Producing solutions isn’t the problem: consuming them is

I used to think that the consulting industry had a problem with innovation. But I was wrong.

New technology has unleashed an explosion of activity as client organisations work out how best to harness big data, the Internet of Things, the cloud… and… and… and… And the consultants who work with them have been responding in kind, pulling capabilities from different practice areas, combining it with industry knowledge and the kind of rapid development you only get if you can get small teams of people to focus on one issue at a time. Right across the consulting industry, from the very largest consulting firms to the positively petite, we see examples of creative thinking. Everyone is alert to the potential for leveraging solutions developed for one client to many. Tools developed for a single organisation can be applicable to entire markets.

That’s created an embarrassment of riches, to a point where many firms are now trying to find ways of identifying these ideas, evaluating their relative merits, and making investments where they’re likely to find the highest return. If anything, it reminds me of the early days of thought leadership, when consulting firms, desperate to demonstrate to clients that they had something interesting to say, encouraged anyone and everyone in their business to write. Some wrote well, but many wrote badly, and we’re still dealing with the repercussions today in terms of finding the right balance between encouraging people to be engaged and publishing high-quality material.

The challenge with innovation today is, therefore, not how to produce it, but how to consume it. With so many ideas being promoted within firms, most partners and account managers feel overwhelmed: They can’t possibly keep up with all of the ideas, but they’re under constant pressure to take the latter to their clients. Like anyone facing information overload, they press delete and turn away. It’s just easier to go with the products and services they’re familiar with—even if clients are familiar with them too.

Prioritisation will only be part of the solution, but unlikely to be all of it, if only because the practice-based structure of most consulting firms and clients’ search of highly specific solutions means that it will always be better to have too many solutions, rather than too few. Like the girl guides, consulting firms like to be prepared. Internal education is clearly critical: Details about new solutions are often buried in information about many other areas, and creating dedicated communications, targeted at specific segments of the firm, and perhaps even including the opportunity to see how these solutions work in practice will all help. Simply giving people an impression of the range of possibilities and an ability to make informed choices between them can be hugely valuable. But perhaps the key will be to also provide a sense of which solutions are being adopted most quickly by clients. There’s nothing like success to breed success, in my experience.

In all these respects—information, choice, and the comfort of knowing that other people agree with you—your internal market is no different to your external one.