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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?

Do Innovation Consultants Kill Innovation?

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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