Marlowe continues the struggle to get his top client to define the structure and direction for their innovation community. Has he signed up for a project that is doomed from the very beginning?

We had that cup of coffee, or perhaps two or three.  I had been so preoccupied with Accipiter that I’d forgotten what a great hire Meredith was, and what a great team member she was likely to be.  We spent an hour or so getting reacquainted, talking about her skill set and our client base, and thinking about how to incorporate her skills into our offerings.  Meredith was not the least bit flustered that we weren’t as prepared as we should have been for her to join.  In the coming weeks she jumped right in and won a new project from one of our existing customers, helping them use ethnography to find new customer insights which eventually led to a new product release.

We were fortunate, really, looking back on it, because Matt took Meredith under his wing and she came up to speed quickly.  I failed her at first, because after that coffee and a quick review of our existing clients and their needs, I hurried back to the office to dive deeply into the Accipiter situation.  We were on the crux of something big, I felt, and I was on the hunt, not to be distracted by a new employee.

Meredith brought something else to the office with her.  She brought a sense of humor and balance that was lurking under the surface but was often expressed with sarcasm.  Matt and I had been together so long we knew each other’s moves and punch lines.  Meredith confronted that thin veneer of weary humor and cleaved it in two, demonstrating insight and empathy that I hadn’t expected.  It was really her skills, patience and knowledge that held us together as a team while I piloted the ship after the elusive white whale.  Matt and Meredith gave me the rope, and I hung myself on that lanyard that summer and fall.

Not long after the coffee with Meredith Johansen called.

“Sam, have you identified some software vendors that will license their software to us to install internally?”

I had the list – a short one but with several viable firms.

“Yes.  It should be on your fax machine from this morning.”

“Great.  Can you arrange some short demos with them?”

“Of course.  Who will need to sit in from your side?”

“Oh, well of course we’ll need Bill and Fred, myself, and someone from IT.  I’ll ask Frank to assign a resource.”

“OK”  We worked out some available times and I set to work, lining up demonstrations of innovation software for Accipiter.

“Do you have a script they should follow, or some features you want them to focus on?  Otherwise all we are likely to get is the dog and pony show.”

“That will have to suffice for now.  We don’t have enough requirements documented to share with them, and we need to move quickly.”

At the same time we were pushing hard to understand the goals of the innovation community so we could structure it accordingly.  Susan and I lined up a call with Bill to better understand his vision for the community.

“Bill, for us to build an innovation community that meets your objectives, we need to understand what Accipiter wants from a community.  Are you interested in radical or disruptive innovation, or incremental innovation, or both?  Is it OK if any customer or prospect submits ideas, or do you want to invite specific individuals or companies?  Do you want them working on topics that are defined by us, or simply entering ideas they think are important?  There are a number of attributes that we need to define for the community, in order to shape it effectively and achieve the outcomes you want.”

Bill shifted uncomfortably in his chair.  In the back of my mind I was relatively convinced that he’d received a very vague directive from the CEO, and wasn’t sure what the real goals or outcomes were.  It looked like we were going to have to break this down, step by step, line by line, to get to an answer.

“Sam” he said “we’re interested in innovation and want to learn more about what it takes to be an innovative firm.  We recognize we are lagging many in our industry.  Angus, our CEO, has asked us to create an innovation community, mostly I suspect, because several of our competitors have one.  I’m thinking the best thing to do is have you and Susan recommend the structure of the community, making the assumptions you need to make, and we’ll present it to Angus when you are ready.  My thinking is that we should start carefully, so our intention should be incremental ideas at this point.  Since we don’t have clear direction, we’ll let our customers suggest new ideas rather than try to direct them to specific problems or issues.”

This was better than I had expected.  While not the best approach for a community, at least Bill was able to help us shape it so we could achieve his goals.

“What about downstream, once the ideas have been submitted?”

“I’m not certain I understand you” he said.

“Once a number of ideas have been submitted, Accipiter will need to demonstrate that you are reviewing and evaluating them, and selecting some for further investigation.  There’s no process or team to support that today.”

He looked at us and smiled.  I suppose you could call it a smile. The gleaming white teeth were exposed, and the corners of his mouth were turned up, but the smile didn’t extend to his eyes.  “You’re looking at the team in the short run” he said, gesturing at me and Susan.  “There’s no budget for this, what we like to call an unfunded mandate.”

“You understand that..”

He waved me off.  “I understand that we’ll need to demonstrate some action on the ideas.  The two of you will need to run this for at least a quarter or more, until we demonstrate some success and gain more knowledge.  Structure the program the way you feel is best, document the process and your assumptions and present the solution and your cost estimates to me.  Can you have that to me by Friday?”

Sure.  Sure I could.  The cost estimates were easy.  It was the sense of signing up to a program that seemed doomed from the start that left me apprehensive.  For just a moment, I understood how kamikaze pilots must have felt, just before taking off from the carrier for the last time.  At least they died defending their homelands and sacred honor.  I wasn’t sure anymore why I agreed to this effort.  This was becoming an elaborate, inexpensive experiment that could fail miserably and had a very small chance for success.  It was quite possibly the worst of both worlds.

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.