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Do Innovation Consultants Kill Innovation?

Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen argue that innovation is too messy to be captured in any process. So how can big firms innovate?

Are companies more innovative than ever before? Judging from the vast number of Fortune 500 companies professing their commitment to innovation, the answer is yes.

But we sense that the more a company talks, thinks, and strategizes about innovation, the less real, big innovation it produces. Take the electronics maker Philips, which introduced one of the world’s first electronic razors, the compact cassette, the CD, and many other game-changing inventions. In more recent years, Philips has been a fixture at innovation and design conferences, presenting impressive strategies, road maps, and processes. The company commands impressive sales—its market cap is about $15 billion—but most people would be hard-pressed to think of a recent exciting breakthrough from the Dutch company. Nokia, also a self-proclaimed innovation leader, is another example of a company that has been very good at innovation strategizing but not so good at following through on its promise.

We are not alone in our belief that innovation in one respect has plateaued. In his seminal work, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen elegantly explains why big firms can’t innovate. But we believe a recent development—paradoxically fuelled by Christensen’s theories—is contributing to big companies’ innovation struggles: The rise of the innovation professional. In their innovation quest, large corporations and institutions have set up new organizational structures to capture the value of innovation. Innovation managers and consultants have swept into corporate hallways and boardrooms promising a clear, more effective, systematic, and rigorous approach to innovation. But it seems what they are really doing is making innovation more abstract and institutionalized.

The creation of the innovation consultant marks a sea change. Through the industrialized age, innovation was tied to entrepreneurs; now, it seems to depend on salaried employees who are more concerned about securing their pay checks than with taking the gambles that lead to big innovation rewards. Whether decoupling innovation from entrepreneurship will be successful has yet to be seen.

The new breed of innovation professionals we have encountered can be placed in two categories: innovation custodians and innovation word-slingers. The custodians are middle managers assigned to oversee the innovators and their processes. The word-slingers are external consultants that will take corporate managers through endless innovation workshops or blabber on about the aforementioned processes.

The problem with the innovation professionals is twofold. First, they rarely have the stubborn, single-minded maverick attitude that it takes to innovate in a substantive way. Second, it professionalizes innovation, which should be an attitude that organically runs through the culture of an organization. Companies that succeed at innovation—Apple, Google, and GE, for example—have their own innovation DNA that exists independent of innovation managers. They’ve also been fortunate to have true entrepreneurs at their helms, an aspect that can’t be easily replicated by other firms. Sure, not all companies can be Google.

So how does an ordinary, not so innovative company go from innovation-thinking to innovation-doing?

We believe that a bigger, more diverse, and more creative innovation ecosystem could be inspired by the high-tech, biotech, and the movie industries. These fields don’t devise innovation road maps or hire dozens of consultants; instead, they invest in concrete, tangible outcomes. How would film history have looked if Sergei Eisenstein had spent time defending his ideas against consultants warning him against risky movie-making? We mention Eisenstein because he hadn’t turned 27 when he got massively funded to make The Battleship Potemkin, what some regard as the best movie to date and certainly was when it aired. The method relied on combining the right task with the right talent. We believe there is such a method you can follow that improves your chances of developing effective innovation, because when we examine the creative processes involved, it is possible to identify a number of common traits.
[Consultants at work: The two Bobs from Office Space]

These industries put together teams of specialists that are handpicked to tackle a specific assignment under a director’s leadership. This is a demanding, unconventional way to work with innovation, but the method is known from the way Hollywood films are created. It places heavy demands on the director, who has to distribute the tasks in a way that allows him or her to maintain control.

People with strong, creative talents are essential to the development of innovations, and the difference between success and disaster is largely defined by the selection of a good team—not by its processes. Just as a company can hire an ad agency or designer to create an ad or a product, companies in all industries need to find ways to tap into a network of people, small companies, or institutions with real inventions and show them some faith.

Sometimes a company will have to breed and nurse the talent itself. Sometimes the talent are guns for hire. But companies should have the confidence to give them the freedom to explore the high-risk messiness and the fuzzy, nonlinear ways in which innovation grows.


Written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.

Rasmus Bech Hansen
is London-based strategy director at Venturethree, a global brand consultancy. He writes on how brands can do well by doing good and has helped to relaunch the United Nations Global Compact brand, the world’s most successful CSR initiative.

[Top image by Suto Norbert Zsolt/Shutterstock]

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  • irony

    People like to complain process stifles innovation but its the clients who ask for it. Clients fault consultants for word spinning and filling meetings with "process". Try selling a client an amazing idea without process and you'll get nowhere. Its clients who never want to take risks, who need the reassurance of a process.

    A true innovator just wants to get to the ideas anyway. PSA to clients everywhere: stop being wusses, stop wasting our time asking about process, and stay out of our way. Thank us later when you have a killer new portfolio.

    the irony

  • Ardalan

    Innovation is applied imagination. 
    Innovation is a movement from fantasy to reality, the sweet spot between fantasy and reality. It takes a vast brain filled with a large range of experiences and emotions, a very active thought process that travels through brain experiences to connect and analyze possibilities, and most importantly the ability to move along the path between reality and fantasy, thats where innovation happens, the cross between reality and fantasy.There is no consulting in innovation, in this game you can be the innovator or the investor, anything else is a marketing trick which I am very tempted to use as an innovation consultant myself :)

  • Lipscombe Richard

    it is good to see a sensible piece on innovation.  I agree with all of it.  I have worked, on and off, in the change industry for the last 3 decades and now that industry is full of professionals who stymie creativity, difference, idea implementation, innovation, risk taking, and successful outcomes... my aim now is to help people to design success bubbles... success bubbles are best if they are built around the natural state of human organization which is clusters, clans, and tribes.... apple's success is a natural adjunct to those human groupings... for example, mickey drexler of gap and j crew group is credited with helping steve jobs design his retail outlets - these are not retail outlets as most people know them.... everyday in one of the apple stores you will see the clans assemble.... they are the early adapters, they are the curious, they are the innovators of the apple following or they are just people who love to hang where the energy, action, and excitement is....  the clusters assemble at showtime events in san fran at the beautiful moscone center to hear about ipad2 or icloud or some other new product line.... in these clusters are applications geeks, fans of apple products, people who like to be first on the block with a new gadget...  then there are the tribes of users who have been with apple since the macintosh or bonded onto the apple experience along the way....  clusters, clans, and tribes are success bubbles that operate online or on main street equally well... the trick is to understand your success bubbles and then to keep them inflated... along the way you will learn to invent new things, innovate existing things, and just how to create interesting things for your clusters, clans, and tribes to bite into...

  • Jerrold McGrath

    I appreciate the need to generate controversy and nothing
    here is inherently inaccurate. Unfortunately, however, it could just as easily
    be applied to any type of consultative service since the dawn of the industrial
    age. Whenever businesses try to shift to meet a perceived need there will be
    those that step in to offer services, qualified or otherwise. Physical products
    suffer the same malady.

    Some of the assumptions here could use addressing, however.

    "Through the industrialized age, innovation was tied to
    entrepreneurs; now, it seems to depend on salaried employees who are more
    concerned about securing their pay checks than with taking the gambles that lead
    to big innovation rewards".

    This is a bit self-satisfied and technically inaccurate.
    Entrepreneurial activity has been on the rise recently (
    and the narratives of heroic entrepreneurs often occur after a company has
    experienced growth and is seeking to establish a dominant brand and narrative.

    The discussion is great, however, and I’d be curious to hear
    what others have to say.

  • Brian Egras

    As someone else mentioned, this article is nothing but opinion and is not founded in any fact.  This is typical of a blogger and makes it evident why this column should be ignored.

    Barring that, I felt obliged to mention the author's utter confusion of innovation management vs. execution of innovative projects.  The author seems to think the latter is the only place where innovation happens.  Hardly.  "Invest in concrete and tangible outcomes" and fill the team with specialists under the management of a director bursting with innovative ideas and Tah-Dah innovation pops out. Thanks for the advice.  Now let's all get cracking.

    The flaw in the author's premise is that consultants are never involved in the actual execution of projects.  Rather, they are there to help company executives design a repeatable process to cull innovative ideas for new projects and then choose the right ones.  At that point, based on the nature of the projects, a good consultant might help give direction on how to staff and structure the execution of the projects (e.g. skunk works, open innovation, ...).

    As always, good consultants can add a lot of value.  Bad consultants can do a lot of damage.  Advice to all:  Steer clear of hiring Mr. Skibted.

  • Brad Young

    I think there is a good observation here on the number of consultants jumping on this trend. However there are the consultant that just blather on about the process, and ones that do go deeper and offer real insight into operationally how product innovation processes are more successful in some companies more than others. This level of analysis takes the magic away and can help to make real recommendations for change. Problem is that most consultants fall in the first category because it is of course easier.  

  • Cheute79

    The bio- or renewable fuels industry is far from a strong innovating group.  I worked for years as a contract engineer in that industry, and I have seen very few good processes.  Most were just "good enough" to look "sexy" to politicians and others with money, expecially those who had political money available (tax breaks, off-sets, grants).  When I looked very far into the concept or design, they were ALWAYS either physically impossible or far from economically viable on any scale, especially once the grants ran out.  The founder(s) or owners were seldom interested in finding out what might make their concept viable.  They wanted the grants and off-sets, and they wanted them now.  That is why I don't do that anymore, and am not a fan.

  • Roy Luebke

    Paul brings up an interesting observation.  Many firms calling themselves "innovation consultants" are just using that mantel as a branding tool.  Many have a specialty area, be it qualitative research, ideation, industrial design, etc. 

    This approach works and is required because people across the business spectrum have different understandings about structuring their approach to creating new things for the market.  Many continue to seek the "silver bullet" and augment their capabilities with a firm that specializes in some particular element of the process. 

    Many businesses have also become overly focused on digital platforms as "innovation"  because they are not able to define new business models, growth platforms/offerings, relationships, or whatever.  So they think social media or website design is their "silver bullet". 

    Consulting firms must generate revenue, just like any other for-profit
    company and many give the client what they want, rather then risk telling them about what then need.  Consultants must be willing to lose the deal by showing the client a new way forward.  Since many business people are hiring consultants to augment their staffs, they may not listen to the advice of the advisor.  It becomes a Catch-22 situation.

    Nothing about creating a future-state for an organization is simple. It is a network of factors that need to be considered.  Many businesses have created functional silos and cultures that don't support risk-taking. Many business leaders continue to drive their companies toward incremental innovation rather than transformational.  Incremental change requires different types of people and teams than riskier, transformational change.  As people stay focused on short term, lower risk efforts they use consultants more tactically and may not be building new capabilities, or are re-purposing existing capabilities and relationships.

    It all starts and ends with strategic intent by the CEO, i.e. what can the organization become versus what it is today.  Based on that intent, functional managers will be bounded by that framing and hire consultants accordingly.  AS with all human endeavors, it is always complicated.

  • paul4innovating

    Actually thinking about this for five seconds more,  innovation
    consultants don't kill innovation for clients, they are killing themselves.

    I wrote in June last year:

    "In many ways, the consulting industry specialising in innovation is its
    own worst enemy. They are resolutely staying very internally driven,
    self promoting, still trying to convey the story of mastery when clearly
    this is lacking and failing the client. Clients are increasingly
    requiring more organic or holistic solutions not a piecemeal of
    innovation offerings. These  current solutions often don’t dovetail into
    one complete innovation system because they are supplied by a variety
    of different service providers all having their own ‘pet’ approaches".

    Clients can't wait for consultants to often catch up

    "Clients are often seeking out for themselves knowledge through a network
    of informal groups or ones organized more by the specialist providers
    (idea management) or they attempt to piece together their understanding,
    a little like a patchwork quilt. The value of translating all these
    reports into new models of practice, of working methodically through the
    implied conclusions and offering implementation solutions on these
    emerging ideas seems to be lacking by all consultants, even the ones
    providing the reports. So clients are left to interpretate it
    themselves. This can’t help the client/ consulting equation".

  • Lingling Chen

    Hi Paul,

    If you think consultants can't help clients push the boundaries, or help them establish the processes or cultivate the culture, how do you run an innovation advisory business? I am just curious.

    Thank you!


  • Al C

    I genuinely don't know how this guy continues to get published. His article on the 4Ps was nonsense as well.
    I mean, most of his arguments are unsubstantiated strawmen ('they rarely have'), baseless opinion ('we sense'), and outright falsehoods ('This is a demanding, unconventional way to work with innovation' [- this is absolutely the generally accepted theories on best practice disruptive innovation of Christensen et al]). 

    And worst of all, his thesis & recommendations are unclear - is this a treatise for open innovation, creativity in business, anti-innovation consultant, or encouraging businesses to take on risk in innovation programs?
    For God's sake, he references Clayton Christensen - an INNOVATION CONSULTANT.

  • Grant Millin

    Smart processes like business model innovation provide a certain amount of common language and indeed, a 'roadmap' or canvass, to collect innovation issues and define the current state versus the desired future state.  No process means a lot of brainstorming sessions and still more chatter.

    ...And whether it's a storyboard or a script, or more advanced production management issues, the motion picture industry--even the indie space--is packed with processes, norms and traditions.  If we look at the product of Hollywood since the demise of Mirimax, there is still room for innovation there as well as throughout civilization.  There is plenty of innovation work to be done.

    Otherwise I agree.  Cut the nonsense and get people together to do the work.  The process needs to match the ecosystem, whether the question is talent or technical.

  • Roy Luebke

    Peter Drucker wrote awhile back that a company does 2 basic functions:  Innovation and marketing.  A business selects a target group, finds problems they have, creates solutions, and converts the target group into customers.

    Innovation should be viewed as a capability, just like marketing, engineering, sales, accounting, etc.  Who is responsible for delivering new things to market to generate new economic value is an organizational decision, i.e. who is involved and who has do deliver innovation. From incremental to transformational, it all ties to the strategic intent of the organization.

    It appears than many firms go outside for a "silver bullet" and hope a design or consulting firm can create something that the existing organization can't. 

    Business leaders who want to increase their firm's innovation output need to invest in new capabilities and structure that is focused on delivering new things.  They need different capabilities and structure to deliver incremental change from that of transformational change.

    Do you want to eat for a day, or eat for a lifetime?  Outside talent that has been specifically trained to help discover opportunity spaces, find customer needs,  find patterns of behavior, synthesize ideas into relevant offerings, and change the way an organization intends to succeed is a management tool.  Use the tool to get the results you want.

  • Growingeddge

    Well said, Andrew and Roderick - good to hear two different perspectives.  I too will be focused on more rocking and less talking - just why I love action learning experiences - less talk more rock.  And, the rock comes from the company's employees so they own the initiative and learn from participating in it.

  • Roderick McMullen

    As an innovation consultant...loved it.  "Less talk, more rock."  I think the author called us out on some things that I'll be thinking twice about in the future.    

  • Judd Morgenstern

    I think you bring up an interesting & agreeable point that innovation needs to be in the DNA of companies. But think you just lambasted the consultant community unnecessarily and are misunderstanding the Hollywood analogy.

    For one, many innovation consultants teach the process so that companies can evolve it into their DNA. Not all innovation consultants are 'word-slingers' who blabber on about innovation.

    On that note, you must have realized the irony in calling consultants 'word-slingers' as you were writing a piece on innovation theory...

    Secondly, is it your contention that companies that succeed at innovation, including Apple, Google, and GE, don't use consultants? Hard to believe. Pretty sure Apple relied heavily upon Frog design from early on.

    Lastly, I don't think the movie industry should be the benchmark for innovation. By and large, Hollywood invests in safe-bet sequels, remakes, or adaptations. Not to mention failing to capitalize on the whole digital distribution thing.

    Studios are more like VC firms that take a portfolio approach to innovation, placing smaller bets on multiple projects until they have an all-star jockey to double-down on.

    I do think there is something interesting to appointing an 'Innovation Director' to helm innovation initiatives, and similar to Hollywood, having (more or less) autonomy for vision, talent, and execution. However, in this analogy the Director is the Entrepreneur and the Studio is the Company. So that would suggest that companies should hire innovation talent, and it is not part of their DNA, as you suggest.

  • Isabella Lo

    (Sorry about the previous formatting. Let me try again.)

    Just like “Change Management” is a contradiction of terms, how our culture has tried to institutionalize innovation has always amused me. I’m skeptical to people that claims they can draw roadmap and timeline, develop model and system to measure or ensure the ROI of innovation.
    I am a humanist and therefore must have a very unscientific, naive, romantic and unrealistic view of innovation – do we dare to push ourselves out there *, to the unknown, off-limit, to be naked, easily misunderstood, being made ridiculous …
    Innovation is a mindset – How to cash in with creativity. And this creativity is boarder than just arts. It’s more a stubbornness of – when the whole world is doing it this way, can I do it that way? When everyone accepts it has to be like this, can I twist it to be like that?

    Therefore I don’t believe in an innovation department in a company, major in university or award once a year. Innovation is a kick in itself – wanting to do things and see the world differently. Innovation is a path that even angles or demons fear to tread. But only true innovator, even without a monthly salary, year-end bonus, job promotion, etc. still pursuing ruthlessly. Passion and believe. Nothing less.

    So how do we enhance and encourage an innovative mindset/culture?
    1. Fire all the innovation managers and dismiss all innovation departments, private as well as public.
    2. Pull in black sheep and listen to them. The more you don’t understand them, the better. Let them cluster.
    3. Respect entrepreneurs. Cut red tapes and open green meadows that allow them to grow.
    4. Dismantle Væskhus (a Danish organ supposed to help entrepreneur to grow) and anyone in that ball game that live on a stable income. Use the money to fund real start-up business (ad)ventures.

    * A phrase borrowed from Seth Gordan -

    An Danish blog post advocating a national innovation/development (in Danish, sorry)