The Challenges of Real Change Required by Innovation Consultants

Recently I was reminded of an article by Daniel Krauss, writing on the Forrester blog site ( about the “Path to Revolution In Management Consulting” which lead me to reply to his question of “what constitutes a management consulting firm 2.0?”

I’ve adapted my view here to reflect where it becomes even more relevant to the innovation consulting companies that I feel are in general struggling in today’s environment, for multiple reasons.

The challenge today lies for many in that they are not providing real consulting value to clients, and unless this will change it will continue to erode the clients confidence in these service providers.

In many ways, the consulting industry specializing 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 due to this failing the client. The client is increasingly requiring more organic or holistic solutions not a piecemeal of innovation offerings. These separate pieces 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.

Why is it when many clients who are actively working on innovation challenges have moved to a more open collaborative platform for obtaining and underpinning their own internal knowledge for product development? Clients have embraced (sometimes admittedly  reluctantly) into entering strategic partnerships in supply chain, purchasing, HR management and a host of IT related activities, in research and development.

Clients are pushing even closer to engaging the final consumer within the understanding of meeting their needs, or working to discover the ‘unmet’ needs. Yet the innovation consultants are still a different story of being closed up, reluctant to open up and gain from more divergent thinking on the problems these changes are causing to clients.

Consultants are far too cautious for their own good

Consultant firms on the other hand are moving far too cautiously to any form of collaborative form, they tend to bring ‘experts’ in for ad hoc, one-off assignments when they need deeper expertise. Wherever possible consultants want to manage as much as possible internally to ‘keep’ the fees generated inside. This is not a recipe for building lasting relationships that have mutual value in growing understanding. They stay in-breed and are not reflecting the commonly held view today, “that all knowledge does not reside within its own walls”; they still reluctantly hang on to the closed system of inventing only inside here. This you see in the host of variations on what is claimed as their versions of “common innovation” theme for processes, systems, idea management etc., and often ‘mutton simply dressed up as lamb’.

I see an awful lot of clients experimenting and learning internally and due to this becoming extremely selective for the use of any outside advice. For many of the innovation consulting firm this means they are often far too busy catching up, lagging in their own emerging practice and due to this ‘lag’ have lost any thought leadership position in many things relating to innovation. To overcome this you need to be engaged, to be able to piece together fragments of information to gain the insights that independence can offer.

This requires dedicated experience and constant involvement in broader innovation understanding not in the way it is going of specialization, who let slip the critical insights as it is ignored as it did not apply to their narrow area of knowledge. Sadly general well experienced innovation practitioners are thin on the ground. You do need to search hard for these but they are available. Also large consulting practices can’t afford to have more than a few experts scanning this innovation terrain.

Exceptions and Client Needs

Of course we have notable exceptions; the value in what Bains, McKinsey, Booz and PWC has is often in their access to C-level people and their ability to provide reports on best practice to help in benchmarking industries and practices around organizations current thinking of innovation. The conclusions though are often are not translated into practical solutions, they remain research findings. These help all of us involved in understanding emergent innovation practice to relate and absorb the findings but these on there on are not enough of the answers clients are looking for from external service providers. They want to connect the thinking to improving practice.

Clients often lack real deep insight or draw out the implications from these emerging practices, they want to work more alongside others in experimental practice spaces to truly figure out how to respond to them or understand the implications to their own business. It is only part of the innovation knowledge puzzle for the client. They need to constantly look elsewhere to piece this together, if at all they can, as so often the reporting looses much of its value as it is not translated into suggested solutions if the consulting industry fails to provide these services or knowledge laboratories.

Clients are forced to seek out for themselves, through informal groups or ones organized by industry necessity to piece together their understanding, a little like a patchwork quilt. Where is the previously respected “trusted” adviser, the consultant within this, often sidelined or desperately trying to muscle into the discussions for their own gain? The value of taking and translating all these disparate reports into new suggested models of practice seems not to be important.

Why are consulting firms not working methodically through the “collective” summary of these reports and then distilling them into emerging ideas as a development engine? It does seem this “connection” to much knowledge is not being valued and pulled together and the ability of having these dissected and  interpreted,  is lacking by most consultants, even the ones providing the reports, so clients are left to interpret it themselves. This can’t help the client/ consulting equation and many mistakes can be made in wrong interpretation as environments and circumstances are usually unique. This is where external advice can score significantly in explaining differences and providing appropriate solutions that still merge in the emerging practices but to fit that specific client’s situation.

The absence of the large consultancy in innovation forums – why?

Why is it that the larger consulting practice is often absent from forums, conferences and internet live exchanges? Also due to their increased absence, others are gratefully filling this space but perhaps not as well. I’m not talking about the software solution providers here; I’m talking about the strategic consulting heavyweights. This has some advantage for the ones filling the space but without the large consulting companies driving innovation insight as they do have the global insight and resources; most innovation consultancies hang onto existing, tried and tested methods using existing tools and techniques and don’t push the boundaries. They are often not in the position to do this. So the reality is, Innovation is not evolving as well as it should do, as it presently does not have this ‘bigger muscle’ to drive and push for change often generated by the big consulting houses. They presently seem to be highly selective on their innovation focus and that is more constraining to all and not helping advance the practice of innovation management like it could be.

Global consulting practices are being driven more by the numbers, by the ability to utilize and leverage pieces of work to obtain a return. It is less in consistent, ever-present engagement in all avenues of social dialogue, consulting has become more of a “roll up your sleeves” and pitch in to help. This lack of reflective consulting between where the collective presence of consultants, clients and employees engaged in innovation can regularly meet to explore more of the “what if?” is not helping consulting firms, or clients in interpreting the sets of front line signals and turning these into consulting opportunities on shifting many current established practices, processes or methods. We are losing innovation opportunities as we fail to translate these ‘signals’ and advancement in leading practice.

The move of clients building their own internal innovation capabilities

Lastly in this critique, clients are increasing building up their own internal-in-house innovation consulting capabilities, not just in execution but in design work. This denies consulting the necessary working practice, or playing time to experiment, to explore, to learn and translate this to the benefit of many.

These shifts, along with others that make up an increasingly long list are eroding the position of the innovation consultants. I think there is a time for a sea-change to take place.

So let’s firstly summarize the bigger challenges in innovation consulting:

  1. Clients are facing an increasing fragmenting industry of many niche consulting players. This is becoming more the ‘boutique’ service providers who have limited scale and global practice but is really matching the clients’ ideal profile of global span and support? It is a constraint that requires clients to continue to build internal capability with its different but perhaps similar cost profile.
  2. The inability to provide broad innovation experience or capabilities. This is another negative working against many consulting firms. Many of the partners have been out of their respective industry for a number of years and fail to appreciate the real ‘heartbeat’ that someone closer to it can detect, they have been removed from day-to-day activities far too long and often the pace of change is hard to keep up with. They are increasingly reliant on others to form opinion and does that replace their experience that got them to where they are?
  3. Forward thinking innovation centers within consulting are rare. There is so little contribute into the fresh knowledge stock, always needed by consultants to present their constantly updated “case of relevancy”. Often research is simply a re-hash of older material. A new solution has to be found to strengthen the innovation knowledge stock.
  4. Sophistication & specialization is highly sought after but expensive to keep around. Having this expertise sitting on the bench within one consulting company is regarded more as a cost liability and not as a valuable asset.
  5. Strategic understanding in fast changing, complex markets and organizations is extremely hard for outsiders (consultants) to grasp in the detail required. To be able to contribute into clients that are facing complex problems and to navigate these ‘fast flowing rapids’ needs a real sense of the pulse. All these are within the challenges to be resolved within the consulting industry.
  6. Limited experiments are currently being undertaken in the innovation consulting practices. The focus is far more relating to taking best practices and applying them to as many clients as possible. Critical thinking in innovation is hard to justify. Experimental innovation is something clients are very unwilling to pay for yet they actually should be crying out for this, so as to gain competitive edges from these insights. This is a huge challenge to overcome. Trust and reputation as thinkers in innovation helps but there is equally a reversing on offering the same advice to all, willing to pay. Some client/ consulting advice should be mutually exclusive.
  7. Partners need to change their remuneration models that drive the consulting business. They focus in industry specific domains in general yet clients are seeking beyond their own borders increasingly to gain fresh insights and competitive advantage. Are innovation consulting companies leveraging across industries enough? A traditional breakdown, of which consulting company is best known for, and used to solve specific problems, continues to reinforce expertise and limit broader advice. This is not serving the clients well, although it is ‘claimed’ consultancies reach across industries for insight and possible application. This does need greater cross-fertilization focus as it is potentially very valuable. This lack of active search across industry is a vicious circle that needs breaking into more, so as to expand capability and capacity and offer broader innovation practice techniques and options for clients to explore.

All these are within the challenges yet to be resolved within the innovation consulting industry.

A bolder, more open collaborative model is required.

  1. Consultant companies should become the host and be the potential ‘orchestrator’ built through platforms for the ‘best’ to gather and collaborate.
  2. Clients are learning how to collaborate, to network, to leverage and tap into outside domains, I think consultants must make this fundamental shift- embrace the old (consulting) enemy, their competitors, and seek the places of complimentary knowledge that when combined can offers clients the very best, not the reworked second best.
  3. There are growing sources of advice alternative- clients are recognizing this and seeking it out. The growth of niche consultancies, the use of academics, and the ability to reach out and pay for the top expert in their field excludes the specialized consulting firms more often than not. Thought leadership is not residing ‘within’ but outside and consulting needs to find more imaginative ways to pull in this expertise to add the value clients want in diversity and understanding.
  4. Clients are increasingly willing to bring together diverse advice. The consulting company that provides a platform/ conduit for a community of experience extracted from a rich diversity of backgrounds to work together on bigger than usual challenges I feel would be appealing to clients. These collaborations do not have an in-built expensive overhead to support or a forced umbrella identity.
  5. The appeal of bringing together experts that can come together and work on specific complex problems and then disperse has great value. It is through these expert interactions it can offer a different approach than we are seeing today. These ‘event’s’ or challenge outcomes can then be broken down into the ‘discrete’ parts necessary to drive solutions and can be parceled out to increasingly specialized firms that work on the part within the value solution that contributes to resolving the complex problem.
  6. The need today is to have real access to great quality thinking and this does not reside within the walls of one consulting firm, however large in employees (often repeating the same thing).

A possible resolution or is it salvation for innovation consulting.

The resolution or (salvation) of consulting is to build transparent networks of expertise, brought together on platforms provided by the nominated host or consultant, so clients see and value the access to broader, best available expertise that is working through their own, often unique challenges, not being felt as ‘cookie cutting’ recipients.

Complexity, uniqueness and expertise need to be addressed in more customized ways and that challenges the existing global consulting model of maximizing repeatability.

A new model needs to combine the following on a given client platform, hosted an orchestrated by the lead Consulting Firm based on a reflection of today’s ability to pull in the best advisory and thought leadership to solve unique client challenges:

  1. Establishing clearly the Business Model coherence & the Challenge clarification/ analysis and ensure this is communicated across all the collaborators working on this solution platform.
  2. Providing the Platform Management through collaborative software that allows all the best parties to collaborate their ‘given’ piece and the lead consultant coordinates and extracts the best value from these parts.
  3. Open to all collaborators the strategic intention and the modularity construct so they see their contributions and part to play.
  4. Process analysis and mapping techniques that are common and freely available to all to use- a standard of tools and techniques that all participants are familiar with too leverage any exchanges or concepts between the participating parties.
  5. End to end customer and supplier interaction points, well thought-through and managed by the lead consulting party to extract the best insight, foresights and their value in unique combinations.
  6. Co-creation, co-production and collaboration being actively encouraged, integrated and visible to all to build this value even further.
  7. Provide common shared tools, standards, IP, protocols and know-how protection/ transfer and validation governance.
  8. Ability to experiment, test hypothesis, pilot and rapidly expand within the platform collaboration to advance and validate thinking and constantly search for the up scaling needed.

Henry Chesbrough wrote recently in his “Open Services innovation” book about the commodity trap, this applies equally to the consulting industry, it is certainly not immune. There are new disruptive forces in play, these are placing limits on the existing innovation consulting model as a healthy business model. Perhaps it is near to its end, and consultants need to change their thinking and then the approaches fairly radically to stay relevant and thrive

Orchestrating a more open diversity of knowledge on collaborative platforms needs a significant change in consulting, that you could argue applies to all consulting practice. Clients demand more value and for consultants to regain their position as providers of expert knowledge they need to become the ’orchestrators’ to add value and deliver propositions that tackle clients increasing complexity in more open ways, otherwise they will face an increasing marginalized role.

(revised and updated on 19.03.2012 and re-posted)

9 thoughts on “The Challenges of Real Change Required by Innovation Consultants

  1. This is one of the most insightful articles I have read in a long time. As a practitioner in this field myself and my colleagues continually reflect on practice and the core challenge of how you can ensure innovation consultancy adds value to the client. The question of value adds being more than the need to collect data and demonstrate correlation between the consultant’s actions and the end result.
    This article has crystallised very well the thinking that has been expressed by our clients and on many innovation platforms about the challenges and succinctly identifies that at the heart of the issue is the need for consultants themselves to become more innovative in how they approach this task. The proposition that the way forward is to build a new approach around collaborative platforms also resonates with our own thinking as we reflect on our client experiences. It gives me confidence to continue to argue for change and the need to pursue a new business model. One that involves the InnovationXchange looking to build partnerships to create the type of platforms described here. The challenge of course is how in so doing the parties involved secure remuneration for the effort made.
    I would welcome further dialogue with others who are interested in exploring how we might start to use our respective talents and knowledge to start building a new approach.

    Caroline Bishop
    Managing Director
    IXC UK Ltd


    • Thank you Caroline for the compliment. Getting the innovation consultant to change is a very hard task. They are comfortable and set in their ways not recognizing the client is pulling ahead in so many ways. I recently tried to launch a collaborative platform, you can read more on this in previous blogs but the ‘resistence’ and ‘push back’ was a surprise and that was only for finding common ground as a starting point!

      The ones that can crack the collaborative platform code will pull ahead but the client’s need to see improvements over many of the very average offerings available to them today. Plenty of challenges, glad you are encouraged to keep pushing forward, happy to be a sounding borad or involved in ways that would be helpful

      Regards Paul


  2. Hi Paul,

    Insightful comments indeed.

    I get the impression that a lot of the big consulting firms use C-level input to surveys and subsequent engagement as psychological therapy, trying to reassure business leaders that they are important innovators. Also (another impression, I could be wrong) a lot of their big consulting projects are on strategy, M&A, supply chain, restructuring etc, and much less on making innovation work. So if the big $ aren’t in innovation projects, they won’t allocate the big brains there, and Catch 22 later they won’t have big business there either.

    The upside is that it opens up opportunities for the small operators like you and I. We have the experience and the overview of practitioners, now being applied to clients. That’s why even big companies call us in, as we are better able in my view to give the overview and direct recommendations and challenge that is needed.

    I’m also surprised that innovation forums don’t seem to attract the big consulting firms, there is so much to learn there, particularly as a lot of large companies seem to engage enthusiastically.

    Best regards



    • Kevin,
      You touch on a good point, it is surprising the ‘low’ value the bigger consulting companies place on innovation and this sometimes reflects at C-Level in their attention to this. Innovation is inherently ‘messy’ and for the bigger consulting firms often they can’t simply get their hands around it. Their logic and structures only partly work.

      It does open up opportunities but it also limits, it is another catch 22, as Innovation does need to be advanced and small operators often have very limited chance to do this or have the platform to lead out with some original and relevant solutions. There is terrific opportunity but often without the attention and interest from the C-Level to explore and apply these, it stays a (frustrating) struggle.

      I do feel the bigger consultants need to adapt to changing times. They may be coming off the hill in fee’s and often their (regards) exclusive domains but they have not learnt to work the crowd.
      Thanks for your comments Kevin, all the best


  3. Congratulations on this article. It totally confirms the correctness of our strategy. We in fact have built a platform for partnering and collaboration. The result is excellent partnerships with a top flight design house, a collaborative innovation psychometric assessment company, a provider of an internal collaboration platform, and several partners in different geographies with whom we have selling and service delivery partnerships. We truly believe that as an open and collaborative innovation service company we need to take the lead on building partnerships built on client value add, trust, and sustainable growth. Clearly, the starting point is ALWAYS the value we can jointly add to our Client’s business.

    Andy Zynga, CEO


    • Andy,

      Thank you for your encouraging comments. I do ‘see’ within a broadening out, an increasing client value here in Europe. The type of services you are offering of providing Strategic advisory, Intermediary solutions, Intelligence Services to name a few and the one that promises to have significant legs of Linked Innovation is shifting advice in innovation. It stays ‘grounded’ in open innovation thinking and although this is supporting much of the current client attention space, there is so much more to explore and expand into across innovation. There are terrific value points that can be explored and I wish you continued good success on where you are heading. One day we should sit down and look across those points of client impact that need resolution. Collaborative Innovation on a clear platform can alter much



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  6. Hi Paul,

    I have been reading through some of your posts and I completely agree with your opinion on our industry. I am a recent graduate and just started working at an innovation and strategy consulting firm. My firm mostly focuses on CPG goods… and as a newbie to the industry, I was fascinated by the changing consumer market. The techniques that were once successful are not always so fruitful anymore and I am pushing to find alternative ways of doing things. In some ways, I feel like some of these larger companies need to “think small” and push outside their comfort zones, but the bureaucracy, and many other factors, in these companies is reducing their ability to do so.

    I plan on reading through some more of your posts, but was curious by some information that was posted on here about innovation forums. Given I am new to the industry, do you have any that you recommend? I am trying to read up on as much as possible to get a better understanding of what industry experts are saying and doing.

    Lauren Dekker


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