Marlow is eager to get his client new products and services to stave off a lot of overseas competition. Now he just needs to identify the most significant challenges or opportunities and begin to define their risk tolerance.

“Hi Greg, thanks for joining us on the call.”

“Sorry I can’t be there, but we’ve had a significant problem crop up in our Seattle operations.  I had to come out here to see what could be done to straighten out a customer situation.”

“No problem.  Did you get our presentation for the innovation discussion?”

“Yes, but I haven’t had time to review it.”

Eyes rolled in the conference room.  Several of them bounced off the table, and collected in a small, sad pocket in the corner near the projector.  Several more seemed to glaze over with that look of corporate resignation so familiar to people trapped in small fabric covered boxes and chimpanzees in zoos.

I took the bull by the horns.

“Greg, we’ll need your insights and directions for the innovation effort to succeed.  If this is a difficult time for you, we can reschedule, but we need your thoughtful input on our recommendations.  You’ll need to understand those and be ready to support them, or indicate a different direction for our team.  Can you give us an hour or so today?”

There was absolute silence in our conference room.  The silence was so loud I was glad that Greg was furiously shuffling papers and making a significant amount of background noise.  We were hardly started with our innovation efforts yet already at the cusp of a major decision.  Greg needed our help.  But Greg had many other priorities.  It would really come down to how important it was to him that his team create some interesting new products or services.  I could feel the excitement leak out of our conference room by the second.


“Yes, I’m still here.  I’m working with Mary to shift our calendars around.  I can give you one hour now, and I’ll commit to reading the presentation and getting back to you with my thoughts by Friday.”

“Great.  Let’s get started.”

The energy level in the room increased by degrees as we walked Greg through a series of ideas and concepts we’d generated so far.  We were trying to develop a “charter” for the innovation effort.  We knew his team needed new products and services to stave off a lot of overseas competition.  Little new product development had been done and his unit was suffering.  Clearly, the products weren’t the only issue, as we were interrupted twice by client managers in Seattle with pressing problems.

“Greg, what we want to do with you is establish the scope of the innovation effort. So, what we’re trying to do is document the two or three most significant challenges or opportunities, confirm those are the concepts you want us to work on with you, and begin to define your risk tolerance.”

“Risk tolerance?”

“Just shorthand for how incremental or how disruptive you want our work to be.  We can set up a quick brainstorm and have some ideas to you fairly quickly, but they’ll probably be more incremental, and may not have a lot of value.  On the other hand, we can set up a more disruptive exercise, which identifies some more significant change but will take more time and have a greater chance of failure.”

“Can we do both?  Can we do some short term, more incremental brainstorming and some longer term disruptive work?”

“That’s possible.  What would you want us to focus on in the short term, and in the longer term?”

“We need some new product ideas, but we also need something radically different.  I’m thinking about an idea to shift from a model where we sell and maintain our products to a rental model where we own and maintain the products and our clients simply rent them.  I think you sent me a white paper along these lines.”

“Yes.  That would be the York HVAC model.  Several other heavy equipment makers are moving in that direction as well.”

“No doubt we need to change our interaction with our customers.  I think you’ve also recommended some concepts around customer experience journey.  Tell me more about that.”

“The concept behind the customer experience journey is that you purposefully design the interactions and touchpoints so that the experience a customer receives is optimal, and Accipiter places the right emphasis on touchpoints and interactions that matter to the customer.”

“After my last two interactions with customers I can tell you we could definitely stand to innovate our customer experience.”

We walked him through much of the strategic overview, trying to ensure we understood his goals and could link our work to strategic outcomes. Innovation is tricky even with clear goals and expectations, and I wanted the chance to work on a well-defined problem, since our project was high visibility.  Greg understood our need and managed to give us enough insights in the meeting that we were able to develop an innovation charter that he approved later that week.

Later that week, Susan and I met with him again to confirm our approach and begin to chart our course for the work.

“So you’re suggesting a more incremental project to seek out new product ideas and a longer term project based on customer experience?”

“That’s what seems appropriate to us, based on what you told us were your key needs” Susan said.  I just watched him and nodded.

“OK.  What kind of staffing or resources do you need from my team?”

“We’ll need your involvement, of course, mostly for direction and to ensure we get the people we need.  We’ll need three or four strong people from products, marketing and sales to build a team to explore new product ideas.  Say three to five people at 20% for about ten weeks.  We’ll need to lay out the customer experience journey a bit more, but a similar sized team but a much longer time horizon.”

Greg blanched a bit but didn’t refuse.  When you are backed into a corner with no good alternatives, even a painful exit can be promising.

“Alright.  Get with Donna to identify the people you need.  Can you draft a short email from me to my team indicating why this is important and why they need to take on this extra work?  If you can get something to me later today, I’ll review it and get it out.”

“No problem.  If you are comfortable with this approach we’ll get started.”

Greg was anything but comfortable, but I think he realized that we were his last, best hope for turning the tide.  Lifeguards have a difficult job, rescuing drowning people and avoiding getting pushed under themselves.  We’d need to be careful, execute against our plan and help Greg as best as we could, and hope we could create some meaningful success in the short run while we build the teams and processes necessary for Accipiter to succeed.

By Jeffrey Phillips

About the author:

Jeffrey 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,” 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.