Getting Into Innovation Consulting: What to Expect and Where to Look

Like all millennials (or so we’re told) I’d been wilfully working on my ‘portfolio career’ for a few years before stumbling upon this thing called innovation consulting, and I really liked the sound of it.

If you’re a recent graduate who’s a little nervous about becoming a cookie-cutter consultant, or a young professional in search of something with a little more purpose, it might just be for you too.

The problem was that nobody could quite tell me what an Innovation Consultant actually did. Not particularly encouraging when you’re deciding whether or not to bet your career on it. Luckily Google gave me a vague nudge in the right direction, and Quora was on hand with a few pearls of wisdom too. Good old Quora.

So, like the whimsical, job-hopper millennial that I am, I took the plunge. Two and a half years as an Innovation Consultant now and I think I’ve cracked it. I’ve finally worked out what we do.

And here it is. Ta-da.

What is innovation?

Ask fifteen innovators what the word ‘innovation’ means and the chances are you’ll get fourteen slightly different answers (there’ll always be one to refuse the brief).

But there are a few things you can be sure about.

You’ll hear them talk about creating value

Some might emphasise value for customers, with others referencing value for the business or even shareholders.

You’ll hear them talk about new ideas

Innovation is coming up with new and better ways of creating that value for customers, searching for that meaningful difference between you and your competitors.

You’ll hear them talk about delivery

It’s also about bringing these ideas to life, where they’re proven to be useful and are adopted by customers in a way that makes commercial sense for the business.

And you’ll hear them talk about relevance

Innovation matters because businesses want to remain relevant in the eyes of their customers whilst everything around them is changing.

Since there clearly aren’t enough definitions for innovation out there, I thought I’d throw in one more too. Why not.

Innovation is finding and bringing to life new and better ways of creating value for customers, through new products, services or business models.

What is innovation consulting?

It’s no secret that graduate job fairs are often full to the brim with consulting opportunities, with little explanation for what a Consultant actually does. Simply put, if in your role you’re expected to give expert advice, you’re a consultant, and as an Innovation Consultant, the definition shared above becomes your brief in the broadest sense. But ultimately your job is to understand what your clients are trying to achieve and work out how (and if) you might be able to help. The type of agency you work for and the areas of growth and innovation they cover will dictate this.

Confusingly, you’ll probably come across some variation in job title as well as differences in how each consultancy choose to talk about themselves, from growth consultancy to strategic innovation agency, or even growth architects. Whatever they call themselves though, they’ll broadly focus on one or more of these four areas:

1. Growth strategy

In some ways growth and innovation can be used interchangeably. Simply put, a growth strategy is a plan to achieve a growth target and will set the direction for any new products or services you choose to launch, and how you’re set up as an organisation today compared to where you want to be in the future. This explains why you’ll see a lot of innovation consultancies blurring the lines between ‘strategy’ and ‘innovation’ and supporting companies a lot further up in their wider strategic decision-making.

There are two main questions you’d look to answer here: defining ‘where to play’, and ‘how to win’. The first question is about making the forward-looking choices of where to and where not to operate, such as the market (easier said than done), on which topics, and in which part of the value chain.

The second question is about getting clear on where a company’s competitive advantage might come from, knowing why customers will choose them and what specifically the company can do to set them apart from any competitors or alternatives.

What could a growth strategy challenge look like?

· How might we determine our corporate purpose and embed it throughout the organisation?

· How might we better define who our customers are and what really matters to them in the world of pet insurance?

2. Idea generation

Whether it’s coming up with new products or services (often called proposition development), suggesting improvements to a customer experience, or developing entirely new business models, innovation consultancies are perhaps best known for the new ideas they bring to the table.

They’ve also got pretty damn good at it over the years, with the rise of the likes of Design Thinking which is just one way to define the process or approach to solving problems for customers.

Whilst all consultancies will swear blind to their own perfectly crafted, expertly delivered approach to idea generation, you’ll see similarities in the broad questions they look to answer. The ambition for any innovation or proposition is to uncover something that’s valued by customers and meaningfully different to competitors or alternatives. The following four areas will almost always be considered in some way, shape or form:

· Customer: what’s the specific customer problem or opportunity, and how much does it matter to them?

· Competitor: what are the competitors and alternatives doing about this?

· Client: what unique capabilities or strengths does the business have that they could bring to a solution?

· Future: what’s going on in the industry or in customers’ lives that might change the way we need to act today?

From one day to the next you could be doing anything from running focus groups with customers to researching future trends, or from conducting client interviews to testing out the competitors for yourself.

What could an idea generation challenge look like?

· How might we differentiate the savings accounts we offer in a market driven by interest-rates?

· What might a new healthier cereal look like aimed at an ageing population?

3. Innovation delivery

Whilst many consultancies will also deliver innovation to some extent, there are some that specialise in the process of bringing ideas to life through design, rapid prototyping, piloting with growing numbers of customers and finally scaling. They might only get involved once the idea has already been well defined.

This takes a very different skill-set, with a wide variety of roles occupying this space. Some agencies that would sit in what’s called digital innovation might have teams dedicated to building mobile apps or websites for example, with engineers, UX and UI designers.

One particularly common role needed for delivering innovation is the Product Manager, who will oversee the project from prototyping to launch, where more emphasis is placed on the rigid execution of a product roadmap and ability to learn fast. They will own the overall vision of the product and look to identify as quickly as possible whether the idea does create value for the customer in the way it intended. Or in any other way for that matter.

What could an innovation delivery challenge look like?

· How might we launch a new digital payment experience for a supermarket?

· How might we develop a working prototype of a digital wealth management solution for the instafamous?

4. Capability building

When you’re not finding or delivering new ideas, you might be equipping companies to do both of those things themselves. A lot of organisations look for support from experts to build their own innovation capabilities, from understanding why innovation matters in the first place, to defining a bespoke innovation process, and identifying skills gaps and training plans. This spans three broad areas:

Here, we’re changing the way organisations are managed and how they run, creating the right conditions and structure to set them up to innovate at scale. Every organisation will approach innovation in a different way with different objectives, some will want to be a first mover whilst others will be happy with a fast follower approach. What’s important is understanding how innovation fits in the wider business strategy.

What could a capability building challenge look like?

· What might a systematic organisation-wide approach to innovation look?

· How might we better generate ideas from within the business to our most pressing problems in retail banking?

How do I break into innovation consulting?

You’re not likely to see any of these agencies snapping up fresh-faced graduates at university careers fairs any time soon, unlike some of the larger areas of consulting. The reason for that is simple: it’s a smaller industry, and you only need a fraction of the consultants for an innovation challenge that you might for, say, an operational transformation project led by one of the Big Four. But that doesn’t mean they don’t hire graduates.

What’s true for innovation consulting even more than most is that there’s no one route into the sector, with a broad spectrum of sizes and types of organisations in this space. I’ve spoken to four people who have made the jump to share what attracted them to the sector in the first place, and what advice they have for those looking to do the same.

1. Callum Callinan, Manager, Inzenka

What attracted you to innovation consulting?

It was an accident. I started an internship in what I thought was a boutique strategy firm, and it turned out to be ‘innovation consulting’. Luck aside, I loved it from the word go. It’s all about creating things, but with a rigorous and analytical approach. It’s that balance, combined with the breadth of the skillset you develop, that keeps me excited about my work. As an innovation consultant, you’re constantly seeking inspiration — it keeps you on the pulse of how businesses and entire industries are changing

What advice would you give to someone looking to join the industry?

Develop 3 skillsets. 1) Core consulting. Including, the ability to add structure and logic to approaching a seemingly open ended, ill-defined question; comfort with ambiguity and working things out as you go; presenting to, and working with, cross-functional teams of clients. 2) Business model thinking. I.e. having a holistic perspective of what makes a new venture work, from a compelling value proposition all the way through to detailed operational processes and technologies that will enable scale. 3) Hacking. Working with hypotheses; identifying crucial assumptions; and testing and iterating these in low cost, fast ways

2. Lara Kottsieper, Consultant, The Foundation

What attracted you to innovation consulting?

There were two key things that attracted me to innovation consulting. The first is the focus on the customer. I have always been fascinated by how people interact. Rather than doing research however, I was drawn to the practical application of insight to help organisations evolve and grow. The second is the variability. Consulting means you learn so much so quickly. All projects are different, with new markets, customers and organisations to learn from daily. Not only this, you’re at the forefront of driving changes in the market, which is really exciting.

What advice would you give to someone looking to join the industry?

The main things recruiters look for in innovation consultants are an appetite to learn, organisational skills and resourcefulness. Each project is a chance to learn something you didn’t know before, so you need to ask good questions and be interested. Consultants are largely relied on to make clients’ lives easier, so you need to stay one step ahead by being organised and efficient. Finally, no project ever goes as planned, so you need to adapt quickly, using whatever tools or materials you have at your disposal. Oh, and everyone says they’re entrepreneurial. Only say it if you can really back it up.

3. Jim Kemp, Strategy Consultant, Revolt London

What attracted you to innovation consulting?

I remember seeing the ‘client wall’ of the first agency I worked at — they’d worked across every industry imaginable, from groceries to gaming, beauty to banking, all with a different challenge to solve. I was really excited at the prospect of working on projects so diverse!

What advice would you give to someone looking to join the industry?

Whilst “innovating” may be a common goal, there are loads of different innovation agencies out there, all with a different point of view on how innovation works best. Some champion internal innovation, some innovate by partnering with externals; some offer proven off-the-shelf solutions, others boast the flexibility of starting from scratch every time. When you’re interviewing, make sure you can demonstrate at least a rudimentary understanding of the point of view of the particular agency you’re speaking to. A generalised “I’m interested in innovation because…” is way less impressive than “I’m interested in your particular approach…” — and if you can drop the name of a few clients they’ve used this approach with, even better!

4. Alex Crawford, Consultant, Manifesto

What attracted you to innovation consulting?

My route in was fairly circuitous. I found previous roles in Finance, Law and International Relations intellectually stimulating, but slow-moving. I realised that I wanted a job that balanced analytical thinking and practical ‘doing’, where I had a clear and tangible impact, and would help me to get a broad and deep understanding of the things that really drive growth. This led me away from the established consulting players that focus on operations, toward firms that help clients achieve top line growth. What struck me was how the innovation boutiques offered a combination of significant client exposure from day one, a challenger mentality, and the opportunity to work on end-to-end projects that require the entire consulting skill set, from idea to execution.

What advice would you give to someone looking to join the industry?

Scout out the options! There are lots of superficial similarities between the major players in the growth and innovation space — including the frameworks and methodologies they use, the case studies they publish and the clients they work with. But dig a little deeper and they can have very pronounced differences in culture, ways of working and other ingredients that will be critical in the decision you make.

My best advice is source as many inside opinions as you can — people already working in innovation consulting tend to have a good handle on the fundamental differences between firms. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people directly too.

Where can I find these elusive consultancies?

They’re not exactly the easiest to find, and there’s no typical size or shape either. Some will deliver on a broad array of innovation briefs whilst others stay within their relative niche. Some will be sector-specific, and others will work with a wide range of industries. Each will have their own story and likely their own perspectives on innovation too.

Soon I’ll be sharing a detailed look at who these consultancies are, where there are similarities and what the big differences are to keep in mind when applying, so follow me on Medium or LinkedIn for more to come!

Innovation at Butternut Box. Ex Innovation & Growth Consultant. Combining deep customer understanding with commercial nous to help companies grow

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