I read with some interest and trepidation the article in Co.Design entitled “Do Innovation Consultants Kill Innovation?“. Like many people who write for the web, I recognize a catchy title is meant to attract readers and create a distinct point of view. As a person who earns a living as an innovation consultant, of course I’m concerned when anyone seems to cast doubt on my chosen trade. So, perhaps it’s a good question to ask – should innovation become a profession – whether inside an organization where innovation titles are appearing with increasing frequency, or should we expect to see more innovation consultants as the importance of innovation creates a potential vacuum of innovation talent?
When questions like this arise, my first notion is to consider the past and look a previous disruptions in thinking or in technology. I’d like to consider disruptions because that’s what I believe is underway – a disruption to how businesses run. The traditional business methods are being swept away by increasing levels of global competition, free trade, economic calamities, the fact that the internet is lowering costs of entry into many businesses, increasing consumer demands and decreasing product life cycles. I could go on but frankly I don’t need to. Innovation is becoming an ever more important capability, and that disrupts the status quo, business as usual way many businesses are run and have been structured. So, if you believe as I do that a disruption is under way, then it makes sense to see how people and firms reacted to previous disruptions.
Take, for example, the development of the model-T. When Ford made individual ownership of a car practical, it disrupted a lot of the existing order. The example we all use is “buggy whips”, since the need for buggy whips plummeted. But think about all of the other disruptions – the need to produce and distribute fuel, the need for mechanics to work on the automobiles, the labor saving techniques and applications of a Model T. Life and society were disrupted by the Model T. And in that disruption rose a number of professional skills – mechanics, fuel refiners and distributors, road builders and many others. These skills and professions became ever more important as the impact of the automobile was felt, and the automobile would not have been as successful if these professions that supported the automobile did not arise. Did people decry the rise of the mechanic? Were people upset that they didn’t need to drill, refine and pump their own gas? No, these professions and others simply enable people to move ahead and use the new tool (the automobile) as effectively as possible. Today we don’t question the value of a mechanic to fix our cars – thankfully, given how powerful and complex they’ve become. Why would we think differently about professions that accelerate and improve innovation?
In any disruption, there are people who take advantage of their knowledge or simple showmanship to develop products or services that extract value from customers rather than delivering value to customers. Whether those people are the internal managers who have innovation titles (the “custodians” of the article) or innovation consultants (“the word slingers”) make no difference. Every hype cycle has it’s charlatans, which will be exposed soon enough, and every technology or capability has its experts who help others take advantage of new tools, methods, products or techniques. Will the authors now complain about Lean and Six Sigma Blackbelts?
The authors rightly note that some firms – Apple, Google, GE and others have a culture of innovation that seems to propel these firms toward ever more innovation. They also make the claim that these firms have entrepreneurs at the helm. Seems a stretch except for Google anymore. While I admire the leaders of 3M and P&G and GE I’m not aware that any of them were at any time an entrepreneur, so the hallowed sainthood of entrepreneur leaders is misleading if not untrue. Most firms aren’t lead by innovative, charismatic entrepreneurs and don’t have a “culture of innovation”. They have cultures that sustain “business as usual” which conflicts with innovation. Introducing a new tool or capability often requires either exceptionally bold internal managers (what the article derides as custodians) or insightful change agents from the outside (the dreaded word-slingers). Change doesn’t happen by itself – it happens through catalysts.
The article then makes claims that refute its own point, noting that industries like high tech, pharmaceuticals and the movie industry don’t hire “dozens of consultants”. I’m not sure which firms the authors have worked with, but having worked in high tech and pharmaceutical, and as someone who actually watches movie trailers I can assure you that all of these firms work with consultants ranging from the strategy houses (McKinsey, Booz, Bain, BCG, etc) to innovation boutiques, and, what’s more, firms in these industries are actively experimenting with “open innovation” to identify excellent ideas in their industries and in the wider world. They aren’t waiting just for good internal ideas. Whether or not these consultants add value is a relevant question – but stating that these firms don’t have specific processes or don’t partner with consultants is almost laughable.
The authors make another point at the end that I find interesting and moving, but a bit naive. They say that businesses need to provide the means to offer “freedom to explore the high-risk messiness and the fuzzy, nonlinear ways” in which innovation grows. Hmm. What other functions or processes within a modern organization could be described as fuzzy, high risk and messy? Finance? No. Accounting? No. Product Development? No. In fact no process or method that is used to drive any revenue or cut any cost in a business would survive if it were fuzzy, high risk and messy. Large businesses don’t operate that way. Even in firms that have a strong innovation culture, there are still defined innovation processes, people with innovation titles and on occasion even the best innovators use innovation consultants!
The authors have a point – some innovation can be risky, messy and non-linear. But that doesn’t mean the entire innovation capability should be left completely to chance! For anything to get done in a modern business, someone needs to be responsible and there needs to be some structure, some knowledge and some best practice. We can’t wait for the immaculate conception of innovation – we need to provide knowledge, tools, understanding and some people and process who understand how these things work.
Yes, just like the band director in the Music Man there will be people who take advantage of the situation to offer services that don’t work, looking to make a quick buck. But I think most of my clients will agree that many innovation consultants ACCELERATE innovation and build innovation capabilities rather than “kill” innovation. So, should innovation become a profession – either as a staff or line position within a firm, or as a consulting position outside the firm? Until the processes, tools, capabilities and methods of innovation are fully understood, fully interwoven into the culture and processes of a company and taken as second nature, I’d argue there’s a huge need for innovation professionals. The real trick, at least what the article is pointing out, is divining the difference between the Henry Hills ( of Music Man fame) who make promises but fail to deliver, and the innovation professionals who create real value.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.