What Innovation Consultants do
So I broke it down as best as I could. I told her that we helped companies try to create new ideas that become new products and services. We help with new product and service discovery, refinement and identification. We help them innovate.
She thought about that for a while, and in her own inimitable way said "that sounds wonderful". Actually, it can be.
But it left me thinking about what it is that an innovation consulting firm does, and I think I've managed to break it down into at least four significant offerings that help me think about what we do, and hopefully help you think about what you should expect from an innovation consultant.
First, I like to think we help organizations rediscover their inner entrepreneur. Every firm at one time was based on a single idea. The founder or founders had an idea that they could offer value - products, services or business models - that were unique and different. Over time what happens is that the business becomes much more focused on keeping the existing businesses afloat and loses focus on the creation of new things. In fact, keeping the existing business afloat and profitable becomes such an effort that new, different and disruptive things are shoved aside or cut. So our first job is to remind firms that they were once innovators, and have to be innovators again in order to grow. We remind them by helping the executive teams create a strategic vision and communicate that vision that reminds the business about the importance and relevance of innovation. We help by establishing goals - for example, 3M's goal that 30% of its revenue must come from products generated in the last five years. Your goals and strategies don't have to match 3M's, but you must have a specific goal for innovation, just as the initial founders did. Asking for innovation isn't enough.
Second, we remind people about the future. All new ideas will launch in a future that's not quite the same as today. Having a "future orientation" is important because innovators need to identify the needs and wants of customers and address them before others do, otherwise you are simply a fast follower at best. In the hustle and bustle of a large corporate enterprise, the vast majority of the people are worried about the next quarter. That's how they are compensated and what the market dictates. Very few people are worried about a 3 to 5 year horizon, but that's what will make or break the company. The future, as William Gibson has pointed out, is already here, it's just not widely distributed. In other words, without a lot of work we can begin to discover what's likely to happen, and how that will effect our products, services, customers and markets. And with some luck, we can create new products and services that allow us to take advantage of the unfolding future.
Third, we create a conduit for ideas. I've yet to enter a firm that doesn't have lots of ideas, and in many cases we'll encounter not just "lots of ideas" but some actual good ones as well. The problem isn't ideas. The problem, strangely enough, is the process for ideas. In firms that have highly automated processes for just about everything, including time for stretching, snacking and restroom breaks, the most important process - the one that will create the valuable new products and services - is non-existent. In most cases people with good ideas simply give up, frustrated with the fact that there appears to be no way to present a good new idea and move it to some commercialization. That's because the firm is organized in stovepipes and silos, and any idea that doesn't align to those silos is automatically rejected. Even ideas within silos are suspect, because they'll upset the natural order of things that we have humming along so nicely. People forget that it's not the responsibility of the business to simply operate efficiently. It needs to create new things as well, and anyone who has been present at the birth of a baby or a product can tell you that it is messy, loud and frequently not on time. Note as well that I didn't say good innovation consultants "create" ideas. My belief is that we assist your teams to find the great ideas that are "out there". If you rely on innovation consultants to "give you" ideas, you've outsourced your strategic thinking.
Interestingly, innovators are also storytellers, because we tell these stories to influence our customers to do things that they know deep down they should be doing. Stories have a way of reminding people about core values and inner truths that often can't be confronted directly. Finally, a good innovation consultant also is a training and cultural maven, able to help the client think about the dichotomies of innovation and the "day job". Why ask someone to spend time innovating when they will be evaluated on their original "day job" performance? All you do in that situation is create dissonance in the individual's mind. While they want to innovate (who doesn't) they are forced to spend time in the day job because that's where their income and evaluation bread is buttered. We, as hopefully successful innovation consultants, have to help our clients think through the rationale of evaluation, recognition and compensation as tied to innovation work. Most firms prefer to reward actual, measurable results, except in many cases for the CEO, while giving lip service to the importance of innovation. Once again, we innovation consultants need to try to encourage our clients to balance requirements and expectations between commitment to innovation and individual return.
Now, back to Aunt Sally. How does one encapsulate all of that into one simple statement? I've not yet found the short elevator speech that can encompass all that I think we innovation consultants need to be able to do to help our clients succeed. I do like to think we offer all of those skills, but I find it hard to create a short, sweet description.