A few years ago I was Head of Consulting Services (and Quality Director) for a medium-sized public sector consultancy in the UK. I was a member of the Operating Board, and tasked by the MD with making the organisation’s services and capabilities more dynamic. After quite a lot of thought and quite a lot of talking, I started to home in on the idea that the best people to decide how to do this were their own consultants.
After all, as I put it at the time, our clients pay us £35,000 every day for advice about how to improve their organisations – so why don’t we ask the people they trust to help us too?
The reaction was fascinating. Or dispiriting.
At one extreme was the HR Director, who suggested that it would simply degenerate into navel-gazing – an interesting response from the one person you would have expected to have a little faith in people. In the middle was doubt that they would come up with anything saleable. And at the other extreme was the common demand that directors be present, to make sure that they worked on whatever it was the directors (basically, as in most consultancies, a bunch of overpaid salesmen) thought important.
No, I argued, the last people you want in the room are the directors. They can get a team together to respond to market demands or their latest bright idea any time. What I wanted my innovators to work on was their own ideas. After all, they are the ones who spend their lives thinking about how our clients do things, they are the ones who know what the biggest problems our clients face and they are the ones who have spent their lives developing solutions for dealing with them. If they don’t have any ideas we could develop, what on earth were we paying them for?
I found it very hard to get a toe-hold on the board’s imaginations. A couple did not seem to mind, and I would swear that the chairman (who thought no-one but he understood our business) was only neutral in the pleasant expectation that I would fall flat on my face. So begrudgingly, they accepted my proposal, with a very strong undertone of scepticism.
Fortunately there was one notable exception to this symphony of indifference and cynicism: the Managing Director himself. We started innovation management the very next week. It worked too. And yes, practically the first question the teams asked themselves as soon as they had a decent idea was, Who can we sell this too?