Marlow reflects upon the waiting period a consultant must endure while their client contemplates the investment and risks of innovation.

I was back in my office, bright and early the following Monday. Well, 9:30 is early for me and it was bright outside anyway, a sunny, clear day that promised the start of a great week. My desk was awash with the flotsam and jetsam of a person not fully committed to a tidy workspace.  In my defense I had several active client engagements, a pending press release and paperwork on several potential hires. A dozen pink slips were there, requesting and in some cases demanding a return phone call. I knew it would be a busy morning.

Matt had also decided to grace us with his presence that morning. His desk, unlike mine, was spotless and completely organized. How he managed to do it was beyond me. I’ve seen zen gardens that seemed less organized.

I started my day with the usual, a steaming cup of coffee and an unfiltered Camel. Matt and I had been together as a team long enough that we had the old couple ritual down.

“Morning” he said, without even a second glance. “Breakfast of champions today.”

“Breakfast of Champions is a Vonnegut novel.  What you see here before you is a trim innovation consultant consuming the minimum daily requirement of nicotine and caffeine.  Both of which are brain stimulants, by the way.”

“Probably the last thing you need is a brain stimulant.  And a cigarette?  Really? At this time of the morning?”

“They simply have the ability to repel people who would pronounce the need for healthy living.”

“So you are a defensive smoker?”

“You could think of it that way.”

Given our heads, we could carry on a patter like this all day, a sort of Bacall and Bogart for the innovation set. We’d learned not to carry it too far – no whistling references, but on any given day it was a one-upmanship game to see who’d give in first. Today, I was too enthusiastic and too busy to carry on. So Matt stepped on my toes for me.

“What’s up with Accipiter?”

That’s what I wanted to know. Four days after our meeting and not a word from anyone.  In a sales cycle, silence is frustrating but it’s not really much of a signal.  Silence from a prospect can mean a number of things.  It could mean that the client has simply been too busy to fully consider your pitch.  It could mean that your pitch was so compelling that they had to reconsider their approach.  It could mean that you’d missed the mark completely and no one quite knew how to tell you.  So I didn’t get too worked up about silence.  Sometimes a long “yes” was better than a quick “no”.  I had already resolved to ring Phillips and possibly Johansen to see what the word was in the informal network.

“I thought the presentation went well” I said. “No word from them yet. You know how it is.”

“Yep, I know how it is.”

Matt did know how it is. He had a set of his own clients and knew the sales score. Talk to ten, get engaged with three or four, hope to close one or two. And never hear a word more than absolutely necessary from your clients. I suppose they think we innovation consultants have extrasensory hearing along with our ultra-creative personalities. In most cases I’ve never experienced a sales process with less interaction, less communication and more surprises than when selling innovation services. Given what we knew, and how we could help, I was constantly surprised by the lack of engagement during the sales process. Accipiter was following the tried and true approach we’d seen from a number of our clients – a series of high profile meetings with no clear goal, interactions with a range of different people with very different and often conflicting goals and agendas and no clear outcomes.

“I’m planning to shake the tree over there later this week” I said, more to cover the fact that I wasn’t sure how to shake the tree, or if there was even a tree to shake. It wasn’t clear who was in charge of the initiative, and what was the ultimate goal. “I’m going back to the folks I think are champions for us and for the project, Briggs and Johansen. He’s in HR and she’s the nominal project manager. Neither of them are decision makers, but perhaps they can give me a read on what is happening.”

“Flying a bit blind, are we?”

“Stumbling in the dark with a blindfold barefoot in a room full of broken glass.”

“That bad?”

“Yes. But there are some real opportunities there if we can get a project started. We can do some great things for them, and I think they have the energy and desire to create some interesting new products and services. We’ve just got to overcome the inertia that builds up around initiatives like this.”

“What are you waiting for? Pick up the phone and give someone a call. Let’s get that thing moving”. Matt wanted the win almost as much as I did.

I pulled out a pile of crumpled business cards from my desk drawer, sorting through them looking for the joker and the ace. In this case, Johansen was the ace. She doesn’t make the decisions but does seem to be the fair haired child. She’d be leading the initiative, even if she didn’t control the decision or the budget.  Briggs, on the other hand, is the joker – he gets the downstream benefit of innovation but won’t necessarily be involved in the project. However, he did seem to have his ear to the ground, and understood the value that an innovation initiative could bring to retention and recruiting new employees. Which one do I call first? I decided to dial Johansen. While not in the loop, at least she was in the direct line of succession.

The phone rang and was answered by a crisp, impersonal voice. “Accipiter Enterprises” the voice said.

“Susan Johansen please”

“Thank you” and the voice was gone, replaced by a humming, a few clicks and the ringing sound.

“This is Susan Johansen”

“Susan, this is Sam Marlow. Is this a good time to take a minute to speak with me?

“Hello Sam. I have just a few minutes before my 10 o’clock.” I glanced at my watch. Five minutes to ten. Just enough time to get the story from the inside.

“That’s fine. Shouldn’t take long. I appreciate the chance to catch up with you. I am simply trying to understand what the next steps are with Accipiter. Have you heard anything coming out of our presentation with the executive team last week?”

There was some paper shuffling on the other end, a slight pause and then “Not really. I heard your presentation was well received but beyond that there’s not been any action on it as far as I know.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, this is going to be your project. What do you think will happen?”

“I’ve been asked to lead an innovation project by Bill Thompson, but he needs to get the executive team agreeable and on board. Your presentation was a first step toward doing that. I think Bill believes we still have to bring a few of the executives on board. Several of them are uncertain about the investments and risks of innovation, and are frankly protecting their turf.”

“OK – do you know if there is a plan to get them on board?”

“I don’t know yet. Bill and I are scheduled to talk on Wednesday. Can I give you a call then when I may know more?

“Of course, and thanks. I know you’ll need to move on to your meeting, so I’ll just plan to call you Wednesday afternoon.”

“That will work for me.”

“Thanks Susan”

“You’re welcome.”

Matt glanced at me. He didn’t have to say anything. We both knew it would be a long, drawn out sales cycle.

About the author:

Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is VP Marketing and a lead consultant for OVO Innovation. Jeffrey has led innovation projects for Fortune 5000 firms, academic institutions and not-for=profits based on OVO Innovation’s Innovate on Purpose™ methodology. The Innovate on Purpose methodology encourages organizations to consider innovation as a sustainable, repeatable business process, rather than a discrete project.

Jeffrey is the author of “Make Us More Innovative,” a book that encompasses much of the OVO Innovation methodology, and blogs about innovation at Innovate On Purpose. He is a sought after speaker and has presented to corporations, innovation oriented conferences, and at a number of universities. In 2010 he chaired the Innovate North Carolina conference and was a keynote speaker at Queen’s University, University of the Pacific, UNC and several other colleges and conferences. Jeffrey has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin and an undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of Virginia.