Terrible Innovator #3: the consultant

The following is a brief excerpt from Innovation and the Future Proof Bank, my text on corporate innovation. I identify six archetypes you should watch out for, and the third is “The Consultant”.  From Chapter 9:

At the other end of the scale (from the Gadgeteer), you have consultant-innovators. They don’t focus on the answer to the business situation (an answer that will, hopefully, be something innovative), and instead concentrate of defining the problem to be solved.

Now, of course it is necessary to have a pretty good definition of a problem before it can addressed in any reasonable way, but the consultant-innovator will write reports and requirements documents till the cows come home.

A key sign you have a consultant-innovator on your hands is that they will try to run ‘workshops’ to get a group understanding of a problem. They’ll attempt to produce facts and figures that describe it. They’ll always seek more data to clarify things. And then, when it comes right down to it, they won’t propose either a solution or a pathway to getting one.

The consultant-innovator’s hallmark is such a narrow focus on the business problem that they don’t ever get to using influence to push the next innovative thing. They’d much rather study the issues and create Powerpoint.

But the Consultant-Innovator is a deceptive creature, and that’s because (at the start at least), their workshops and problem definition work have actual value to stakeholders. Senior leaders call in consultants all the time in order to get independent views of their issues. Having an innovator do the same thing competently (probably for free) has an intuitive appeal.

Stakeholders, however, are unlikely to be thrilled with fact-finding that never terminates. That’s the danger of the Consultant-Innovator, and influence burning is the eventual result, as it was with the Gadgeteer.

I’ll post the remaining 3 archetypes over December.

Previous terrible innovators:

Reprinted from Innovation and the Future Proof Bank, published by John Wiley & Sons. Copyright 2009.

4 Responses to“Terrible Innovator #3: the consultant”

  1. Stephen
    December 15, 2009 at 11:03 pm #

    I hate stereotypes, and I read something a few years ago, about generalisations, e.g. most generalisations are untrue.
    That said, time to say something about Consulting, for which for many is not an easy life.
    Yes, it is possible to gauge the top-five based on the number of Powerpoint slides they deliver e.g. ranging from 10 – to 1000 slides.
    Interesting how many Consultant job descriptions with the big five focus on selling rather than client/customer innovation, and the constraints of corporate IPR?
    Having a recent MBA, energy, youth and experience is one thing, but to be honest it takes atleast ten years to transfer that knowledge and experience into pragmatical wisdom.
    It is such a shame, that we over 50 Consultants are disenfranchised by the big companies, probably because we will focus on telling the truth, rather than selling a party line.
    At the same time, Consultants are often abused, e.g. the Customer can expect a ‘Silver Bullet’ to support their strategy where the underlying foundations are wrong?
    Sometimes the customer does not like certain messages if they do not support personal and political objectives.
    Often, the customer side is such a divided camp, lacking true leadership, and trying to unify the forces can be a nightmare for the consultant.
    The Consultant is also pressurised, in terms of ‘Corporate selling’ and their true beliefs in terms of what is the right or wrong answer.
    Also clients can exploit the ‘cost of sales’ budget in terms of stealing IPR – ultimately there needs to be a return.
    The other question is why do we need to employ Consultants at all – often they are used, to underpin weaknesses of the people who should be doing the job and demonstrating appropriate leadership? E.g. the vision of the future and how it will be attained?
    Consultants often have to cover the ‘fault lines’ within large-scale political hierarchic organisations, and discover the truth.
    Often the customer does not want the truth, just continual analysis until a ‘Silver Bullet Answer is achieved.
    Personally, I think these organisations (and the people in them) need to rediscover – true leadership, culture and being held accountable for what they sign up to.
    Collaboration (internally) within the organisation, should not be abdicated within the organisation to Consultants.
    Often the engagement of Consultants, especially after things have gone wrong, is an abdication of some significant issue – leadership, accountability and responsibility for what needs to happen and get delivered?

  2. December 16, 2009 at 11:09 pm #

    Is there a good consultant innovator archetype in your list?

  3. December 17, 2009 at 7:25 am #

    Stephen: Forgive me if it came across that I think that consultants are bad. I used the term in the book in advisedly perhaps, but really what I'm talking about here are innovators who never get to doing any innovation.
    Possible slurs on the consulting profession were unintentional, I assure you.

  4. December 17, 2009 at 7:27 am #

    Susan: I would never put a "good" consultant in a list of "Terrible Innovators". That said, I'm in contact with many great consultants who work on the innovation problem – including you! Perhaps it was inadvisable for me to use the term "consultant" when describing individuals who think about innovation but never do it.

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