Last fall our columnist the innovation architect Doug Collins began 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.
“Let’s break for a minute. Can we meet after lunch?” Frankie asked the members of Idea Mill concept team Delta.
“Yes,… sure,” Carlos Gutierrez said. The first challenge team, in their resolution session, had designated Carlos the leader of one of the three ideas they chose to pursue as a means of improving the accuracy of their sales forecast.
Carlos, a financial analyst and Dirty Maple veteran, was well versed in the sales forecasting process. Frankie had nominated him for the lead role to help coach the idea contributor Martha Sanchez and the Delta team as they explored fully the potential of her concept. Frankie committed to regular reviews with the three concept teams Alpha, Beta, and Delta in her office.
She observed with satisfaction Martha, who worked in marketing, receiving a first rate perspective on one of the critical workflows that drives the business. She wondered if this occurrence—this knowledge transfer between people who might not otherwise meet—would have come about in any other fashion, outside the context of the challenge. Probably not.
Collaborative innovation served as an effective, back-door means of organizational development.
Charlie approved of Frankie’s naming convention for the concept team. The Greek appealed to his sense of order in an otherwise disorderly world. He looked forward to meeting concept team Epsilon in time, as the Idea Mill Program grew.
“Do you have a minute?” Charlie asked Frankie.
“If by, ‘Do I have a minute?’ you mean ‘Can I buy you lunch?’ then the answer is ‘yes,’ Charlie. Let’s head over to the Wellington Arms. Casey has the pot roast special today.”
“Sold,” said Charlie.
“So, have you talked to Harry about ideas—questions—for the next collaborative innovation challenge? I have to say, he seems happy about how the work on improving sales forecasting is coming with the concept teams. Martha Sanchez tells me he stopped her in the hall to thank her for contributing her winning idea,” Frankie opened, as Charlie and she slid into their preferred booth at the back of the restaurant. “You know, she tells me it’s the first time she’s spoken to Harry, one-to-one.”
“I have… I have. You know, Harry is a product developer—a maker—at heart. He wants to engage a larger community on how we might finally make more meaningful headway with the cabinetry line. We have never enjoyed the synergy between flooring and cabinetry that we thought we would when we got into the business in the ‘80s.”
“I know,” Frankie said. Visions of projected profitability and mill capacity went through her mind, unbidden.
“At the same time, I don’t want to get on a treadmill, blindly. Challenge management: challenge formation, managing the collaboration between contributors and the community, and challenge resolution, takes work. The payoff is there. However, I don’t want to single-handedly pick up the program without first thinking about the proper support model.”
“Here have a look at this,” Charlie said, as he slid a sheet of paper to Frankie (figure 1).
“You and your one-pagers,” Frankie said, adjusting her Warby Parker eyeglasses.
Figure 1: The Idea Millers: An Advocacy Group for the Idea Mill Program
“The idea millers?” Frankie asked. The tables around them filled. Patrons of the Wellington Arms held Casey’s skill with the oven-roasted meats in high regard.
“Yes,” Charlie replied. “I was surprised and then heartened by the number of Dirty Maple associates who approached me during the first challenge to learn more about the Idea Mill program and how they might get involved. Do you know that Stephanie Kittain approached me at this table a couple weeks ago? There seems to be an untapped demand to be part of the narrative around Dirty Maple.”
“The what?” Frankie asked, waving Casey over to place their order.
“The narrative—the story we tell ourselves about what we as Dirty Maple do to serve our clients, differentiate ourselves, and ultimately be successful,” Charlie said.
“I see,” Frankie said. The Charlie she knew—or thought she once knew—would not have used “narrative” in conversation. “He’s changed,” she thought to herself.
“Anyway, here’s the idea. Let’s find our community leaders in representative parts of the business: the regions, the functions, and product line. I think about eight (8) people, total. Anymore than that becomes unwieldy. Then, let’s charter them with becoming adept at the collaborative innovation process—a “day in the life of an idea,” as we experienced with the first Idea Mill program.”
“The idea millers?” Frankie interrupted, smiling.
“What? Enough with the name, already. If you have a better idea, let me know,” Charlie said.
“I know, I know,” Frankie said. She could not resist sidetracking him, at times—a guilty pleasure of hers.
“Right… so, where was I? Right—the millers. Now, the millers also serve in an advisory capacity. They solicit challenge ideas from the leaders in their respective groups, assuming they do not serve in a leadership role, themselves. I think having a cross-section of levels makes sense,” Charlie continued.
“We convene monthly. We share best practices. We identify the critical questions to pose. Harry and you join us to weigh in and decide on the “grand” challenges—the ones that will tend to span groups, as was the case with our first one.”
“And, lastly, we explore the potential of outlier—or, far horizon, ideas. You know, a couple people contributed authentic, breakthrough ideas in the last challenge. The problem? They did not relate directly or exclusively to the challenge question at hand, around sales forecasting. We don’t really have a forum for pursuing and possibly sponsoring “move-the-needle” ideas. I think we need one or all our improvements will be at the margins.”
“What do you think?” Charlie asked, catching his breath.
“I think two things,” Frankie replied. “First, I am hungry,” she said, glaring at Casey’s back as he dawdled, tidying the bar. “Second, it makes sense to me. You know, my team has analysts in each major part of the business. It’s my network. I don’t see why forming an ‘innovation network’ doesn’t make any less sense. In fact, I’d like to nominate—again—Carlos Gutierrez. He’s gotten a taste of the Idea Mill Program. He seems to like it.”
“Oh, you think you can be part of my Idea Millers program, after having made fun of its name?”
Frankie ignored Charlie as she watched Casey approach their table, pen in hand, to take their orders for the pot roast and pints of Louie’s Beer.
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.