Innovation to ingenuity: Why one word can make a difference

If the consulting industry has been really good at one thing, then it’s at taking perfectly decent words and loading them up with so much promise and ambition that they crack under the strain. “Transformation” is teetering dangerously close to the edge of this at the moment: Digital technology offers so much in terms of potential impact on organisations’ top and bottom lines, but clients are increasingly demanding proof, evidence that work is, in fact, being transformed.

Another such word is innovation. As a concept it’s of critical importance to the consulting industry. Our data has repeatedly highlighted not only the extent to which a firm can demonstrate how an innovative approach will determine whether it will be short-listed for work, but also the significant shortfall between the level of innovation clients are looking for and what firms are delivering in practice. One of the most important factors in deciding which firm to use, innovation is also one of the areas where consulting firms perform worst. In fact, there are only three areas in which firms are perceived to be even weaker: price (which we’ll discount for present purposes—we’ve never met a client who didn’t want a reduction in fee rates); responsiveness and flexibility; and speed of delivery. Those latter two are interesting because we think they link to innovation. Most clients we speak to aren’t interested in blue-sky thinking: When they write in the RFP that they’re looking for an innovative approach, they’re really saying that they want a firm that can bring fresh ideas from other industries and/or countries, one that isn’t so hide-bound by process and organisational baggage that it can’t change the way it works to accommodate a client’s unique set of circumstances and deliver tangible improvements more quickly than clients can do by themselves.

The term ‘innovation’ has become unhelpful in this context. It’s too big: Fast Company’s list of most innovative companies this year was headed by Apple and Netflix. It’s out of the reach of us ordinary mortals: Creating an innovative company depends on extraordinary talents and a culture that most organisations can only dream of. Most executives’ aspirations are more modest. They know that improvements in performance can only be achieved by doing something different and new, but that the best way to deliver these is to focus on small changes that have a disproportionate impact. The biggest changes usually have the least impact.

And that’s why we like what PA Consulting has done with its brand. “Bringing ingenuity to life” is a phrase that works on many levels. “To life” implies the type of concrete, demonstrable proof clients are looking for where transformation (and many other consulting services) are concerned. But “to life” also links the firm to a social purpose: What it wants to do is have an impact on people’s lives—and, as we’ve discussed several times in the blog before, there aren’t many consulting firms that are brave enough to nail their purpose to their front door. And of course, there’s their choice of the word “ingenuity”, which perfectly captures that desire by clients to be clever in small ways, to work with what they have and start from where they are, rather than try to be the next Apple or the next Netflix.

And let’s remember that some of the greatest innovations started small … the penicillin in Alexander Fleming’s petri dish, the radium in Marie Curie’s lab.