Lots of consulting firms have skeletons in their closet…

Lots of consulting firms have skeletons in their closets, but I’ve only ever come across one that has actual cadavers in its basement: PA Consulting.

No, this isn’t a particularly punitive version of the up-or-out (or in this case, down-and-in) meritocracy many firms still adhere to. It’s a reflection of how seriously the firm takes new product development.

The basement in question is at PA’s Global Innovation and Technology Centre, a few miles outside Cambridge in the UK. Set up more than 40 years ago, the centre employs more than 200 people whose expertise ranges from digital design and mechanical engineering to food technology. According to Frazer Bennett, PA’s Chief Innovation Officer, they’ve even got a world expert in gummy bears. “Clients are used to firms talking about their capabilities in quite broad terms,” he says. “When you put such a highly specialised individual in front of them it changes the entire conversation.” Offering expertise in gummy bears, or rather, sugar, is important because much of the work done here is for consumer product companies, although pharma companies are also big clients—the centre is licensed to carry out clinical trials and has a fully equipped surgical training facility alongside its prototype assembly lines and warehousing space. “If you’d visited the centre when it started you’d have seen a far more conventional set of laboratories engaged in fundamental science,” says Bennett, “but most of the work we do today focuses on developing new products at pace and then commercialising innovation. Organisations don’t simply need new products—they need new manufacturing and delivery processes too.”

A good example is Clearblue, one of the UK’s best-known home pregnancy tests, developed by PA in the 1970s (go on, tell me if there’s another consulting firm that’s actually invented a pregnancy test). The challenge here was twofold: to develop a simple test that was 99% reliable and didn’t degrade while sitting on a pharmacy’s shelves for months, even years; and to create a mechanism that allowed women to carry out the test at home, rather than having to go to a doctor. Combining chemistry with product engineering and design skills is just one example of how the centre works. “The key,” says Bennett, “is getting people with very different capabilities in teams to work together. I can’t think of a single product or manufacturing process we’ve developed in the last 20 years that wasn’t the result of this approach.”

All this is important because clients are placing so much emphasis on innovation at speed, which they see as being accelerated by multidisciplinary teams; and because they value specialist hands-on expertise rather than generic advice. PA keeps its teams small and sees its capabilities as hexagons. “If you’re in a small team, you’ve got no choice but to collaborate with people in other teams,” Bennett explains. “Hexagons are the most efficient shape and have multiple touchpoints, so they’re a much more useful way of thinking about how different capabilities fit together.” Multidisciplinary working also means PA can do more. When one of its clients found its assembly line couldn’t cope with a new product, PA built a short-term solution on its own site and shipped goods directly to its client’s customers, including our favourite supermarkets, while simultaneously helping to build a long-term solution.

There’s a lot of talk about innovation strategy and end-to-end product development in consulting these days, driven by the recognition that the dividing line between the physical and the digital is disappearing. Many of the everyday goods we buy and use will, in the future, have digital technology embedded in them, and the implications for manufacturers, distributors, and retailers are huge. The opportunities for consulting firms are similarly significant—but will involve far more than just talk.