By: Doug Collins
Last fall our columnist 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, last episode appears below. This September Doug publishes the e-book version of the Dirty Maple story on Apple iTunes as the next volume in the Innovation Architecture series.
Readers may navigate the full series here.
Share of mind precedes share of market in the Digital Age.
The future of work mirrors our past labors, only more immediate and more transparent.
“Are you happy, Dad?”
Kaylee Jo looked up at Charlie as they sat on their dock, dangling their feet in the water.
The hard winter freeze, coupled with the heavy spring rains, had raised the water levels for Lake Michigan by several feet over this same time, last season. Kaylee Jo and Charlie were happy not to have to lug their kayaks through the muck to the water, for once. Summer in Door County had taken on a form familiar to them.
“Yeah—I am, Kaylee Jo. Especially now. Life’s in full bloom. I get one more summer with you before you start to drift away from me in high school,” Charlie said. ]
“Dad!” Kaylee Jo protested.
Charlie laughed. Some cycles had to be experienced to be believed. Kaylee Jo was entering a new phase in her life. Charlie expected—wanted—her to find her own way forward, as much as he enjoyed her company. He found of late that he enjoyed unwinding with her as he did with Jane on the long summer evenings, when the sun took forever to set over Green Bay.
“You know, Kaylee Jo, I’ve learned a lot from you this past year. You know we deployed that Facebook-type thing at work?” Charlie asked.
“I do, Dad. How did it go?” she asked.
“It’s gone really well. I was wondering if I might still have a job when we came up to the cabin this year. It appears as if I do.”
“Dad!” Kaylee Jo protested, again.
“Well, you never know. Things change fast these days,” Charlie said.
“In fact, I was thinking about you a bit on the drive up here yesterday, when you were sleeping in the back seat of the Murano. It has to do with the Idea Mill Program.”
“Oh… ,” Kaylee Jo said, “about what?”
“Well, have I learned anything that might be of use to you—or anyone your age—as you get closer to joining the adult world—not that I feel as if I have many answers to offer,” Charlie said.
“And?” Kaylee Jo asked.
“Well, I jotted down notes this morning before breakfast. Tell me what you think,” Charlie requested. He removed a piece of yellow notebook paper from his shorts.
Firstly, it’s better to be inclusive than exclusive. In the past, we organized by role, function, and title. The marketers know marketing. The product developers know development. We could with confidence put our heads down and focus on our niche. To be labeled a “Renaissance Man” was to be thought foolish: they spread themselves too thin to be effective or successful.
No more. Today, the convenience of the round block fitting in the round hole has become a set of handcuffs. What I have learned from the Idea Mill Program is that the greatest untapped resource the organization has comes from taking people where they stand—with the gifts they bring to the table, not where they appear on the organizational chart.
My prediction? The role of the artisan or craftsman—someone who can see the whole problem and act upon it in some creative way—will resume its rightful place in the world. I won’t be surprised to see the average size of firms decrease. I won’t be surprised to see the rebirth of guilds and apprenticeships in more places.
Secondly, it’s better to figure out a good question to ask than propose answers.
If someone had told me that my job in strategy would entail spending as much time reaching consensus on the question, as opposed to sharing trends, numbers, etcetera, I would have told them they were crazy.
What I have learned from the Idea Mill Program is that the question—identifying the question, phrasing the question—is the stalking horse for everyone’s hopes and fears around strategy. Question formation is a great way to talk about strategy—to come at the topic sideways—without bringing along the baggage that word sideways.
Thirdly, it’s better to trust people and let them surprise you with their leadership than to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.
Peter Koestenbaum wrote that “whatever else you sell, you are also selling leadership help to your customers.” I believe that. I truly believe that. When I first took on my new role and started down the path that led to the Idea Mill Program, I was so scared that I was going to be left holding the bag—and the bag would leak. Who would sponsor collaborative innovation challenges? Who would pursue ideas to closure? Me?
Instead, I was heartened—inspired—to find that many, many people in the organization were waiting for the opportunity to explore and to realize their leadership in one way or the other.
I have come to believe that most the strategies and plans that organizations develop, then beat into submission through stage gates, are too conservative, in reality. Why? While they may assign a cost to the learning curve on the front end, they do not assign a benefit to mastery—to the great level of leadership that people achieve in pursuing the plan—on the back end.
Seniority is one of those seemingly important, yet often irrelevant factors by which we view people—same as with title. Where a person is in realizing their leadership potential, however, seems highly relevant.
“So,” Kaylee Jo said, “you think I should follow my interests where they take me—but pursue them fully, ask good questions, and believe in people?”
“Well,” Charlie said, “when you put it that way.”
“No, I get it, dad,” Kaylee Jo said. “I just wonder how much has really changed in the Digital Age, which kids my age are supposed to get. Weren’t things supposed to be the way you describe them, all along?”
Charlie thought of Jane as the sun set behind the birch trees behind the cabin. She would be pleased with Kaylee Jo. The sound of the mallards coming in for the night over the quieter lap of waves against the dock stirred him from his reverie. Kaylee Jo and he walked back to the cabin.
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.