When Accipiter suddenly changes game plan from a skunkwors to an innovation community, Marlowe barely has time to catch his breath before starting to advise on the new structure and goals.

I’m a baseball fan, but from the old school.  Give me the guys who slide into base headfirst.  Pete Rose before the gambling.  Give me Fenway park, or better yet Wrigley.  Brick walls, stanchions in the sightlines, open air and grass.  None of these faux throwback stadiums full of glass and astroturf with retractable ceilings and stars who are constantly on the DL, who are too thin skinned to take a little criticism and seem to be more about padding stats than winning games.

So you’ll allow me a little baseball analogy when I say I was back on my heels in the box when Susan called.  All my discussion and planning with Matt had me prepared for the heater, the high hard one, and I was on my toes, ready to swing hard and knock that pitch right out of the park.  What I got instead was the slow curve, the change of speeds that had me swinging before the ball was halfway to the plate.  If I had been up to bat, I would have swung myself right out of my shoes, helmet and jockstrap.  That swing might have actually cost me two strikes from a tightfisted ump.

All that to say that Susan called the next day.  All my preparation and thinking went out the window.  It went something like this.

“Marlowe” I said into the phone, gripping the handle so hard I thought it would break.

“Sam, Susan Johansen here.  I assume you receive my message about the skunkworks.”

“Sounds like the idea didn’t go over well.”

“Not too well, but it did spark a new discussion within the management team, and I think we have some momentum behind this.  The new strategy du jure is to create an innovation community – you know, let our customers submit ideas to us.  Our CEO read about Dell’s Ideastorm website and is very intrigued.  Can you help us with that?”

I had that feeling you get when someone taps you lightly on the back of the head with a lead sap.  I wasn’t quite sure where I was, or what we were talking about.  The conversation had taken a dramatic shift, one I was completely unprepared for.  Nothing is worse than dead air on a phone call, so I had to fill it with something.

“An innovation community.  To get ideas from your customers?”  An echo chamber would have worked better, but I was still trying to get my wits about me.  In this case, better to ask some open ended questions and see where the answers went than try to drive the discussion.

“Yes.  We’ve seen some examples from other firms where they’ve asked their customers to submit ideas to an innovation forum.  Since we don’t have a lot of available resources to assign to generate and manage ideas internally, and we need more customer insight, it seemed a reasonable approach and might kill two birds with one stone.  We might be able to receive some ideas and invest less internally. Do you have experience with innovation communities?”

The questions were right but the logic was all wrong.  Innovation communities could be very helpful, gathering ideas from customers, business partners and so forth.  But just putting up a site wasn’t going to be enough.  There was strategy involved, and planning, and the little requirement of actually reading and selecting the ideas.

“We’ve built internal communities and defined campaigns, and helped design and build external facing communities as well.  Probably our work at Cantide is the best example of an externally facing community.”

“Great.  How quickly could we get started with that?”

This was like asking an architect how quickly he could build a house without a blueprint.  I’m sure he could build one pretty quickly, but would it meet your expectations?  Would you want to live in it?  Wouldn’t you want to design it first?

“We can get started tomorrow if that works for you, assuming we can get an agreement put into place, but there are a few things to think about.”

“Ok.  One thing at a time.  Send me your standard contract and I’ll start that through the legal process.

“I’ll email it over today.”

“What other items do we need to work out?”

“Susan, a community is only as good as the people who are part of the community and the ideas or suggestions they provide.  Your team needs to think about how to structure the community and what you want out of it.  Do you want a community open to anyone, who can submit any idea?  Do you want to identify challenges that the community should submit ideas about?  Do you want to form trusted networks with business partners?  Does the management team expect incremental ideas or disruptive ideas?  All of these issues will drive the kind of community we build with you.  We still have to consider a number of the strategic concepts to get out of the community what’s important to the management team.”

The silence on the other end was deafening.  I think she had hoped we wouldn’t have to go back to the management team again.  “Perhaps we can just make a set of assumptions and get started” she said.

“That’s fine, as long as we are documenting what we intend to do, and build the community to meet those assumptions.  One other thing – you are going to need staff to help evaluate and select ideas, and to communicate to the people in the community, and to implement the ideas.  A community won’t run itself, and will expect input and feedback from Accipiter.”

This was getting bigger by the minute.  What had initially seemed to her a small pleasure cruise was becoming a gathering of the animals, two by two, for a long, wet ride, with no clear destination.

“OK.  First things first.  Send your contract over and let’s schedule some time to outline what we think we want in a community, and the staffing necessary to support it effectively.  Then I’ll talk with Bill about the funding. Are you free tomorrow at 9 to start talking about the project?”

“Let me see.”  I spent a few minutes fumbling for my pocket calendar, and looking at my schedule online.  I was free, and did have the time available.  The question of whether or not to take on a still very unformed project with a client that didn’t seem to understand the investments necessary for success still had me worried.

“I’m OK then.  I’ll call you.”  I heard the words come out of my mouth, but still wasn’t sure I was the one who said them.  All I had committed to do, I reassured myself, was to talk about the scope and effort of the project.  If I wasn’t happy with their commitment, I could always politely excuse myself and my team from the project.  Yeah, sure, here we go again.

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.