Innovation? “We can do that now.”
Stewart was the guy we’d been expecting to say something all day, and he left it till 3.50pm.
When he said, “we can do that now”, it was like a blast of clean air through the room.
Walking into the subterranean meeting room on a winter Thursday morning, the mood wasn’t the best. The teams had been working together all week. The US guys arrived on Monday afternoon after a Sunday departure. The UK team had been looking forward to getting to know their virtual friends, but neither group had expected to find themselves in competition at every meeting.
Management seemed to want them to score points off each other. With some manufactured tension in the air, the days had passed well enough, but now it was Thursday, and farewells and a long flight home were twenty-four hours away. Just the innovation workshop and the team meal to go.
Innovation in personal health is a tricky area. Labelling regulations, approved claims, and ideas thrown on the table like grenades didn’t do much more than set the teams further apart. The overriding feeling on the day was what was good for the UK couldn’t work in the US.
The team thought the consultants had set the bar unrealistically high. The workshop moderator was proposing consumer concepts that had roots in medical research not yet converted for the consumer market. Some of the ideas were still under patent and the team struggled to see how that was going to help them now, or any time soon?
Management had made it very clear to the Innovation Manager that working out how the market might be usefully developed had to be more than interesting: they wanted action now. After a day of sandwiches, soft drinks and break-out sessions, there wasn’t much to show for the time spent and the cost was beginning to look hard to explain.
Then Stewart said, “we can do that now.”
Stewart is that kind of guy who isn’t easy to describe. He’s a bit overweight, quieter than the rest of the gang and dresses older than he probably is. Find yourself in a plane seat next to him, and your first thought is probably, ‘this is going to be a long flight.’ But when you’re forced to talk to him, you find you learn so much. Stewart knows stuff.
He doesn’t lead a team, but has worked for most of the competition. He isn’t in sales, but knows the industry. It’s not easy to see exactly where he sits in the organogram, but he’s on this trip.
Stewart hadn’t said much all day, but he had a lot of Post-It notes in his workbook. He had been frustrating in break-outs, with his too regular “we tried that” announcements. He almost became the de facto decision maker just by being there. Then, “we can do that now” changed everything.
This idea had been discussed and got no traction in the room. It didn’t seem to sit in the same universe as the products that had more support. An outlier, it was too hard to make, too hard to launch, and not exciting enough to spend time on: not with these brains looking for the money shot. But suddenly, “we can do that now” linked a radical but awkward idea back to the product range today. The small step Stewart declared as feasible made the timeline look like a plan.
He went further: according to Stewart, the packaging machines were in place outside the US and the UK (who knew?), the research supported the idea, and the ethnographic studies on the hard drive described the market need. This team was in business, and the Innovation Manager had the ROI needed to secure the budget for the next workshop.
Afterwards, this meeting became company folklore. The breakthrough moment that changed the brand direction was never attributed to Stewart’s ability to see what no-one else could. Looking back, it was hard even to say why the blindingly obvious had been so close to slipping out of reach; but it all worked out for the best. The Innovation Manager was moved into position to lead the product team, and Stewart was top of the list for every innovation workshop until he retired.