Marlowe struggles with a client who has decided to build an innovation community in 90 days without any consideration for the structure, support and funding to carry out such an operation. Can Marlowe manage to take the lead or will they develop a half-hearted endeavor to collect ideas?

8am the next morning found me at my office, rumpled, tired and uncertain about the whole Accipiter account.  8am most days found me safely ensconced in my own bed, dreamily considering placing one foot, and then the other, on the cold floor to start my day.

8am meant being the first one in the office, and that meant having to decipher one of the new coffee making machines, with buttons designed by Egyptian hieroglyphics experts.  What ever happened to the old coffee pots.  I needed caffeine in the worst way and was confronted with a machine that appeared to have more in common with an Xbox than a coffee pot.  Who wants to read directions to get coffee at 8 in the morning, just before a controversial phone call with an uncertain client?

8am that morning found me in a bad mood.  I felt that Accipiter had spun out of my control, and had taken a very different direction that what I had expected.  That unsettled me.  I like my clients to follow my lead.  I get uncomfortable when I want to foxtrot and the client wants to tango.  After all, much of the reason a firm should pay me at all is for my knowledge and experience.  I can’t afford to risk being led around by the nose by a client whose management team can’t agree on what to do.

8:45 found me at my desk, by the phone, reviewing my notes from the previous day’s discussion with Susan.  My writing reflected the reaction to the call.  My prep notes were clear and strong, my notes of the call were rambling and jagged, uncertain.  All I was sure of was that Susan and probably Bill were going to call in a few minutes to talk about an innovation community. An outcome as surprising to me as any in quite a while.

9am promptly the phone rang.  Count on Accipiter to be on time when it mattered to them, and when I’m still trying to get my bearings.

“Marlowe” I said, with just a hint of remorse.

“Sam, Susan Johansen and Bill Thompson from Accipiter.  How are you today?”

“Fine.  And you?”  I hadn’t noticed before, but ‘fine” slips through gritted teeth with the elegance of fingernails on a chalkboard.  I quickly added “It’s a bit early for me, and no coffee.”

“Oh. Well, thanks for joining us.  As you and I discussed yesterday, we need to move quickly to define and build an innovation community, so we can collect ideas from our customers and business partners.  Bill has joined me today to discuss the direction we want to take.”

“Hello Sam.  Staying busy?” Not as busy as I’d like to be considering the effort to start a project at Accipiter.

“Yes.  Several of our clients are keeping us busy with some ethnography research and scenario development, not to mention some work we’ve just finished helping another client with idea generation.”  I wanted to let him know we were busy, and that there were a number of capabilities that other people were paying good hard cash for our services.

“Great.  Look, I know we’ve been a bit slow to start, but I think we’ve got a real opportunity now.  Our CEO read about IdeaStorm and other innovation communities where customers enter ideas for new products and services.  He’s asked us to move forward on building a community for Accipiter.  How can you help with that effort?”

Even without the coffee my mind raced.  It struck me that Accipiter was not overly serious, and that their customers would see through a half-hearted attempt to collect ideas.  Given their reluctance to generate any really disruptive or radical ideas, they were likely to be comfortable with incremental ideas, which may seem very ho-hum to other executives.  And so far they hadn’t parted with a red cent, which made me question their financial commitments.  So many questions, just get started.

“We’ve built programs like this before.  To be honest, I’ll need a lot more information in regards to your timing and budget and expectations before we can give you a sense of what this will take to complete.”

Bill rose to the occasion.  “We’d like to have an innovation community up and running in 90 days, that allows our customers to submit ideas about our products and services.  We’ll need to examine the software that’s available on the market, select something and implement it and build up our capabilities internally to review and select ideas.  We’ll also need to work with our PR and marketing team to make them aware of the community and to publicize it appropriately.  It’s a tall order, but the CEO doesn’t want to go back to the Street without something to talk about.”

“Any concerns about the kinds of ideas that will be submitted, in terms of diversity or whether they are incremental or disruptive?”

“We’ll take them all for now, and as we learn we’ll shift the focus of the community if necessary.  What do you think it will take to get the system up and running?”

Up and running wasn’t really the key issue.  We could, with a few resources and some dedicated effort, get the system up and running in 90 days.  No problem.  What could be a problem would be if the community wasn’t supported, and funded appropriately.  Accipiter was making an implicit promise, not just for a few days, but for a period of time, to listen to its customers and accept their ideas.  This wasn’t something you simply started, and stopped on a whim.

“Bill, what’s the budget to support this over time?  It will take time for the customers to find it and submit ideas, and time for the ideas to be considered and implemented.  Accipiter can’t simply put up the community without supporting it and selecting ideas and interacting with your customers.  This needs to be something that is actively supported and engaging with customers, over a period of time.  Do you have that in your budgets for the community?”

Susan jumped in at this point.  “Sam, Bill has given me some thoughts about a budget and the resources at our disposal.  I asked him to sit in to demonstrate how important this community is to Accipiter.  He’s actually going to step out to another meeting, and you and I will work up a project plan for the implementation of the community and the long term resourcing required.  We have money available for the build out of the community, and to support it through the end of the year.  We’ll need to go back through the funding process to get more funds to support it next year.”

Bill had come, had spoken and departed.  The oracle has left the building.  Veni, vidi, vinci.  Now Susan and I were left to make it work.  Friends, Romans, Countrymen,  Lend me your ideas.

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.