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?