Pros and Cons of Becoming an Innovation Consultant

by Pete Foley

Pros and Cons of Becoming an Innovation Consultant

One question many innovators face at some point in their careers is whether to work in a large, corporate organization, or in a small start up or consultancy. Today I want to revisit and update a blog I wrote a few years ago for LinkedIn that discussed some pros and cons of consultancy versus corporate innovation.  At that time I framed it, somewhat tongue in cheek, as a midlife crisis challenge, and certainly, many of us moved into consultancy in mid or late career. But in reality, the choice of moving from big to small organization, or vice versa, can occur at any time, and may present itself on multiple occasions throughout a career.

The motivation for change can be catalyzed by many things.  It might come from a contact offering an opportunity, or from a desire for lifestyle change.  Or it can be forced on us.  Most large companies go through cycles of downsizing, even during periods of growth.  And we have been riding a wave of sustained economic growth since 2009, and will inevitably face an economic correction or recession at some point in the not too distant future. When that comes, innovation is often the first casualty in cost cutting.  So it’s never a bad idea to have a plan for innovating in a recession, whether it’s a fall back company strategy as an organization, which I’ve written about before,  https://innovationexcellence.com/blog/2018/02/16/innovators-what-is-your-strategy-if-the-market-crashes/, or as an individual innovator, who may need to find new roles.  For some at least, consultancy will be an option to at least consider whenever the next economic downturn arrives.

My Story.  For my part, I ‘retired’ from Procter & Gamble about six years ago at age 52. While I was more than ready to walk away from 6-day weeks, and long hours at the office, but like many people, I wasn’t completely ready to give up contributing. So I went into part time consulting.

It was by far the best decision I ever made. I absolutely love my new lifestyle, and it has come at the right time for me in my career.  But it is also easy to see that it might not work for everyone, and as with any difficult decision, there are pros and cons associated with it.  We all have different needs, commitments, levels of risk tolerance, habits, and bank balances. So what is right for one person may not be right for another.

It was right for me, but would it work for you?  Below I’ve sketched out my top pros and cons associated with the transition from corporate to consulting life. It’s not meant to be a recommendation, just some observations with the benefit of hindsight.  I hope some of you find them helpful.

Pros:

Freedom, Flexibility and Creativity: When I worked, I often used the phrase ‘work-life balance’.  In hindsight, I now realize that I had really didn’t have work life balance at all. My schedule was driven by work, and I squeezed life in around it when I could. Of course, many people do a better job than I did of managing life work balance than I did, and at the time I was quite happy to ‘live for work’.  But moving to part-time consultancy has completely changed my life.  It allows me to be far more in control of when I work, and when I don’t.   I vacation more, and hike nearly every day.  Of course, there is still business travel and meetings, and at times consultancy can be every bit as intense as the corporate world, perhaps more so.  But in general, I am more in control of my life.  I can take advantage of a beautiful day, hike for two hours in the afternoon, make up for it by working in the evening, and not have to explain it to a ‘boss’. And the ability to create downtime also enables my creativity, by giving my mind time to process data and make unexpected connections that lead to eureka moments, while also giving me time to explore more diverse fields, providing a broader experience base to draw analogies and surprisingly obvious connections from.

Avoiding Corporate Politics. For me, politics was the biggest waste of energy and time in the corporate world. The internally facing, and self-generated problems it creates distract from external challenges, and inevitably drain creativity and innovation.  It’s a frustrating reality in many large organizations, some small ones, and of course, not completely avoidably as an external consultant, or member of a start-up team.  But as a consultant, it is much easier to side step it, especially if you are in a position to say no to projects.  And while start-ups can be political, there is usually less entrenched bureaucracy, and small, lean organizations have less time to fight over territory.  For me, bidding the BS and politics goodbye has been a massive bonus.  It’s allowed me to focus on meaningful problems, big ideas I’m passionate about, and again, helped me to be more creative.

Variety:   If we have transferable skills, consulting opens the door to an enormous variety of opportunities.  I was lucky in that Procter & Gamble was a company that had its fingers in a lot of different pies, which provided me considerable opportunity for variety in assignments. But that variety pales in comparison to consulting, where I’ve worked in a huge variety of fields, including healthcare, hospitality, leisure, financial services, food, consumer goods, and fashion. And the added benefit of the expanded experience this brings is the personal growth and expanded skills come along with it. I’m a big believer in expert generalists or T-Shaped innovators, and consulting is a great way to expand our horizons and experiences, and hence our value as a T-Shaped innovator.

Cons: Of course, it’s not all good, and there are about as many cons as there are pros when comparing small and large organizations. Here are just a few of the downsides I’ve encountered as a consultant or in small start-ups.

Stability. As a consultant you never really know where your next job is coming from. Especially if, like me, you are not a particularly good salesman, and don’t like business development. And similarly, in a start up, income is often reduced or deferred and job security frequently tenuous.

I therefore believe it is extremely helpful to build a financial cushion before moving into a start-up or consultancy role. If you are living hand to mouth, consultancy or start-up life has the potential to be considerably more stressful than a salaried position. And stress is the enemy of innovation and creativity.

A consultant chasing work to make ends meet cannot be picky about where he or she works.  And in a start-up where others depend upon you for their livelihood, much, if not all of the freedom and flexibility mentioned earlier can disappear.

Experience: As a consultant, experience is crucial, and in a start up, it helps enormously. Good companies encourage fast cycle learning and productive failure in their employees. Many start-ups thrive on fast leaning/fast fail models, but tight budgets and funding cycles make experience highly valuable, by limiting failures, or at least making them as productive as possible. But in consultancy, failure is rarely an option. Most companies don’t employ a consultant in order to fail and so create a learning experience. We are brought in to succeed. That’s not to say we can never fail, there are always exceptions, but in general, companies are buying our expertise so that they avoid painful learning experiences of their own.

Chief Cook and Bottle Washer. Whether a consultant or working in a start-up, we inevitably have fewer resources than a corporation, and so will likely have to take on many peripheral tasks that may not fit with our core skills.  For example, as a consultant, I not only have to come up with innovative ideas and processes, I am also responsible for business development, marketing, travel, contracts, creating presentations, defining IP strategy etc.  Jobs that I’m frankly not as good at.  This has the benefit of expanding my skill base, but it also dilutes my contribution.  It just comes with the territory, at least until you grow enough to surround yourself with other specialists.

Network Challenges.  The smaller the organization, the less social interaction there is at work. At P&G I interacted with a lot of really smart, interesting people on a day-to-day basis. Conversely, as a sole proprietor, often working remotely, it can get a little lonely around the water cooler. Even in a start up, the group is smaller, and that means less opportunity for serendipitous connections and discussions with people working in other fields –the discussions that are often the catalyst for serendipitous creativity and surprisingly obvious insights.

Of course, partnerships, and close collaboration with fellow innovators or entrepreneurs, partnering with people who possess complimentary skills, mentors and of course clients all partly offsets this. But I’ve found my network is quite different to what I had in a corporate role.  It is wider, more diverse, but also more loosely and less frequently connected.  Not bad or good, but different, and certainly requiring me to be more proactive in maintaining it

Bottom line.  Virtually any important decisions come with pros and cons. For me, moving to part-time consultancy was brilliant, and the best move I ever made.  I live in a better climate, have a better social life, travel more for leisure, weigh less, have lower blood pressure, eat better, and will likely live longer. But it’s not for everybody. Likewise, if you are considering a move from a small organization into a large company, it will come with opportunities, potential stress relief, but also bring new challenges.

Either way, it’s not a decision to take lightly, and the more you know about the pros and cons the better.  Go in with your eyes open, but I would urge you to go in at least once.  If I’ve learnt anything, it’s that the skills and experience we glean from big and small organizations are complimentary. I brought a lot of skills I’d learnt at P&G into consultancy, but I could also have used many of the new skills I’ve subsequently acquired in consultancy and start-ups back in my corporate role. As I mentioned at the beginning, I used to talk about work life balance, but had no real idea what I was talking about.  And there is a scarcity and urgency mindset, and a willingness to make decisions on limited data in small organizations that big organizations could learn from. Ultimately big organizations can benefit from acting smaller, and small ones from acting bigger.

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete Foley has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete

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