We’re exciting and innovative, just like everyone else

“Welcome to BrainSpace, our firm’s climate-controlled, digitally-enabled, hands-on immersive innovation environment. Take a seat—any of the beanbag chairs is fine. Or stay standing, that might be more innovative. Our Innovationeers are just preparing the VR headset for you to play with. While you’re waiting, can I interest you in an artisanal soft drink?”

At this point, the “innovation hub” is as much a part of the consulting milieu as brown papers, sticky-notes, and business class flights. From Capgemini’s Applied Innovation Exchange to KPMG’s Ignition Centres; from EY Wavespace to Accenture Labs, firms of every stripe have invested heavily in creating dedicated facilities where designers, technologists, and consultants can come together to collaboratively craft innovative solutions to their clients’ thorniest challenges. Research conducted for our recent “Future of Delivery” report found that among buyers of consulting services, 86% had visited at least one such location.

And it is easy to understand why so many firms went down this route. “Disruption” is something of a hackneyed term at this point, but nonetheless it is still top of mind for clients in virtually every industry. The story of the last decade was one of reinvention; many organisations had to radically reimagine their business models and their customer propositions in the face of new technology and new competitors. And consulting firms played a key role in plenty of those transitions. Suddenly, it wasn’t good enough to just be a client’s confidant and strategist; you had to be a builder and innovator as well.

Innovation hubs originally served as a way for ambitious consultants to lay down a marker and stake a claim to this new part of the advisory landscape. And since their inception, they have evolved to play a number of different roles within the living ecosystem that is the modern consulting organisation. They not only provide a space in which to run workshops and where clients can be exposed to new technology and new ways of working; they also act as an engine for producing thought leadership and for forging relationships with start-ups and other third parties. At the same time, they serve to promote a culture of innovation throughout the firm’s organisation—giving consultants of all grades a chance to design outside-the-box solutions to client challenges and learn new skills in the process.

But anything that becomes too popular too quickly risks becoming a victim of its own success; just ask Bitcoin, Game of Thrones, or Ed Sheeran. We have reached a point now where having access to some sort of dedicated innovation facility is almost a hygiene factor for any reasonably-sized firm. And that creates a big problem for consultants: How do you convince clients that you know how to help them innovate when every other firm is saying the same thing? How can you dazzle them with your fancy innovation lab when they’ve already seen a dozen others?

You might choose to throw money at the problem—investing in fancier technology, nicer facilities, and more talented staff. And while that approach may work at first, you will rapidly find yourself running up against the law of diminishing returns. And worse, you’ll likely just end up in a never-ending arms race with your competitors: “You have wall to wall smart screens in your lab? That’s nothing, we ripped out our floors and replaced them with iPads. You may want to take your shoes off before coming in…”

Far better, we think, to put serious effort into thinking about the relationship between your innovation hub and your wider consulting organisation. Of late, we’ve seen too many firms go above and beyond creating glitzy innovation facilities, but not doing enough to convince clients that they’re applying that same principle of creativity to work that goes on outside of that space. A truly distinctive innovation hub would be one whose primary function was not to isolate, contain, and distil the creative energy within a firm—but which instead served as the touch-paper for an atmosphere of innovation that permeated the entire firm. 

What would this mean in practice? To start with, firms should go out of their way to ensure that as many of their consultants as possible get to spend a substantial amount of time working from their innovation hub, so that they can develop skills that they can put to use on all their future projects. And they should treat their innovation hub as a training facility as much as—if not more so than—a delivery centre. Give a consultant an innovation centre, and they can innovate for a day—but teach them to innovate, and they’ll be able to impress clients for the rest of their career. In some ways, this would represent a return to first principles, going back to the days when these innovation centres were seen first and foremost as centres of learning, not as gaudy showrooms for salespeople to parade clients through.

It has undeniably become harder to convince clients of your innovation credentials, now that every other firm is trying to do the same thing. But it is still possible—and the key to doing so is making it clear to clients that your fancy innovation hub is only the tip of the iceberg. Convince them that you have embedded those same principles of agility, design thinking, and creativity into every level of your organisation, and you will be well-placed to stand out from the crowd.

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