably easier if you read the draft, directly.” Laura handed Charlie a piece of paper. He began to read as Laura poured fresh water into Karl’s monogrammed bowl.
From the desk of Harry Lundstrom, CEO, Dirty Maple Flooring Company
Subject: Introducing the Idea Mill Program of Collaborative Innovation
Our company has thrived as we have followed the markets and the customers we serve as they have emerged around the world. Nobody today makes better quality hardwood flooring and cabinetry at a fair price, worldwide, than we do. This accomplishment—our accomplishment—is a testament to the intelligence, creativity, and effort you bring to the work.
Our success, however, presents us with a challenge: forecasting demand. Dirty Maple is a global company. The people who work at headquarters can no longer walk down the street to our retailers to get a sense of demand. We serve consumers on four continents. Our larger community of retailers, along with the Dirty Maple people who serve them, can do so. You are in the best spot to see. You live and work where value is created with the consumer.
With that, the challenge team wants to explore with you the following, critical question:
How might we take greater ownership of the near-term changes in client demand in the markets we serve?
By ownership, we mean the ability to participate in, influence, and direct demand forecasting. What possibilities do you see?
Please think about the big picture. Consumer confidence drives perceptions of affordability which drives demand which drives our forecasts which drives, among other things, how we manage inventory.
From a business perspective, the stakes for us are high. The outcome from this challenge has the potential of delivering an additional $50 million in income, year after year. We anticipate realizing the gain by reducing inventory along the supply chain and by making better use of our capital budgets.
With that, I commit the following to you: 50% of the benefit we see from the challenge will go into the company’s employee stock ownership plan. Ownership for us also means owning part of Dirty Maple. The remaining 50% will go as incremental dollars into the marketing co-op program that we run with your retailer clients, in acknowledgement of their participation and contribution.
Please take this challenge seriously. We have real money at stake. Good hunting.
“Holy cow, Laura. It is a powerful introduction. And, Harry signed off on the quid pro quo?”
“He did, along with Frankie. They support your work to help evolve the company. They wanted to give you a push forward. Are you okay, Charlie?”
Charlie smiled quietly. Harry and Frankie had found a simple, compelling way to align the interests of the business with the interests of the challenge community. He was reminded yet again that leadership was not meant to be a zero sum game. He looked down to see Karl chewing on the brown leather tassels of his new Johnston & Murphy loafers with the focused determination characteristic of his breed.
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.