I met him several years ago when he was a client of mine. When he left the corporate world to start his own business, he called me up and asked for some advice and support. Today, Mike Dalton is a successful consultant who just wrote his first book – and he contributes to Elephants at Work. I had the honor of seeing an advance production copy to give feedback.

It is fascinating to learn about how someone gets a book written. What process do they use, what obstacles did they face? Find out about how Mike handled it.

Mike, at what point did you come up with the idea to write a book about Innovation? What was your inspiration?

When I was responsible for the new business development and innovation process for SC Johnson & Son’s polymer business (now BASF), my team started trying to use some of the TOC concepts to improve new product success. Then one day on a long car ride to see a customer, some of the guys on my team and I were talking about how it would make a good business novel. Ever since reading Eli Goldratt’s seminal work, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, I have always enjoyed that format. I am a big fan of Patrick Lencioni’s work too (The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive: A Leadership Fable,  The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, etc). Anyway, we even sketched out a story outline just to entertain ourselves in the car.  Nothing came of it, but it planted the seed still it was the seed of an idea to write a business novel on innovation.

Once you had the idea, how long did it take you to get started?

Well that was about 5 or six years ago. Early on though, it just seemed like someone else must have already seen the role TOC could play. I did not take it too seriously. Later in 2006, when I started Guided Innovation Group, my innovation coaching and consulting firm, my research showed that no one else had made that connection – or if they had, they were keeping it to themselves. Then as my practice developed, I really began to flesh out what I call the Guided Innovation System and some of my other tools like Customer Value Lens and Guided Innovation Mapping. It was over the last 3 years where that original idea germinated and then eventually blossomed into Simplifying Innovation.

Who was your champion?

I am not sure I had any one champion; there have been many giving people as I have developed this approach.

Several successful independent consultants that I worked with over the years, like Dr. Jim Hlavacek, Dr. Gene Slowinski, and Dr. Matt Sagal, all advised me early on that a book is critical to differentiating yourself.

Then during the writing and peer review process, I got help from many people, including several TOC luminaries, like Bill Dettmer and Dr. Lisa Lang. They provided great feedback and helped me fine-tune my approach even further for the final edit.

Did you have a goal to finish by a certain date?

I did – In July of 2009; I set a goal to write my first draft in 100 days and to have the book selling on Amazon right after the start of the New Year.

Did you make that date? If not, what where some of the hurdles?

I am happy to say that I did reach both goals. Of course, since the book teaches some planning and project management techniques, it would have been pretty lame.

As far as hurdles, just fitting it all in to a six month window was a big one. To do that I used one of my own techniques, Guided Innovation Mapping, where I worked backwards from my goal to identify the obstacles and then built a plan to get around all of them within my time line. I ended up carving out two hours a day for writing and then two more hours for some of the production and marketing tasks.  I started in July and had a complete manuscript in early October.

Tell us some more about other hurdles. What was the most difficult one? How did you overcome it?

Learning to write in a novel format was probably the biggest hurdle. While I am a big fan of the format, I am not sure I would recommend that anyone attempt it without a safety net.  It is kind of funny too, because that’s exactly what Carol Ptak warned me from her experience with Necessary but Not Sufficient: A Theory of Constraints Business Novel, a business novel she wrote together with Eli Goldratt and Eli Schragenheim.

Mike’s Storyboard

The reason it is so hard is that it is like writing two books at the same time. You have to write a business book that teaches all of the important points the reader needs to know. At the same time, you have to create a novel with compelling characters and an interesting challenge so that the reader is immersed in the experience. The hard part is that they have to be intertwined. You can only teach at certain parts in the story, as certain conflicts are uncovered or resolved. The story can only progress as the teaching moments present themselves. Eventually, the only way I could keep it all straight, was with a graphical, color-coded storyboard that let me keep track of all of the different elements. I really learned a lot about writing in the process.

Were there any parallels to writing the book and your story in Simplifying Innovation: Doubling speed to market and new product profits – with your existing resources?

Oh, very much so. You know one of the things that I teach in the book is fully exploiting your innovation bottleneck. One of the ways you do that is by making sure you are addressing an unmet need. For me, the unmet need became companies not being able to improve the impact they get from their investment in new product innovation.

Well, improving innovation is definitely a place where companies struggle. It is amazing really. There are all these strategies and experts out there advising companies on innovation, but 50% of CEO’s are still dissatisfied with their return on R&D spending. If you look at the US manufacturing sector alone, $75 Billion (that is right – billion with a B) is wasted on ineffective innovation. That may be rounding error compared to what Washington spends, but in the real world, companies are spending 20-50% of their net earnings on R&D without seeing the return they expect. We have to do better than that. But, how?

As you know, I am a big picture guy, so stepping back from the issues, it became clear that there are all these great ideas, concepts and tools out there, but no clear framework of how to apply continuous improvement principles to new product and service development. Inside companies, everyone complains about not having enough resources, but CEO’s already feels like they are spending too much as it is. The real root of the problem is they do not know how to systematically attack the problem at its leverage point – the innovation bottleneck.  Put simply, it is how to get more out of what they are already investing – it is the unmet need.

What was the biggest Ah Ha you had while going through this process?

I would have to say that my Ah Ha moment was in coming up with the final title – I started writing with the working title of Innovation Flywheel – marketing and innovation working together to create momentum. About half way through the writing, the simplifying theme had emerged as a predominant part of the storyline. That is when it hit me – Innovation will always be a complex process; improvement should not be.  There is so much clutter out there making it hard for leaders to focus; what I was really providing was not just improvement, it was a framework for simplifying improvement of the innovation process – and doing so with the resources, you already have.

Then, over Thanksgiving break, I read Goldratt’s recent book, The Choice. That just further confirmed for me that I had chosen the right title and theme. He talks extensively about what he calls inherent simplicity–How TOC simplifies improvement and change by showing you where the leverage point is. It was quite gratifying to see that I had independently stumbled upon the same path.

Thanks for the inspiration, Mike! If you need someone with his insight and talent, give him a call today.