By: Doug Collins
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.
Our most closely held beliefs define us, ultimately.
“Yes, Brenda, it’s good talking to you, too,” Charlie said over the phone. “Yes, to be honest, I had not thought about applying collaborative innovation this way, but I think it will work… what? … I said I think it will work… no, no… that’s great… I’ll have one of the idea millers call you to work up the challenge with you… no worries…. say hello to Jesse for me… okay… she’s fine… thank you…. good bye.”
The Anti-Lincoln: not all ideas are created equally.
“What was that all about?” Frankie asked. She walked into Charlie’s office. “Who’s Jesse?”
“Brenda Staadt’s husband,” Charlie said. “Brenda manages our retailer meetings—the flooring and cabinetry conventions. We were working through a scenario where we would run a collaborative innovation challenge around our next big retailer meeting. Brenda wanted to explore whether we could pose one or two critical questions around how the retailers might best sell our cabinetry line to the consumers who visit their showrooms.”
“What did you say?” Frankie asked. She sank into the red leather club chair across from his desk.
“I said, ‘yes,’” Charlie replied. “It sounds like a great way to generate great ideas based on shared interest: increasing sales. I’ll ask our advocacy group to help her get it off the ground.”
“That’s great, Charlie,” Frankie said. “Nobody can argue against increased sales. Now what did you want to show me?”
“Here, have a look (figure 1),” Charlie said, as he slid a piece of paper across the desk to her.
“Oh, look—more stick figures and lines,” Frankie observed, laughing. Charlie looked at her.
Figure 1: Mapping Ideas to Business Intent
“The millers and I were talking about the future—and how we can tell and evolve the story around the Idea Mill Program,” Charlie explained.
“One part of the story is around the people—the people who sponsor challenges, who contribute ideas to those challenges, and who help the company realize the potential of those ideas.”
“And, clearly, the other part of the story is around the ideas themselves: how many are there, where do they map to our business intent, and how do we define success for them,” Charlie said.
“Carlos, one of the millers, made an interesting point. He said the Idea Mill Program was like the anti-Lincoln: not all ideas are created equally.”
“What?” Frankie asked.
“Here, let’s look at the drawing,” Charlie said.
“First, we see the three horizons of growth. Ideas that fall into the first horizon, which maps to our core business—what we do and sell today—represent near term opportunities to improve margins or increase sales of our current products. Many of the ideas from the first sales forecasting challenge fall into this camp. Thus, we judge these ideas by their ability to improve the core business in the near term—let’s say over the next twelve months.”
“By contrast, let’s look at the third horizon. These ideas represent new ventures or explorations. Some people refer to them as blue sky ideas. The goal here, we think, is really how good are we at making connections and telling stories. For example, take the idea we have about helping people visualize our flooring in their house by manipulating digital pictures from their smart phone. Here, success means we figure out how to storyboard the scenario and develop the mobile app with, say, Byte Studios downtown. How do we connect with them?”
“Evaluating a horizon three idea like that by horizon one metrics would make no sense,” Charlie concluded. “Our talks with Byte will cost us money at first.”
“Right,” Frankie said.
“We think this map suggests an idea governance scheme, too,” Charlie continued.
“Ideas in the second and third horizons should be managed—incubated—by our team. The risk that the core business neglects them or kills them outright as being disruptive is too high.”
“I like that,” Frankie said. “One of the things that bothered me about the Idea Mill Program was that it seemed to float over the top of the business, disconnected, yet somehow intruding on it. You’re saying we have skin in the game, too, beyond the core.”
“We do, Frankie, we do—and, we do in a way that does not step on the toes of the core business—our existing flooring and cabinetry lines.”
“Lastly, we also started to explore this idea of discrete and systemic ideas. With the forecasting challenge, for example, some ideas could be pursued in a vacuum.”
“Martha, for example, could go off on her own and test her idea about whether a deeper dive on web analytics could predict demand. That’s a discrete idea. Other ideas—the process by which we roll up the pipeline, for example, are systemic. Carlos could not work on that idea without involving other people who touch that process, yourself included—all of whom have their own ‘to do’ lists.”
“We think that discrete ideas require us to free ‘space’ for the innovator. Systemic ideas require advocacy in the near term—advocacy in terms of persuading stakeholders to incorporate the innovator’s ideas—the most compelling ideas—into their thinking and plans.”
“Do you have a notion of how many ideas of each we should have?” Frankie asked.
“No, not really,” Charlie said. “I think there should be a balance across horizon and by type. I don’t know if I think that because it makes business sense or because it appeals to my sense of symmetry.”
“I suspect, too, that the challenge questions we ask will affect the spread across horizon and by type.”
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.