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Stop outsourcing creativity to consultants



Editor's Choice | Management | Opinion

By Guest Author

Last year Australia’s businesses and government spent around $4.5 billion on consultants. But more worrying than the sheer size of that spend is the opportunity cost that went with it. While consultants who bring specialised technical expertise to complete a short-term project undoubtedly add value, there are also a proportion of snake oil salespeople taking a share of the fees pie too.

Those consultants that offer the replacement of a core business function, often with expertise no greater than that available in-house, are robbing Australian businesses of a fundamental capability: the ability to think creatively about the evolution of their own enterprise.

BCG’s annual innovation report this year found that executives feel less confident about creating innovation within their enterprises than they did a decade ago. These innovation consultants deserve to be debunked before they disable Australian businesses further.

Managers bring in innovation consultants for a number of reasons. Some want a fresh pair of eyes on a problem or feel they need external ratification of a difficult decision. Clearly for some managers the innovation imperative seems like a challenge too large to tackle without having their hands held.

Consultants offer an enticing proposition: order from their menu of services and they will send you a team to address your needs. They claim to have all the experts and all the answers. Desperate businesses too rarely ask themselves what qualifies these consultants to catalyse innovation. If they did, they might find themselves wondering what makes a graduate with an MBA inherently more creative than any one of their in-house staff.

In contrast, Affectors aren’t consultants they’re trainers. They teach business leaders and staff the habits and practices of creative people, so they can solve their own problems.

Nonetheless, the mere fact of bringing in external help may offer the management team a jolt of inspiration. But like any quick fix, consultants can soon become a drug of addiction, leaving an organisation dependent on them for the ability to think about problems laterally. And, like any narcotic, overuse saps their sense of self and purpose, eventually leaving the business incapable of innovating on its own behalf.

The opportunity cost is two-fold. On the one hand, the resources invested in paying consultants could be deployed in other projects. On the other, the benefits to organisations of learning to find solutions to their own problems are enormous.

Problem-solving is a creative process. Companies which default to outsourcing their creativity lose the ability to trigger a creative process. This is compounded by rigid career paths, which have reduced the breadth of the experience and opportunity for the lateral connections each employee brings to a business.

The flip side of this credentialism is that we have persuaded ourselves that there are some people who are creative and others who are not. Attempting creativity internally then becomes a frivolous exercise; something to be left to the companies which like to ‘ideate’ incessantly in endless, and often pointless, meetings.

Unlocking creativity within an organisation’s existing staff has beneficial ripple effects. It is not only cheaper than bringing in innovation consultants, it removes the need for engagement consultants, change management consultants, even strategy consultants.

The task looks herculean at the outset, but there are three simple levers which organisations can pull to have an immense impact on creativity. These are time, money and space.

Time is often central to the decision to bring in a consultant, as management believe that they don’t have the time to be creative. There are some simple techniques which can be used to release the inhibition which blocks creativity in most management teams, but a fear of looking foolish means most would rather spend money on an outside solution than a few minutes on themselves. Instead they spend hours, days and weeks briefing consultants, attending workshops, reviewing proposals and then implementing innovation projects.

Real innovation happens when an organisation’s back is against the wall, not when it’s swashing around in cash. Asking staff to use what limited resources they have, even if it’s none, will lead them to think differently, and potentially more creatively, about solving problems. Rather than spending money on consultants, retaining it inside the organisation is a win-win.

With the advent of deconstructed and open-plan workplaces, the use of space is back on the radar. Simple changes to an office environment can stimulate creativity among its inhabitants, from libraries of relevant literature to standing desks and outdoor meetings. Even just re-purposing otherwise unused resources like blank walls into white boards can offer staff a permanent canvas for collaboration.

By outsourcing innovation to consultants companies are missing out on an enormous opportunity to change themselves for the better, but to do so they must unlock their most important competitive advantage – their people.

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About the Author:

Matt Jackson is an entrepreneur, poet and Principal of The Affectors Academy, which teaches businesses to become more creative: http://affectors.com/

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