Innovation consultants

Over at Innovate on Purpose, Jeffrey Phillps is engaged in telling stories about his life as an innovation consultant. Typifying the innovator as a gangsteresque private detective, he wraps up his post with the comment:

I left and entered the first cheap speakeasy I could find. The look of panic and the smell of fear of change clung to me like mud on my shoes. A stiff drink and a glance at Christensen brought me back to my senses. Building a safe innovation program, I said to myself, the definition of an oxymoron.

This is typical of an innovation consultant. They always need to show you a big bang solution to a big problem. In so doing, of course, they are able to justify their fees, and be sufficiently visible that they're likely to get more work from the firm involved.

Practically speaking, it does seem helpful to call in an innovation specialist when you have a big problem to solve. Theirs is an external view, tempered by experience with lots of firms. Its pretty difficult to get that when you're doing innovation from the inside.

But what Jeffrey, and most innovation consultants, seem to ignore is the very significant upside available to firms that concentrate on improving what they're doing right now. In the same post, he writes this about the response of his fictional firm to the suggestion that they do radical, business model disrupting innovation:

"What if we gave you one or two people, for a week or so, for a few hours a day. Could you come up with something interesting, even radical, but safe and within our current business model? We want the big payoff, but the risk and the change to our business models are too difficult."

This is typical of most companies. But just because it is typical does not mean that you'd abandon the innovation agenda altogether. All that's being said here is that this firm wants to Play not to Lose, rather than Play to Win.

It is the less glamorous side of an innovators work, but as important none-the-less. By typifing firms that don't want to be radical as uninnovative, Phillip and other innovation consultants miss a massive opportunity.

The opportunity is to show these companies how to build scalable processes that can take a large number of incremental improvements, and move them through to completion at volume.

I recognise that innovation consultants are less interested in this kind of work. Instead of selling one big idea, they may have to sell hundreds of small ones. And instead of focussing their time and intelligence on making a big-bang visible change, their results will likely come incrementally, and over a much greater period of time.

But I think the most interesting thing here is that the same processes that work for incremental innovation also scale up to breakthrough and disruptive innovation as well. So from the perspective of the innovation consultant, showing a customer how to do incrementalism well leads, eventually, to them doing the kind of high visibility, big bang work they wanted to do in the first place.

Of course, that's a much longer engagement, in terms of revenue hours, than just showing up for the initial big-bang thing.

Nothing a consultant would be interested in, right?

6 Responses to“Innovation consultants”

  1. April 23, 2009 at 3:24 pm #

    Hi James. Thanks for reading.
    As an innovation consultant, I want my clients to be successful and I want my firm (OVO) to be successful as well. That means we need to align goals and expectations with reality. Many of the prospects and clients I speak with want “disruptive” innovations, but aren’t willing to risk the change and investment necessary to create “disruptive” innovations. They want the high prize but haven’t counted the costs.
    As a person who makes his living from innovation consulting, I am perfectly happy to do the “small” innovation consulting – incremental improvements to existing products, brainstorming and so forth. In fact we usually try to steer our clients to the “small wins” which we can then build on. But thanks to Apple and Google, and the press around those firms, most individuals in the prospects we talk to believe they need and must have “disruptive” innovation, yet most are completely unprepared for the cost or investment that requires. So, the tongue in cheek thread running through my Marlow series is about goals that aren’t aligned with investments – something that happens in innovation, and in a lot of management consulting.

  2. April 24, 2009 at 8:50 am #

    Your blog is one of the top ones I read. And I’m especially enjoying Marlow.
    And I agree with you that Google and Apple and all the rest have done quite a bit to make incrementalism seem unexciting.
    Its a pity, because there is money growing on trees, if only you know how to harness the opportunity.

  3. April 24, 2009 at 9:45 am #

    Maybe it all comes down to commitment, James.
    Many banking execs are no different from Pop Idol wannabes. They want their 15 minutes of fame without the pain of putting the ballet shows on and learning to dance.
    Align that with the resistance for change from internal empires and prohibitive IT costs charged by so-called “partners” to do something different means that unless a change is forced, it ain’t going to happen.
    Besides, where do you bolt the turbo onto a steam engine?
    Maybe the old banks now a spent force and have bred-out the ability to change?

  4. April 25, 2009 at 7:39 pm #

    I’m working for an online bullion vaulting company. It’s often quicker to physically move the gold bars than to send a BACS payment.
    There’s a lot to be said for incrementalism….

  5. April 26, 2009 at 6:22 pm #

    The most interesting bit in my mind is that both big-band and incremental innovation can create value, but the risks and rewards are vastly different (for both internal and external players).
    This forces us to think about the types of innovation work we keep in-house and outsource, to the type of people we employ, to the types of internal systems we create, to the broader competitive ecosystems we engage.
    It really comes down to fundamental economic incentives.

  6. April 26, 2009 at 9:24 pm #

    To a bank, putting something like Amazon Flexible Payments (which very much impresses me) on the market would be quite radical. To us as a business, moving our entire payments stuff over to AWS [which currently doesn’t have the KYC, int’l coverage or cheapness we need] would be an incremental simplification of our admin.
    Dropping the slow link from your back-office is an incremental change to most firms; I’m not certain that avoiding being that link is an incremental change to most banks. For a volume business the difference between a fax and an API call breaks business models; it’s not just about being cool 🙂

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