Marlow is preoccupied with a tough case of corporate culture change where the engineers spend more time looking for problems in new ideas rather than seeking new possibilities. Then he receives the call from Accipiter – a potential big client who is also struggling to bring an innovation plan into play.

I was sitting in my office, reviewing the results of a brainstorming session just completed when the phone rang in the outer office.  I could hear June, our receptionist slash girl Friday talking to the caller.  I tried to block out the conversation and continue on with the review of ideas.

Matt and I led a brainstorming session with Thanone the day before.  Thanone was losing share and late to market with new products in its market, and had asked us to help generate new ideas.  We’d stipulated the use of our methodology, which requires adequate planning, engaging the participants in pre-work, and a two day ideation event broken up by an “excursion” which allowed us to get the participants out of the conference room and acting like consumers, so they could get a sense of what it’s like to interact and use the products and services they build and sell.  The project manager agreed with our methodology, and together we planned an event that would help the team see past its current predicament and think differently.  At least that was the plan.

“God save us from an engineering firm” Matt had said as we wrapped up the two day event.

It turned out that none of the pre-work was reviewed by the participants, over 80% of whom were engineers primarily focused on cutting costs on the existing product line.  For an engineering firm, there was a strong “seat of the pants” approach in the culture that resisted prep work.  Several of them chose to see the ideation portion of the event as a time to catch up on their email or chat on their BlackBerrys, and several told us directly that generating ideas for new products was “a waste of time” as the management team was very focused on cutting costs and improving the existing product line.  Generating ideas within that framework was nearly impossible, since several of the team members had to be educated on the goals, which most of the rest of the team members promptly rejected as a reasonable goal.  The project manager from Thanone, a product manager working to improve his product line, surveyed the product and safety engineers and called the whole thing hopeless.

“Even if we come up with some interesting new ideas, the safety engineers reject them.  They have very strong incentives to reduce risk and uncertainty, and don’t like to see significant changes in existing products.”

“That’s our job to keep the team focused.  We’ll keep them from judging the ideas too quickly” I said.

“Um, you don’t understand our culture.  Watching this for just an hour or two, I can see that the engineers aren’t willing to step away from what they “know” to be true.  They can’t remove themselves from the tiny adjustments or simple problems with the existing products to try to think of new products and services.”

“We’ve seen this before.  Unless we have strong buy-in from the team to move on to new and challenging opportunities, most teams, especially very homogeneous teams, will revert back to solving the day to day problems rather than generating new ideas.  Could we bring in a senior executive to speak to the team about commitment to the new opportunities and ideation?”

“I doubt we could at this point.  I was hopeful that following your methodology the engineers would appreciate a step by step, methodical approach to innovation.  What I didn’t realize is that they are so steeped in the culture that they simply can’t break out – at least we haven’t achieved any breakout.”

Looking over the ideas later I had to agree with him.  It had been quite possibly the most frustrating brainstorming session I’d ever led.  We spent far too much time simply trying to get the team on board to think more disruptively, and it was evident their hearts and minds weren’t in the task.  Even when we did manage to generate some good ideas, some joker in the room would point out all of the problems with the idea, rather than trying to build on the strengths of the idea.  Virtually no one on the team had done any of the pre-reading, and none felt there was a strong chance to build a new product.  The lack of preparation and agreement on the goal showed up in the ideas.  Typically in a two day event we can generate hundreds of ideas and winnow them down to a manageable list that are ready to be implemented.  In the case of the Thanone brainstorm, we’d barely managed to generate 100 ideas, and there were very few compelling ones on the list.

“This has been a real failure on our part” my client said as we left.  “I’m afraid this may set back some of the things I’d hoped to do from an innovation perspective.  It’s clear to me that there are bigger challenges to this approach than I’d suspected.”

I nodded.  “The problem you are facing is one we see quite regularly.  Corporate culture and expectations really influence what people think they can do.  Further, your firm has a very strong “Devil’s Advocate” culture which means few ideas are presented that aren’t immediately challenged.  Most of your engineers spend time looking for problems in new ideas rather than seeking the possibilities.  That’s not your failure, just a strong bias in the culture that will have to be overcome if you are to be successful at innovation.”

I left knowing that we’d done the right things, but I was very dissatisfied with the outcomes. Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare, no matter the tools you use, you can’t be successful if the team isn’t ready for change.  There were simply too many obstacles to innovation in that culture, and a poorly received event, even one that wasn’t our fault, would cause them to think twice about innovation, and more to the point, using Marlow Innovation again.

June interrupted my thinking.

“Boss” she said, in that way that lets you know who is really the ‘boss’ “I’ve got a Susan Johansen on the phone, from Accipiter.  I told her your schedule was full this morning, but she seems very interested in talking with you today, as soon as possible.  Can you take a call from her now, or can we move something around on your schedule?”

What the hell, I thought, would I rather beat myself up over Thanone, or watch the ice melt at Accipiter.  Somehow, at this point in time, watching the ice melt seemed more interesting.  “I can speak with her now.  Send her through.”

She nodded, and I thought I got a glance of sympathy as she closed my office door.  Good help is hard to find.  Good help that knows its place and has empathy is even harder to find.  I decided to give her a raise at the end of the month.

The phone rang.  “Marlow” I said.

“Mr. Marlow, this is Susan Johansen, from Accipiter.  I need to talk to you about our innovation efforts.”

The words came tumbling, spilling out, rushing out like escaping convicts on a jailbreak.  She gathered her breath and continued.

“Our quarterly results are just coming in and our stock is getting crushed.  Our market share has slipped even more, and another competitor is planning to launch a new product to compete with our best product line in just a few weeks.  We’ve got to improve the way we innovate.  I’m so frustrated.  Can you help me build a plan to take to Thompson to start an innovation program?”

Anger, desperation and a quixotic task.  What more could an innovation consultant ask for?

“Susan, what you are telling me is that things have gotten slightly worse since we first met six months ago.  I spoke with the Accipiter leadership council over a month and a half ago, and certainly the results are evident to them as well.  Have they asked you to contact me?”

“No.  There’s no consensus on what to do.  Fred Phillips is pushing hard for more Seven Schema work to cut costs. The line of business leaders are running for cover, since Thompson and the executive team are thinking of selling off lines of business or plants.  It’s as plain as the nose on my face what we need to do, yet trying to get everyone on board, or anyone on board, is almost impossible.”

“Has there been any decision from the presentation I made over a month ago?”

“No.  We were near the end of the quarter so it was all hands on deck to finish what turned out to be a disappointing quarter.  Innovation went on the back burner days after you were here.”

“You work for Thompson.”

“Yes, I work for him.  He maintains he’s interested in innovation, but that the time isn’t right.  There are too many distractions.”

“Well, waiting for the right time to innovate is a management prerogative.”

“Sam, I can get the run around here in Accipiter.  Are you interested in working with me or not?”

“Of course I’m interested, and I’d like to see you personally succeed.  However, I have to carefully consider my involvement at Accipiter given the fact that I’ve committed over 40 hours of consulting with no contract.  What can we do, simply and quickly, to help you succeed and help Marlow acquire business with Accipiter?”

I was buying time at this point.  While I had always thought that Susan would be a key player in any innovation project, I knew she didn’t have the seniority to drive it by herself.  Thompson or Phillips, or one of the heads of the business units would need to back her up for the project to go forward.  Clearly Phillips had cast his lot with cost cutting.

“I want to build a business case for innovation and take it to Thompson and the rest of the executive team.  I think I can build a case that we should build a skunkworks and move a few people over to build new products and services for Accipiter, but outside the corporate culture.”

Hoist the Jolly Roger boys, we’re coming in to port.

“I’m convinced that a skunkworks is the only way we can get started.  We just need a few people and some help getting started.  We really have nothing to lose at this point.”

She sounded a bit desperate, as if her career was somehow caught up in the success or failure of innovation.  Perhaps it was.  But could Accipiter stomach a skunkworks and would it be successful?  Would it be another Thanone for Marlowe?

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.