Innovation: Is there still room at the top for consultants?
Tuesday 31st Jan, 2017
By Fiona Czerniawska.
Go to the top of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and you can see not only the ornate, blue swirls of the marina below, but also miles across the desert to the point where the dust and the desert blur. Look at it from the bottom, and it’s hard to imagine that it’s possible to build something even higher than its fragile, filigree pinnacle.
Taller buildings are being designed and built, but the technical challenges increase, the higher you go. If you ask engineers and architects about the barriers to taller buildings, they typically cite four things: materials; human factors; elevator technology; and, of course, money. These factors tend to be interconnected: taller buildings have to sit on wider bases and that means less natural light, less usable space and, ultimately, a poorer return on investment—and so on. In the space of just 12 months in the early 1930s, the world’s tallest building was built three times in New York City: it’s hard to imagine that being repeated now.
I think that’s an apt parallel for innovation in the consulting industry. Consultants are in a race to stand out, to make their Big New Idea taller than all the rest, but, with so much “building” going on, success is increasingly defined in terms of being just a little bit higher. You get the sense that each new idea is tougher to find: the higher you build, the harder it is to say something genuinely different.
What to do? Do consulting firms continue to throw millions at something just to keep up with their neighbours, but which offers them scant opportunity for competitive advantage? If we were to look at this problem as engineers look at the ever-taller-building challenge, we might well conclude that what’s needed is:
Several consulting firms tick only some of these boxes some of the time. Many tick none of them, in the hope that a modicum of data, couched in unnecessarily complex terms that are designed to impress the listener not to help them, and supported by a budget that grudging at best, will be enough. And it never is—not if you want to stand head and shoulders above the rest.