What might a virtuous circle of collaborative innovation look like? In this episode, our protagonists Charlie and Frankie review how the design of their practice reinforces itself from strategy to planning to execution to governance.

Last fall our columnist the innovation architect Doug Collins began 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.


Successful advocacy means knowing which lever to pull when, with what people. The Digital Age may change the levers, but not the need to pull them.

Breakfast at the Monarch Beach Resort

Charlie and Frankie sat in the white, wrought-iron chairs that the Monarch Beach Resort had set on the main terrace. It was summer and sunny. The breeze off the Pacific Ocean served as a natural air conditioner, cooling guests and staff alike.

Going forward, I will place myself more in the role of “question master.”

Charlie and Frankie ordered breakfast. Early, they had the terrace to themselves.

“Brenda sure knows how to pick her spots,” Frankie said. She watched a couple, hand in hand, walk from their room to the beach.

“I’ll say,” Charlie said. “We’ve had a good year—one of our best. Harry gave his okay to splash out a bit.”

“And, you should be happy, Charlie,” Frankie continued, “your fingerprints are all over the agenda.”

Charlie smiled. Brenda had ultimately decided to incorporate the practice of collaborative innovation into the agenda.

Dirty Maple’s retailers, with the help of the Idea Millers, had been invited ahead of the event to participate in a series of challenges around common selling scenarios—each one designed to increase the close rate on the showroom floor and, thus, improve top-line growth. The retailers had a number of break-out sessions scheduled at the St. Regis to decide how they might implement the most compelling ones.

Frankie, too, found herself in the mix. She was using the forum to introduce to the retailers a vision for Sales Forecasting 2.0. The new program, which featured greater transparency and immediacy in what had once been a closed process at Dirty Maple, was a packaging of the ideas the company chose to pursue from the first collaborative innovation challenge they had sponsored. The program promised in the near term faster replenishment times for the more popular flooring lines—a frequent request on the part of the retailers.

Charlie and Frankie felt enormously proud. The relaxed, sunny atmosphere of the resort heightened their feeling of well being.

“So,” Frankie asked, “have you decided whether to share more of the Idea Mill Program with the retailers for your session?”

“I have, Frankie, I have,” Charlie said. “In fact, I’d like to show you something.” He removed a sheet of paper from his tan leather portfolio.

Frankie stared at Charlie as she took the sheet and adjusted her sunglasses. “You are never at rest.”

“I suppose not. My mind is either on Kaylee Jo or work, most days.”

Frankie stared at the ocean, then at the sheet of paper.

The Virtuous Circle of Collaborative Innovation

“I call this view ‘the virtuous circle,’” Charlie said (figure 1).

Figure 1: the virtuous circle for the Idea Mill Program

click to enlarge

“I’ve seen these figures before,” Frankie said, “on a white board or on a cocktail napkin at the Wellington Arms.”

“I know,” Charlie said, “but up until now I haven’t known how… had the experience to… put all the pieces together in a way that made sense to me, much less anyone else. We were writing the story as we lived it these past couple months. Do you agree?”

“I do,” Frankie said. “I was hesitant at first. We were like the new neighbors on the block, throwing our first party. Would anyone come?”

“So what points are you going to make to this group?”

“I think I want to say the following,” Charlie replied.

“First, as the head of strategic planning, I am changing strategic planning. For the longest time, the release of the plan appeared to take a page from Charlton Heston as Moses, when he came down from the mountain, commandments in hand.

Going forward, I will place myself more in the role of ‘question master’: What critical questions, were we to pursue them together, might lead to real breakthroughs for the business and ourselves?

So many people have expressed frustration with me—or to me: We’re not very adept at asking ourselves the right questions. I will take on that challenge.

Secondly, I want to observe that in the Digital Age, the act of bringing together a diverse group of people to focus on the critical question is absolutely vital.

Here again, if we have lived in a world where answering questions was viewed as someone else’s problem, then engaging people in why they might want to get involved—‘What’s in it for me?’—is critically important.

Thirdly, and lastly, I want to speak in terms of stewardship. That is, if we run a challenge and people participate, then the Idea Mill Program, quid pro quo, behaves as responsible stewards. For ideas that map to the core, first-horizon business, we help ensure the ideator and the business sponsor align, relative to the sponsor making space for the ideator to initiate the idea. For ideas—blue-sky ideas—that look out to the second and third horizons, we help the ideator find space to pursue the ideas in our incubation lab. By that way, the lab should be open in late September, once we fix the problems the building inspector had identified during her last visit.”

The Reality of Organizational Life Intrudes

“Charlie,” Frankie said, “there’s something I need to tell you.”

“What’s that?” Charlie asked.

“A couple of the product management staff have been lobbying Harry and me to claw back the savings we have achieved with the first challenge.”

“Say what?” Charlie asked.

“Lyle Sommers in cabinetry had been making the case that a dollar spent prototyping the latest open-face designs would yield a better return than a dollar spent on the Idea Mill Program. He also said that a lot of the ideas we’re pursuing to improve sales forecasting would have come to us, anyway, if we had simply focused on the problem.”

“What did Harry say?”

“Harry got rid of him late last week. Fired him. He never liked Lyle, as you know. Lyle’s attempt to undermine the program, after Harry had publicly supported it, was the last straw. Were you aware of any of this?” Frankie asked.

“No—holy cow, Frankie. I know Lyle wasn’t coming to the St. Regis this year. I didn’t know why.”

“Charlie, Charlie. My friend. You talk a good game, but you need to become a much more effective advocate for your program if it’s going to survive, even with Harry’s backing. I helped you here with Lyle, who was on his way out, anyway. But, you better figure out how to have more of the right conversations at the right time with the right people. Maybe some of the rules have changed, but not all of them, as far as I can see.”

The waiter, dressed in a white oxford shirt and mocha brown apron, brought their breakfast of French Toast and bacon.

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 San Gregorio Beach and cliffs by