When you read this title, did you think the door was being opened, or closed for innovation consultants? In reading the article “Who Has Innovative Ideas? Employees.” in Monday’s (August 23rd) The Wall Street Journal’s “The Journal Report”, I am left wondering myself. What stood out to me was, “A lot of senior managers think the opposite: that the people around them don't understand what's needed or are incapable of seeing the big picture. This is why some call in consultants. But we say this often shows a signal lack of strategic courage and resolve. We say trust your own people.”
In practice, I find the prospect of new projects or hiring consultants in the area of innovation may be waning. And why not? With good people available from within the company, or as new hires, today’s company can use internal talent at a more accelerated and less expensive rate than bringing in outside talent. Or so it might seem.
Interestingly enough, another article (“When People Come and Go”) in the same section of The Wall Street Journal talks about “Low Commitment” and “Lack of Cohesion” amongst project teams when workers are brought together as a new arrival to serve with an innovation community or project team. This is the same complaint I have heard over the years about consultants being brought in to work with teams; somehow it’s felt that we, as an outside consultant, have a low commitment and may not achieve a cohesive spirit with fellow team members. When it comes to consultants, it’s often phrased as, “You are going to be long gone and we are left behind to try and make this work.”
Although it may seem as if I am finding fault with the same industry in which we serve, what I am recognizing in today’s marketplace is a fundamental change in the role we need to play. Whereas we, as a company, may have been engaged on long term projects in the past, we are now being drawn into a much shorter assignment. No longer do I see us play as a team member for the length of the project – we are now being asked to serve as a trusted advisor, or mediator to help move teams along to complete the project, or reach the next milestone. Frankly it’s a role I enjoy, and it’s one where I see those successful in today's consulting role excel in these situations.
Innovative thinking comes from a variety of sources. If you follow the adage of ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, then who better to understand the needs of the customer or market than the employees who work closely with the customer, or their fellow employees and departments. That certainly makes the case for innovation from within (the company). Too often I see a consultant’s recommendations fall on deaf ears because those in attendance feel as if the consultant has no clue as to what the company does, or the markets and customers they serve - and employees aren't keen on bringing them up to speed.
But, where the innovation consultant can help is to bring in their outside experience from other like situations. Having faced similar situations elsewhere, the innovation consultant can offer-up a perspective of how other companies or teams have overcome barriers that would otherwise have kept the team mired in their own, narrow circumstance or condition. That’s why I believe the role we must serve today, as consultants, is one of helping people work together to solve the problem rather than swoop-in and tell people what to do. We need to use our experience and expertise in an advisory role, not as one doing the actual work.
The challenge for us as consultants, when it comes to the practice of innovation, will be not only to recognize the apparent market retreat from the large project/product assignments, but also to discover how to work more effectively in this new, temporary assignment and advisory role. It’s not unlike being the parent of child that is heading off to college – there’s a fine line between accepting independence on the part of the child, and offering the guiding hand of parental influence. In this new era of innovation consulting, it’s about understanding both.