By: Doug Collins
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 the case that we cannot demand leadership, only encourage it by creating an environment conducive to its growth? Authentic transformation starts with ourselves.
Charlie Bangbang occupied his favorite booth at The Wellington. The menu of daily specials in hand, he honed in on his lunch choice through the familiar process of elimination. Ann and Casey’s kitchen could be trusted with producing a passable chicken breast in all its many permutations. Charlie had certain, lingering reservations about the pasta. Casey had crossed the line that separates al dente from al overcooked one too many times.
“Hi, I’m Stephanie Kittain. I don’t know if you remember me?”
“Hmmm… Stephanie… in marketing?”
“Yes. Right. Correct. I was part of the planning work-out session you facilitated for us last fall at the off-site at Mr. Lundstrom’s place.”
“That’s right, that’s right. I remember.”
The CEO Harry Lundstrom owned property along the Sheboygan River. A woodworker by hobby, he had converted an old barn on the forested land into a comfortable meeting space and rumpus room.
Executives at Dirty Maple would on occasion use the space to hold off sites. Bev Greenwald, the head of marketing, had asked Charlie to facilitate an off-site for her team last November. Charlie was flattered: the work represented his first official engagement as the newly appointed head of strategic planning.
By the end of the session, the marketing group had covered every vertical surface in the barn with Post-It Notes. Colored yarn spanned the room, connecting the various “concept blocks” the team had conceived.
Later, Harry observed to Bev and Charlie that Ms. Lundstrom had expressed a mild ambivalence about reserving the barn for further off-sites. For a moment, they felt like naughty teenagers who, in their carelessness, had left one too many empties for a friend’s parents to find at the house.
“What’s the good word, Stephanie?”
“I just wanted to say how much I’ve been enjoying the Idea Mill Program. It’s one of the first times that I’ve had the chance to contribute my thinking—my ideas—in a company-wide forum. Do you know that we sometimes get a sense of increasing demand by the number of hits and inquiries to our web site? We can break down a lot of the responses by country and such. I contributed that one as my idea. User our web site traffic more intelligently as a harbinger of things to come.”
Charlie placed the laminated menu down on the lacquered table top. He thought for a moment about the amount of intellectual capital and talent that resided within the Dirty Maple Flooring Company. It seemed to him as if that, going forward, leaders would be assessed by their ability to coax that potential out into the open. He felt likewise sheepish. Would he have known about Stephanie if she had not taken the lead in introducing herself to him? No.
“Yes? What? Please, call me Charlie.”
“No, have mercy, just Charlie.”
“I was asking, do you think I might be able to get involved in your program for collaborative innovation in a more formal way?”
“Yes, of course. I’m flattered you ask.”
“How might I help?”
Charlie mulled her request. The sound of spatulas clanging as they hit the grill reached him. Casey ambled over to take their order.
“What will you guys have?”
“Have you had lunch yet, Stephanie?”
“Interested in talking over lunch?”
“Okay. Casey, let’s get two of your half-chicken platter specials.”
“I am a vegetarian.”
Casey stared at the picture of the fox hunting party that hung over Charlie’s head. Charlie paused. He had heard of vegetarians. They remained an exotic species in his circles, however. With him, the bratwurst and mettwurst vied for supremacy.
“Sorry. What will you have?”
“Let me get the veggie burger, please, with the sweet potato fries.”
“Done. Thank you.” Casey retreated to the kitchen.
“Look, I think there is something you can do to help the cause in the near term. I have noticed a lot of hit-n-run participation on the site. People contribute ideas and then they disappear. The challenge team would like to see more cross talk and collaboration on the ideas. This may be a place where you can help.”
“Sounds interesting. Yes, when I contributed my idea, only one of our dealers in Mexico responded with a comment. They’re really interested in getting better visibility into the inquiries we receive—our traffic—to help with sales and their forecasting on the very front end.”
“Right, yes. Your own experience points, I think, to the need to have more focused and nuanced moderation.”
“What would I do, exactly?”
“Well, so, effective moderators serve two roles: nexus and catalyst. As a nexus, you help connect people who share similar interests. For example, who are the three people in the challenge community who might share an interest in your idea? How might you engage them to gain their perspective on it?”
“Yes,” said Stephanie. “I would work the grapevine.”
“Yes,” said Charlie. “That’s a good way of putting it. Then, as a catalyst, you would work with contributors to help them flesh out their ideas. Catalysts, above all else, know how to ask the probing, go-for-the-jugular questions. So, for example, if your idea pertained to our web channel, only, I, as catalyst, might ask you by way of follow-up, “How might we gain this intel from our direct marketing channel?”
“I love it. I love it. Where do I sign up?”
Casey returned with their orders. Stephanie stared at her ersatz burger, keeping it at bay with her eyes.
There are some things, Charlie thought, that can only be learned through experience. The Wellington could offer the tyro diner a lesson or two, it seemed, for the price of lunch.
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.