I’m tempted to say that this is not a typical week for me, but there really is no typical week. I’m travelling much more right now than I usually do, in part because we’ve just lowered the price of membership in the institute, and I need to see a good number of new members over the next few months. So it’s more events in more places, and – I hope – more business to follow.
As a general rule, I spend between a third and half of my time working on research projects, in addition to running events and general administrative upkeep. We recently completed a substantial research project about the prospects for BitCoin, and the risks that the crypto currency represents, for one of the world’s largest insurance companies. We’ve also recently done a big project on environmental standards for global consumer-packaged-goods companies, on behalf of one of the big companies in that sector, and we regularly do studies of how companies and public agencies measure innovation processes and outcomes. Our work covers a tremendous range of topics. Our expertise is seldom in the subject domain we address, but lies instead, mostly, in the research process itself.
The old cliché of a good education helping you “learn how to learn” has certainly borne out for me and my five colleagues. We typically have five weeks to work on a project, and we each usually work on more than one at a time. We have to gain something like expert knowledge in the area we’re working in – knowing that our readers are usually genuine experts in those very same fields. But they want an outsider’s perspective. It’s a constant IQ test, at turns terrifying and lots of fun. A bit like graduate school, I’d say.
I was up early in my hotel room this morning – around 3.30 am, mostly because of the jumbled sleep patterns that a week of travel generally imposes. I worked on sending out invitations for future events in New York and Chicago through LinkedIn; sorting out the details for a very overdue invoice we sent to a giant technology company – purposeful foot-draggers, delaying payment by making the process slow and complex; sending thank-you messages to the dozen or so participants in a recent event in the Midwest whose companies are not (yet) members of the Institute and trying to arrange for follow-up calls so that I can make a firm pitch for membership while also collecting feedback on the event.
The success of our events often hangs on whom we have as a speaker. We need people who are good draws, and whose content leaves people feeling like they’ve learned things relevant to their jobs that they can’t find in the Harvard Business Review or from their colleagues. Joe Stiglitz, who holds a chair in economics at Columbia and won the Nobel Prize about ten years ago, has always been a great draw for us; Harvard’s Clayton Christensen – the biggest name in innovation as discipline, and deservedly so – is by far the most powerful draw for us, but he has become absurdly expensive to have in the room. Generally, we don’t pay speakers at all at this point – the cohort of our nine years’ worth of speakers is impressive enough that most think of the talk more as a collegial, even academic, exercise, and not a speaking gig.
I always present research findings from the institute at our meetings – and that presentation is our calling card for the value of membership. I had disdained PowerPoint as an academic, but reluctantly felt that I needed to become competent in its dark arts when I started this business if I really wanted it to succeed.
In the early days, I worked through a sequence of 30 to 50 slides over about 90 minutes when I presented, with the occasional laugh and short video calculated to ease the strain of the medium. I did encourage questions and interruptions, but I had so much that I wanted to say that most folks understood and hung back. Today, though, I explain that although I’ve got many slides in my deck – how’s that for a business locution? – I have only four or five I really want to make sure I show people, and that I might pop others up as we talk to illustrate a few points that arise in the conversation. That’s helped a lot – we really do get tremendous value on the table from our participants, because they’re so accomplished and engaged in the challenges of running innovation programs every day. Making room for those voices and creating a genuine dialogue is an art that does not come naturally for me – I’ve always loved talking, and too-often want to speak my piece fully – but the work through the institute has made me a better orchestrator of voices, a better speaker, and a better teacher.
We end every meeting by giving away a fairly expensive bottle of wine, and opening a second one to share among the group. It’s a good way to gently ask for everyone’s business card – we draw from the cards to pick a winner – and the collegial spirit of that final lifting of the glass is surely good for business, and makes the whole enterprise a gentler and more enjoyable one for me.
The London meeting turns out to be terrific – very well attended, enthusiastic participants, two great lunch speakers, and I think we’ll see two or three new members from the group over time.
I walk back to my hotel from the meeting venue, enjoying the streets in Westminster and Camden. I head to my room, check e-mails, respond to a couple of notes from my colleagues, make some slight changes in a report our research director has completed on the “lean start-up” model of experimenting quickly and cheaply with new product offerings, and promptly fall asleep.
I wake in time to get dinner from the hotel restaurant before it closes at 10, reading a borrowed book from the meeting venue. When I first arranged to host an event at the Bloomsbury Hotel, I was told we would be assigned “The Library” as our meeting space. All well and good – many hotels and clubs have meeting rooms named The Library, but seldom do I find a single book. The evening before our first event at the Bloomsbury a year ago, I snuck down to the meeting room to scope it out and found, in fact, that this was The Seamus Heaney Library, with an iconic photo of the man himself at one end of the room, a nice collection of his poetry on hand, every wall lined floor-to-ceiling with books of all kinds. A beautiful omen, I thought, and a nice symbol of the ways in which my business does indeed blend so many of the elements that I love of the academic life with genuinely meaningful work of a more blatantly commercial kind.