With Accipiter’s new innovation team and communications under way, Marlow sets out to establish their first focus area. In this case the pressure provided by their competitors’ advantage turns out to be a guiding light.

Making decisions is easy.  I make them all the time.  Blue socks with the blue suit.  Steak for dinner.  Single malt after.  Even a child can make decisions.  Making good decisions with limited knowledge that have a lot of impact, there’s the rub.  And what the aerospace group needed were clear, concise decisions about innovation targets.

I couldn’t help but feel for Greg.  After all, I’ve been unfortunate enough to watch a number of executives struggle to define their strategic goals.  It’s easy to say “we need more innovation” but often hard to say, specifically, what we should be innovating.  Making decisions and choices is as much about what to leave out, as to what to leave in.  Making the decision meant making choices that would impact the organization for months or years, coming down on a strategic direction.  Making the decision meant success or failure in the not too distant future.  Oftentimes strategy is more about what you’ll say “no” to rather than what you’ll agree to.  No wonder most firms can’t innovate.  Many lack the ability to make decisions and communicate their goals succinctly to their staff.  Something about plausible deniability.

We met with Greg a week or so into the project.  We had selected a team, not necessarily everyone we wanted, but workable. We’d talked to the communications team and we had a program ready to alert the aerospace group that we’d be focusing on innovation and needed their attention.  All the major pieces were in place, except possibly the most important piece.  What were we going to focus on?

“New products” said Greg.  “We need new products.  We’re getting our heads handed to us by foreign competition.  Even our best customers are telling us that we’ve fallen far behind.  We need something really revolutionary.”

“Do you have any customer insights or requirements developed?  Has your sales team discovered any interesting unmet or unarticulated needs?  What about innovating around the way you service and support your products?  Does it have to be a new product, or one that’s delivered or serviced differently?”

“AXT has released a number of new products that are much lighter, but as strong and resilient as our older products.  They are cutting weight from the plane, and that equals less fuel burned per mile.  Nippon Air Industries has a completely different approach.  They offer to maintain their products right on the tarmac.  Their products are probably equivalent to ours in terms of weight and performance, but their maintenance is superb and cuts costs and time for the carriers.  Whether our solution is new materials, new products or new services is almost a moot point.  We need it all, just to catch up to what our competitors are doing.”

“So, really, we could be just as successful innovating around a business model, or a service offering, or even the customer experience?  What do you want to prioritize, Greg?  That will give us focus for the team.”

“My preference, because it’s something we can do quickly, is to create some new products for the industry with really outstanding and revolutionary capabilities – extremely low weight or extremely easy to maintain or extremely long life.  I think Accipiter can drive new product development faster than it can wrap its head around new services or business models.”

Good.  One key focus area down, with hints about how radical or disruptive the change needs to be.

“Do you want to conduct this as a “skunkworks” and separate the team, or open the work up more broadly to the entire aerospace division?  I think we can move faster and we’ll be more likely to achieve radical ideas in a small, separate group, but we may miss some good ideas from the division if we don’t involve them.”

“No, I’d prefer to keep it smaller.  I’ve read about Lockheed and the skunkworks model and that’s what we need right now.  Small team, fast action, radical outcomes.”

“Great.  So we can assume that we’ll form the team and keep the idea generation within Accipiter.  No “open innovation” models – at least not with the Accipiter name.  If we need to use some external innovation, we could leverage a company like Innocentive, perhaps?”

“I don’t want to create a lot of publicity, but there may be inventors or entrepreneurs we need to tap externally.  Tell me more about Innocentive?”

“Innocentive helps connect people with ideas to people with needs.  Basically we can place a notice that we’re trying to solve a specific technical problem, and anyone who is registered on their site can spot that and submit technical solutions to the problem.  There are two nice things about Innocentive’s services:  first, most of the people on the site are engineers and technologists, so we’re likely to get relevant responses, and second, we can post anonymously.”

“But we’re not ready to post anything yet – correct?”

“No.  And we’d use them only if we weren’t satisfied with the ideas we generated or felt we could go further by including that capability.”

“OK – do you have what you need?  A fairly radical product innovation developed by a small team that has a lot of leeway and flexibility but works primarily internally.  Don’t focus right now on services or business models.  I just don’t think we’re ready for that.”

“This helps a lot.  As strange as it may sound, offering very specific instructions in some dimensions of the challenge encourages innovative thinking in the areas we leave “unbounded”.  And an innovation effort with no scope just becomes an attempt to boil the ocean.  We’ve got enough for now.”

It went even better than I had hoped for.  Greg was under the gun and ready to make decisions, since many of them had been made for him and Accipiter by the competition.  Nothing sharpens the mind like a near and present threat.

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.