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The Last 5 Minutes: Digital Innovation When You Aren’t Expecting It

Summary: Breakthrough ideas often emerge at the very end of a focused conversation - as an afterthought, an "oh, by the way", just "one more quick thing" that slips out just when you thought it was time to go. The first in a series - real stories of breakout ideas and insights that happened in the last 5 minutes of the meeting.

Have you ever been in one of those conversations that just meander along a random path … until right at the end? The brainstorming session, the project status meeting, the coffee break, that just kinda peters out into a dull chat about the same old stuff, until we approach the end.

Look at the clock, start to pack up your things … and then it hits. The dynamite idea, the amazing insight, the stunning revelation.

Wow! The meeting runs long, but no one cares. The energy pitches forward, and really interesting things start to happen. Or, possibly, not much happens … but there is that seed of a brilliant idea or game-changing thought that settles into your subconscious, percolating into something really great.

I have noticed this in a surprising number of conversations, with a variety of personality types; executives, creatives, true leaders – and (with much more impact) the folks on the team that are closer to the customer, the product, the real value creation. I have seen this happen enough times to actually expect it, and I actively lean in when the meeting is drawing to a close, just waiting for that nugget of brilliance to slip out onto the table, to mix and divide and remix into some innovation goodness.

Some recent examples …

  • I was finishing up a networking chat with someone who was (unfortunately) pitching her skills and experience to the wrong audience. I mean, it was a valid connection to try, and I did give her some names and companies better suited to the ideas she was championing – great stuff, but just not on our radar screen.

And like a great networker, she knew to ask if there was anything she could do for me. She had waited until we were in the hallway as I was guiding her to the exit – but she did ask, and she was in earnest. I mentioned that I was interested in public speaking, finding opportunities to get some of my ideas out to more diverse audiences. And she had a ready referral for me – an organization I had never known to exist, and was quite frankly a perfect match for my speaker topics.

A great surprise – certainly an unexpected benefit for me. You never know what good will come from these networking conversations. So make a point to take that call, schedule that coffee – and pay attention all the way out the door.

  • Working with a B2B product team evaluating ideas for data-enabling their products – a classic Internet of Things story. They had some ideas about metrics and data that might be valuable to the customer, and were facing their fair share of technology hurdles. But the big elephant in the room (thank goodness) was their focus on the customer – and the strong belief that one of their top customers, a well-known retail chain, would be nervous and skeptical about the security of such devices. For several weeks, this had grown to become the rate-limiting factor in their product development, and it was (once again) bringing this meeting to a thudding stop.

When we finally ended, I walked into the hallway with the Marketing lead for the product line, and we commiserated a bit on the slow progress. Then Mr. Marketing made a stunning statement … “It’s interesting that [Customer] has been asking for, and expecting, machine learning capabilities for a few months now …

What? Are you kidding me? Why is this team blocking their own progress? The most powerful driver of product innovation is the Voice of the Customer – and they are specifically asking for the capability we are hemming and hawing about. So why aren’t we listening?

The truth had come out. Resistance to a different type of product offering wasn’t coming from the marketplace – the challenge was within the team. Our project work took a turn at that point – a pivot towards culture and change acceptance, and more conversations directly with the (very open minded) Customer.

  • I had a fascinating conversation with a semi-retired manufacturing executive recently. In a comfortable place during a career transition, he was talking to me about streaming TV, vacation spots, and good books – clearly spending some time catching up on his mind expansion, getting some living into his life, before reconnecting into his network to identify the “next challenge”.

A great coffee conversation, but time to move on soon … and then he told me about the latest cool thing he was playing with. He had purchased a 3D printing rig, and had been spending ours just experimenting with it. It took him back to his roots as an engineer – there were plans to create, specifications to code into mechanical drawings, that were then sent to the printer, and product was produced.

The conversation really took off at this point, because he was highly energized about this stuff – the capability of the production station, the speed at which changes can be introduced, the flexibility of single batch production, the fundamental differences in design …

A challenge for the mind, learning a new way to think; he was having a blast!

But more magic was happening, especially when you consider the depth of is experience in running manufacturing companies. The possibilities and changes that such technology could bring into play – just boggles the mind to think what he could come up with.

It was really a strong case for budgeting digital “play” time for everyone in your organization – even the executive team! No real objectives, just go learn what new capabilities that the market and your team might find while learning about new technology – and news ways of thinking about value. Let this new learning mix in your brain with your deep domain experience. If you are open to this “play”, it may expose some opportunities for meaningful innovation…

Has this ever happened to you? Capture your stories of amazing insights in the comments below …

More examples of last-minute insights and ideas coming soon …

# 9 January, 2020

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.