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Good gravy! How a defense contractor became more innovative than ever

By Bob Rosenfeld, Photo: Adobe Stock

A major defense contractor sought more innovation, so they called us.

As part of our work helping establish and sustain their Office of Innovation, we assisted them in an annual, five-day innovation challenge event. The company measures innovation for the event by the number of ideas that develop into funded projects that, in turn, become finished billable solutions. Our job was to help the contractor get more expansive and revolutionary ideas – as opposed to incremental or evolutionary ideas – budgeted and brought to fruition.

We succeeded and it was a lot like making gravy. I’ll explain this later.

Idea Connection Systems has been working with the defense contractor for over 10 years and the relationship has resulted in a steady progression of new ideas to completion of some of the industry’s most cutting-edge technologies. All benchmarked, documented, and confidential. They came to us because they wanted breakthroughs. Breakthroughs for vital defense of the nation and winning in a very competitive market. So, we set up an Office of Innovation for them. Each year we profiled everyone who participated in the innovation challenge event and came into the Office of Innovation with our ISPI instrument. This instrument makes visible an individual’s preference, from an extreme "Pioneer" to an extreme "Builder." We then formed teams ranging from dominantly Pioneers to mid-range Builders and Pioneers to dominantly Builders. To have revolutionary results you need the entire spectrum of people.

In general, Builders are predisposed to work within a given paradigm to do things better and thereby improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the organization. Pioneers are predisposed to break out of the current paradigm, do things differently and create something entirely new. Midrange Builders and Midrange Pioneers translate the breakthrough concepts from the Pioneers into a reality.

No Psychobabble!

At the close of the first year, the contractor ended up funding nine projects. That was big, because in the previous year’s event (prior to working with ICS), they funded two, but those projects were more evolutionary. The new nine projects were a mixture of expansionary to revolutionary.

Our client contact was thrilled, and he wanted an explanation: “How did you do that?”

I explained that they had to understand the psychometrics of the instrument. Their response was, “No psychobabble!”

Okay, I shrugged. Since they didn’t want to get into the weeds with how ISPI works, we decided to table the big question and, instead, see how the new ideas progressed. A year later seven of the new ideas are still alive and three were preparing to get launched. We continued our work. And a year after that, they funded TWELVE ideas, and many of those were expansionary to revolutionary concepts.

The question became more demanding: “Tell me how this works! ... No Psychobabble”

Of course, these are engineers and scientists who work with electronics and code. So, they wanted to know how we used our science to get human beings to work together more effectively in producing more and more innovative products.

The art of gravy

Our family and friends at Thanksgiving 2015.

To avoid the psychobabble I thought of a very apt but totally unrelated metaphor: making gravy at Thanksgiving dinner. It was November, after all.

We have big gatherings. My wife and I have seven children and 10 grandchildren, plus guests and significant others. At that time, my two youngest kids liked to assist me in cooking turkeys with the final mission of making a most excellent gravy.

I’m a chemist, so it’s kind of my specialty.

My customer contact was patient but eager to see the relevance, “Alright…what did you do?”

When we make gravy, we take the drippings and we put it at the bottom of another pan.

“What’s this have to do anything…?”

Bear with me! And with the drippings you put flour in, and you disperse it so it doesn’t clump, and you pour flavorful fluid into it and stir that and then heat it up. What do you get?

“Uh…good gravy?”

Yes! Now here’s another example.

Let’s say I have the pot and I pour the fluid in first. Then I put the drippings on top of the fluid. Then, I take the flour and I put that in there. All the same ingredients are there, and I stir it up. Then I heat it…What do I get?

“You get YUCK.” THAT is what you’ve been doing. You haven’t understood how to put the “ingredients” in the proper sequence. And until you do, you’ll keep making something that’s not what you need.

“Oh…so you have to know how to make gravy.” Yep. And we taught them how to do it. We taught them how the ISPI instrument works and the process for forming teams that are both creative and practical. Good gravy making has gone on for over 10 years there.

By following the process with the excellent ingredients they have on hand – their talent – the organization continues to bring more expansionary and revolutionary ideas to market.

All organizations have ingredients, but most don’t fully realize the potential of their people because they don’t mix the ingredients properly when it comes to teams and assignments. The ISPI and our consulting helps companies reveal the invisible elements of their people in their organization. It’s like having a periodic table for people. And when you have that and you blend the right mix of people together with some facilitation, you start to see ideas becoming great innovations.



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