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, the often implicit, yet always critical role that belief plays in organizational life: belief in the mission, belief in one’s colleagues to prosecute that mission, and, ultimately, belief in oneself.
Ivete and Carlos joined the weekly conference call first. Charlie and the rest of the team leading Dirty Maple’s first collaborative innovation challenge were not online.
“Hello, Carlos, can you hear me?”
“Ivete, yes—hello, how are you doing?”
“Excellent, excellent—Trini is bringing the children with her this weekend. We plan to spend Saturday at the beach—Arpoador. We should have good weather.”
“That’s great. Miguel is back at university now—we don’t get to see him as much as we like. But, he’s doing well. Looks as if we’ll have another engineer in the family in a couple years.”
“I’m sorry—who just joined?” Carles and Ivete heard a click on the line. Then silence.
“Guess nobody. Must be the connection. So, tell me, Carlos: How has the challenge been going for you in Mexico? What has been the response?”
“Strong. Very strong. You know, between us, the Mexican market has been one of the fastest growing for Dirty Maple. We have about 300 employees now, with many more to come this year as we expand up the coast and towards the federal district. In all this time, this is the first time—el primero tiempo—that the company has asked our advice—our ideas—on anything in a formal way. I have tried to help my people not to overthink the challenge question. Given this is the first time they have been asked to participate in, they all feel nervous about doing a good job. You know, contributing a great idea.”
“What are you telling them?”
“I am telling them, ‘Yes, think before you share your idea, but remember—you can always add another idea or edit your idea—after the fact.’”
“Yes, Carlos, that is good guidance, for sure. I will have to remember that.”
“Have your people shared the same concerns, Ivete?”
“No, no—not yet. I wish they would, though. I have a different challenge.”
“Oh, what’s that?”
“The man who runs our mill here, along with some of the back office supervisors, pride themselves on being busy all the time. Their schedules they say are always full. They have time for nothing else but the work at hand. It’s machismo. I am all for productivity—greater productivity, as you know, but the introduction of the Idea Mill Challenge has brought to life—brought to life?”
“Brought to light, I think.”
“Yes, brought to light a challenge of our own in the Brazilian operations, which is that we do not always allow ourselves time to think about what’s important: where we are today, where we are going tomorrow. Where we want to go tomorrow. This idea of asking ourselves the question… what Charlie calls the critical question… is a very good discipline for us. I need to talk to Charlie about whether we can build an Idea Mill Program for my region in the new year. How about you?”
Carlos stared at the grid of small plastic holes that covered the speaker of his phone. He wondered what sort of machine made such tiny holes—were they drilled or were they poured—as he mulled Ivete’s question. Outside, a man in a green jumpsuit and ear muffs with a gas-powered weed eater trimmed the grass several meters away from his window. Carlos listened to the drone of the two-cycle engine.
“I don’t know, yet, Ivete. I don’t know. I like the new thinking. Sometimes it’s good to try new things just to see what happens. But, I kind of need to see two things to decide whether I take on this kind of activity in my region. First, I need to hear from the people here whether this activity was time well spent. You know, some of my people tell me they spend about an hour thinking about and committing to the Idea Mill Portal their idea. Plus, they spend maybe an hour collaborating on ideas that their friends contribute.”
“Just the friends?”
“Well, maybe not. I don’t know. Anyway, in total, that’s about 500 hours or a quarter’s worth of time for someone. I think I am going to need to see some change—some improvement—occur as a result of this challenge before I can feel good about adopting collaborative innovation.”
“Frankie says they’re looking for 50 million in savings each year from our ideas from this challenge.”
“I hope we see that. You would not believe how much time I have to spend worrying about our warehouses here. I am all for cutting inventory levels if we can. However, I think it’s going to take time to experiment with some of these ideas before we see real benefit.”
“True we probably won’t know for sure until we work through a couple turns, which may take us through the winter.”
“Your summer, my winter.”
“Hey, did you check your e-mail? The meeting has been moved to Friday.”
“I see. Wow. An hour wasted.”
“Sorry, Ivete—I did not mean that speaking with you was a waste of my time.”
“I see. Well, until we speak this Friday, Senor Suerte.”
Carlos pressed the receiver to end the connection. Specks of grass coated the lower part of the exterior face of his window where the landscaping crew had passed.
Dirty Maple could, at times, feel like family. Harry had given him his start. He would remain grateful for that, always. Dirty Maple could, at time, seem brutal when it came to maintaining a profitable, going concern. Carlos felt that burden weigh on his shoulders for Mexico. Harry and Frankie would invest in collaborative innovation to the extent it delivered tangible benefit.
Figure 1: Ivete and Carlos Weight the Pros and Cons of Collaborative Innovation
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.