Editor’s Note: Last fall, our senior practice leader Doug Collins began a story about the fictional Dirty Maple Flooring Company. How do they embrace the practice of collaborative innovation as a way to solve critical business problems in the Digital Age? The episodesappear bi-weekly on InnovationManagement.se. Doug reflects here on how his work with Mindjet clients has informed the storyline. Is truth stranger than fiction?
Can We Get a Price Check on Aisle Three?
When I was a child, my mom would take me — sometimes willingly, sometimes under duress — to the local A&P for groceries. I looked forward to seeing the conveyer belt and register that signaled the trip’s end.
And, while there, I could read the headlines of the supermarket tabloids. Lose 10 Pounds by the Holidays with Goat’s Milk. Redecorate the Rumpus Room in Tangerine in Three Simple Steps.
I found myself taking offense on behalf of the tabloids’ intended audience at the over-the-top, prescriptive tone of the headlines. What poor souls straighten and flatten their lives so they can live it by formula?
I found myself thinking of these headlines last summer. Was I guilty of committing the same sin of providing overly prescriptive — and, thus, inauthentic — advice in my own writing? Can one succeed in introducing the practice of collaborative innovation in three simple steps that may or may not involve tangerine?
My conclusion: yes to the former, no to the latter.
With this perspective, I decided to try telling the tale of the Dirty Maple Flooring Company. The narrative, rolled out in episodes, would provide the space to explore the ambiguities and complexities that arise when one advocates for change — any change — in an established organization, where the rules of the road have been set.
Separating Fact from Fiction
The story, which follows the ups and downs that the protagonist Charlie Bangbang experiences as he introduces the practice to his organization, stays close to reality. The conversations and engagements that he pursues with his stakeholders jibe with those that practice leaders at Mindjet’s clients’ organizations pursue with theirs.
I deviate from the reality that many practice leaders experience in one important way. I give Charlie a break by presuming that he introduces the practice with a challenge question: How might we improve Dirty Maple’s sales forecasts?
Followers of the Innovation Architecture series may recall that I define the collaborative innovation space as having both open and inquiry-led forms. The open form enables people to capture serendipitous ideas: the Digital Age equivalent of the suggestion box. The inquiry-led form enables people to respond to an innovation challenge with their ideas and their comments.
Practitioners can pursue these forms internally with colleagues and externally with their customers, suppliers, and the world at large. Figure 1 depicts the collaborative innovation space.
Figure 1: the collaborative innovation space
What many practitioners have discovered is that, while they can establish an open space with little effort, they wrestle with what to do with ideas that people contribute:
- Who should evaluate the idea’s potential?
- Who should shepherd the idea through its development on the back end?
- What if the idea’s likely sponsors are busy with what they perceive to be their day jobs?
The inquiry-led form takes more work, by comparison. Practitioners have to help their stakeholders reach a shared understanding of what critical questions are worth asking the larger community. And, there is an art and a science to question formation.
As one executive sponsor within a client organization observed to me, “our main challenge in pursuing the practice is that we find that we are not particularly good at asking ourselves the right question.” I valued the leadership she expressed in having the courage to make this admission.
The inquiry-led form nevertheless trumps the open form because the questions that the practitioner poses align with the strategic business intent of the organization and because a ready, willing sponsor awaits the ideas that the challenge generates.
I could have had Charlie learn this lesson the hard way, as practitioners in the real world do. Rather than introduce this object lesson, however, I chose to set him on the right path to start, so that we could explore where that path could take him in all its wonderful uncertainty which defies facile, formulaic treatment.