Organizations shake and remake themselves to survive and thrive in the Digital Age. What critical conversations need to happen amongst stakeholders? What processes need to change? How might the practice of collaborative innovation help people find their way forward?

This past fall our columnist the innovation architect Doug Collins began to tell the tale of how the Dirty Maple Flooring Company came to embrace the Digital Age through the practice of collaborative innovation. The latest episode appears below. Readers may navigate the full series here.

Charlie Reflects on His Morning

Charlie listened to his breath as he inhaled and exhaled while sitting on the antediluvian toilet in the bathroom of the Wellington Arms. The quiet of the commode, in the marble and tile affair that Ann and Casey offered their patrons, allowed his restless mind to quiet.

The call with Frankie and the country managers—his first challenge team—had gone reasonably well, he thought. Harry was right: it is hard—damn hard—to shift from feeling as if you were supposed to have all the answers, either because you thought you were supposed to or—worse—because you assumed you did, to being comfortable facilitating a session to divine the right questions.

Dirty Maple had for years embraced a promote-from-within policy, based on the reasonable assumption that the more you worked at the job, the more you understood and, thus, the more you could bring to the table by way of wisdom, earned the hard way.

Charlie saw how this logic made sense. Indeed, he thought, he was a significant beneficiary of it. At the same time, the challenge session this morning revealed to him how the recognition of expertise through advancement, however well earned, could have the effect of baking in attitudes, assumptions, and biases at the highest levels which, lamentably, could leave the organization blind at the very time it most needed to see.

Charlie began to think of Dirty Maple’s struggle to improve forecast accuracy in terms of a more deeply ingrained cultural matter as opposed to a more straightforward case of aligning misaligned processes.

Charlie realized that, yet again, he had underestimated Frankie. If, in reality, the company had faced a process issue that hampered accurate forecasting, then she was more than capable of knocking together the requisite heads—“kicking butts and squeezing nuts,” as she would observe to him—to fix matters in short order.

No, the fact that both Harry the CEO and she as CFO put their support behind this particular topic as the focus for the collaborative innovation challenge told him that they more fully understood and appreciated the magnitude of the problem. Charlie felt a small flame of humiliation burning within him. They had just promoted him to lead strategic planning for the company during a particularly challenging time. He was supposed to see these things. He felt at that moment that he saw nothing. Nothing.

Frankie banged on the door. “You fall in, Charlie? Casey is wondering if he should put your pot roast back in the oven.”

“No, no, I’m coming. Hang on.” Charlie let a concluding fart in the cavernous bowl, then proceeded to rise, only to find his legs had fallen asleep during his reverie. He peg-legged his way back to the booth where he found Frankie methodically removing the meat from the bones of her broasted chicken.

Casey Brings the Baltic Porter

“What can I get you to drink, Charlie? You left us in a hurry.” Casey enquired. Frankie smiled, then resumed her efforts to remove the leg from the carcass.

“Thanks, Casey—how’s about the Admiral Stache, that dark porter from the Milwaukee Brewing Company. They’re local, right?”

“They sure are, Charlie. My boy Sam reps their beer to the local bars. Just ordered a couple cases from him this week.”

“That’s great, Casey. Glad to hear of it.” Charlie weighed for a moment the possibility of Kaylee Jo joining Dirty Maple while he was still around. He smiled.

“So, good work this morning, don’t you think?” Frankie asked.

“Yeah, I think so. I guess I shouldn’t have to be reminded, yet I reminded just how much our people can bring to the table when they have a forum to do so.”

“So, let’s get to it. What did you think of Carlos’ point?”

Casey brought Charlie’s Baltic porter to the table. A thin ring of dense foam encircled the inner rim of the glass. Charlie saw the hunting scene which hung on the south wall of the main room of the place in the reflection of the beer, turned upside down.

“I have to agree with him—with his core point: setting and trying to adhere to annual targets in fast-changing markets pretty much invites forecast inaccuracy to occur. We’re asking for it by the way we try to plan the business to accommodate our timing.”

“At the same time, I’m sympathetic to the folks on the other side of the coin: the demand planners and the people charged with developing the associated capital budgets. You know—your staff. We run a capital intensive business. Part of the organization needs visibility into the future. Although, as I say these words, I realize there’s a certain unreality in trying to achieve such goals.”

Frankie Shares Her Perspective

“That’s right. Some of the parts and equipment we buy have a productive life of 30 years or more.”

“Okay,” Charlie said. “So let me ask you: do you think we have the right or the best critical question?”

Frankie gnawed on the thigh bone in quiet contemplation. “I think so—I think so—and, I say this for the simple reason that I don’t feel as if I have a good—or, at least—the best answer to it floating around in my mind at present. Don’t tell Harry I said that. Anyway, I’ll be interested to see what ideas our own people have—especially the people closest to the retailers, where the demand starts.”

“Me, too, Frankie.” Charlie took a moment to enjoy the contrast of the porter’s bitterness with the heavy flavor of the pot roast. There were worse things in life than living in the upper Midwest.

The challenge team after a couple hours’ dialogue and debate had arrived at the following question to pose to the community…

How might we take greater ownership of the near-term changes in client demand in the markets we serve?

Charlie and Frankie knew that Carlos, Ivete, and Benyamin were expressing authentic leadership in arriving at this question. On paper, they as country managers “owned” the forecast. However, as they discussed this morning, “owning” the forecast and “owning” the implications of a forecast that changed in real time were two different matters altogether.

The challenge team, to their credit, went for the jugular. As Ivete had observed during a lull in the conversation, “Digital Age transparency begets organizational integrity. It must, don’t you see? An individual cannot on their own solve a systems problem.”

End of Part Five

By Doug Collins

About the author

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations such as The Estee Lauder Companies, Jarden Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, The Procter & Gamble Company, and Ryder System navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation.
Doug develops approaches, creates forums, and structures engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the ideas and to the collaboration that result.
As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series / Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL).
Today, Doug works as senior practice leader at social innovation company Mindjet, where he consults with a range of clients. He focuses on helping them realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.

Photo: Toilet retro vintage grunge poster from