Better decisions come from teams that include a “socially distinct newcomer”
(Kellogg School of Management News, 2009)
What role do external consultants play in shaping corporate innovation?
Steve Blank, one of the greatest innovation thinkers of our times, seems to discount this role. In Blank’s opinion, “innovation won’t come from plans or people outside your company–it will be found in the people you already have inside who understand your company’s strengths and its vulnerabilities.”
I agree with Blank: like revolutions, innovation can’t be imported. The full potential of corporate innovation can only be realized by the concerted effort of properly connected people within firms capable of identifying and defining their own needs. Or, saying the same differently, the power of corporate innovation comes from the strength from within.
And yet, I do believe external consultants may play an important role in helping firms innovate.
Sure, employees are vastly superior to any outsider in knowing their firm’s business. Besides, they have a strong vested interest in the firm’s future.
But outsiders have at least one undeniable advantage over insiders: they’re not exposed to the often-toxic fumes of internal politics. That helps them better deal with competing ideas and opinions, judging them on their merits rather than on their authorship.
And then, there is this luxury to be a “stranger in the room,” not knowing the ways things “have always been done here” and being naïve enough to keep asking stubborn whys when everyone else in the room already knows the right way.
I fully appreciated the magic power of a “naïve” question after having a memorable meeting with one client, a pharmaceutical company.
As often happens, the meeting was organized in haste, and the only thing I was told was that the client wanted to discuss phosphorus-containing detergents.
I thought I knew what that meant. This pharmaceutical company used phosphorus-containing detergents to clean production vessels after each manufacturing cycle. But phosphorus-containing compounds, notoriously environmentally unfriendly, had been steadily falling under regulatory scrutiny; it was only a matter of time before the regulatory authority, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, would ban using them altogether.
I knew from my previous interactions with this client that they wanted to act proactively and switch to detergents based on more environmentally safe organic acids, as some of their competitors had already done. Having assumed that the client wanted to crowdsource the optimal composition of a new cleaning solution, I spent my flight time reading relevant articles that I managed to collect before rushing to the airport.
The next morning, I was sitting in a room with five managers responsible for cleaning the manufacturing equipment. A nice breakfast was served, and, judging from my prior visits, a delicious lunch was to follow by noon.
After a few minutes of discussing the latest football scores, I got down to business: “OK guys, do you want to identify the best phosphorus-free cleaners?”
“No,” responded the gentleman in charge of the meeting on the client side, “there are plenty of commercially available cleaners based on citric acid. We know precisely what we want to use.”
I felt a bit puzzled: “So, what is the problem?”
“The problem is that there is a strong resistance inside the manufacturing unit to switching from a phosphorus-containing cleaner to the one based on citric acid. We tried, but it didn’t work.”
Feeling even more puzzled, I asked: “Who in the company has the authority to make this decision? Have you talked to this person?”
By the silence that followed, I realized that completely unwillingly I had put my hosts in an awkward position. They should have felt embarrassed that such a simple, obvious to even a stranger, solution had somehow escaped their attention.
The managers exchanged uneasy glances, and the one in charge uttered: “Well, we don’t actually know…”
Another manager rushed to help: “We’ll find out and bring this issue to the table. Perhaps, the situation isn’t as bad as it appears…”
Barely in its fifteenth minute, our four-hour-long workshop was over. We chatted for a few more minutes, discussing potential next steps, but I already knew that this team would never contact me again. (I was correct.) Apparently mindful of the fact that I was deprived of lunch, my hosts paid the cab fare to the airport.
I managed to change my mid-afternoon flight for an earlier one, and my watch was telling me that I would be home well before dinner. I was sitting in a half-empty airport terminal lit with the bright morning sun and sipped coffee bought from the nearby Starbucks. Life was good.