Marlowe and Susan present their strategic innovation plan to the senior executives at Accipiter, recommending incremental innovation for organic growth, and disruptive innovation in new products. The question is, have they created enough innovation momentum to convince management to take on two simultaneous innovation projects?

My head was spinning and I was glad that Susan had offered to kick off the presentation.  I was still trying to recover from the coldcock blow that announced that the CFO was the new “sponsor” for innovation.  Now, I’d worked with a number of firms on innovation, and I’d had sponsors that ranged from the expected (product management, marketing or business line lead) to the unexpected (a human resources director) but the last person I thought I’d ever see as a sponsor for innovation was the CFO.  But, there he sat, paying close attention to Susan’s introduction.

I was pulled out of my funk when Susan introduced me and the transition to the next slide, which highlighted our vision for innovation at Accipiter.

“Pardon me, Susan, but before Sam presents, can you tell me how long you’ve been working on the innovation effort to date?”  That from Brockwell.  It was probably an innocent question, but my heart sank to my knees.  I’d be involved with Accipiter now for at least six months, presenting, talking, cajoling and we still didn’t have an active project.  Susan had been at it far longer.  It wasn’t her fault that we weren’t further along.  It wasn’t anybody’s fault.  So far there hadn’t been any reason for the project to succeed.

I glanced at Bill Thompson, but there was no joy there.  He wasn’t willing to step out on the ledge with us.  If Susan was going down, she would do so publicly and alone.

“I’ve been working on developing an innovation capability within Accipiter for about eight months.  I took the position in September and had to transition some of my other responsibilities.  We’ve had, frankly, some starts and some stops along the way.”

“What’s the barrier?”  Hmm.  Things could get interesting.  Could Brockwell actually care about innovation and want it to move forward, or was he just scratching a rhetorical itch?  And, how far out on the limb would Susan be willing to go?

“Well, George, Accipiter’s culture doesn’t lend itself well to this kind of change.  That’s actually why we decided to take a step back and get agreement on a vision for what innovation could do for us.  It was pretty clear there was a lot of concern and little interest in some of our initial efforts, so we decided to see if we could get buy in with you, the senior executives, and start to push the concept of innovation through the business units.”

George was nodding, but not giving too much away at this point.  It still wasn’t clear whether he was agreeing with Susan or just taking it all in.  He definitely was playing his cards close to the vest.

“Please continue with the presentation” he said.

That was my cue to start.

“Susan and I have spent the last few weeks thinking about innovation and what it could mean to Accipiter, and what Accipiter needs to be successful if it commits to an increased focus on innovation.  Over the next few slides I want to show you the vision we’ve defined and discuss the opportunities and challenges we see in relation to that vision.  As we progress through this, I hope you’ll find that we’ve defined the opportunity well, and that you’ll see the importance of senior executive commitment to this effort.  As Susan has already pointed out, no significant initiative is going to be successful without your buy in and continuing support.”

“We’ve identified three significant strategic objectives that Accipiter is pursuing.  These are:  Organic growth in key markets, development of new product lines where Accipiter does not have an offering today and entry into international markets.  We believe that a focused innovation effort can support and accelerate the first two strategic goals, and this is our first supposition.  Innovation is not a strategy, but an enabler of key strategies and goals.”

So far, so good.  We’d taken the strategic goals we could identify, which hadn’t been easy, and identified the ones we felt we could support with innovation.

“If we seek to innovate around these two strategic goals, we can decide whether we seek incremental or disruptive innovation.  Making these choices will then determine what kinds of innovation activities, processes and goals we’d implement, and the amount of change we’d require for Accipiter.  Our recommendation is to pursue incremental innovation for organic growth, and pursue disruptive innovation in new products.  This recommendation means that we’d form programs to assist the existing product groups with incremental but intentional innovation, seeking new ideas for new products and services that are aligned to existing products for organic growth.  We’d also work to set up more radical or disruptive innovation programs to identify new product or service opportunities or “blue oceans” where Accipiter can be the first to offer a new product or service.”

“You’d suggest doing both, simultaneously?”  Brockwell seemed a bit surprised.  It was becoming evident whose meeting this was, as no one else had offered a suggestion or made any commitment.  Thompson, who had been our sponsor and conduit, seemed to shrink even further in his chair.  I wasn’t sure if he was preparing to duck the bullets, or if he was losing stature in the hierarchy.

“Yes.  Both require different commitment and different tools and techniques.  The incremental work can start quickly and will identify new ideas in fairly short order, which allows us to get to the proverbial ‘quick wins’.  The disruptive work will take longer but will create more interesting and valuable opportunities.  So the incremental work creates momentum and new products and buys time for the disruptive work, which will take longer but have more potential impact.”

Brockwell’s eyes widened.  I’d really stepped in it this time.

He turned to face Thompson and Phillips.  “Can we take on two simultaneous innovation projects?”  He wanted them on the record.

Phillips hemmed and hawed, but allowed that Accipiter could probably manage both.  To him it wasn’t an issue of dollars but an issue of resources.  Thompson ducked the question entirely.

I responded.  “Yes, in our experience innovation is almost always constrained by staffing rather than funding.  We will work with you to define the appropriate team, and we’ll keep the requests to a minimum, but there will be demands on resources – and they’ll be on your best people.”

Thompson still hadn’t responded, and Brockwell looked at him curiously.  I was beginning to sense that Thompson had never intended for things to get this far – perhaps all he had ever wanted was to look like he was making some efforts around innovation.  Well, he was soon to be hoist on his own petard.  He’d have to come down one way or the other – either he’d been stringing Susan and I along for a number of months, or he’d grow a spine in the next 30 seconds.

“I don’t think we can afford to do two simultaneous initiatives” he said at last, refusing to look at us.  He busied himself with rearranging some papers in front of him.  “I think the best we could do would be to focus on the incremental innovation for the product groups.”  Once again choosing the least risky approach.

Brockwell took that all in, nodding all the time.  He was beginning to remind me of the bobblehead tchotchkes you can pick up at the ballpark on souvenir night.  Then, he said something that I’ll never forget.

“No, Bill, I think we need to do them both.  What’s the point of only doing the easy, incremental stuff?  We already do that occasionally.   Accipiter needs more, and we need to challenge the firm to do more.  Susan, you and Sam plan to see me tomorrow.  Call my assistant and set something up.  I’ll look at your estimates and see what we can do for the funding, then we’ll take our proposal to Angus.  This has been delayed far too long.”

Angus.  The CEO.  George was overruling Bill and taking us straight to the CEO.

By Jeffrey Phillips

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.