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Getting the Most Benefits from Consultants – to Innovate for Impact

While many leaders utilize Consultants (internal and external), the return on that advice varies significantly – depending on who’s receiving it, quality of the advice,  caliber and timeliness of follow up / execution of plan, new opportunities, monetization of value created, synergies achieved, sophistication in managing risk, etc.

Giving professional advice is a big business – with the global management consulting market worth $160 billion and employing nearly a million people in the U.S. alone. But what’s the return on all that advice ?

The most effective leaders are skilled at taking advice from two main sources – Internal Personnel and External Consultants. Internally, they solicit insights from their teams, peers, and managers with certain capabilities and responsibilities. Externally, they engage with Consultants having selected expertise and experiences for insights and guidance on creating a new product / services / business model, forming a new corporate strategy, assisting in a new initiative, executive coaching, etc. Since meaningfully improving business outcomes and prudently managing the changing nature of risk are very important, the more skilled, open and opportunistic the leader, the more they and the organization benefit with Consultants.

Not surprisingly, the returns from advisory services varies significantly depending on how leaders engage – with interesting challenges or problems and create a sense of team and being on joint mission – to maximize the benefits from the best thinking, innovation insights, and hard work. In contrast, ineffective leaders tend to oversimplify the issues, underestimate to challenges and effort to meaningfully improve outcomes, treat the Consultants as transactional vendors, etc. Because of this, ineffective leaders miss opportunities, don’t maximize the benefits they have paid for, and run the risk of not addressing the issues they’re seeking to resolve !

An example of an effective leader is the COO of a large industrial company, who sought advice on how to drive productivity by shifting some entrenched and dated cultural norms. The COO was a demanding leader who would debate, challenge, argue, and pushing for more at each turn. In doing so, the COO brought fresh thinking, and didn’t shy away from the complexity of the problem. Although we were the external experts, the COO introduced some of the most important insights and ideas. In addition, the COO convened company-wide forums to gain consensus for our recommendations and ensure effective implementation. The result was not only the achievement of near-term productivity goals, but also a renewed sense of purpose and commitment by the senior leadership group to drive further gains through a more agile culture.

In contrast, the General Manager of a division in a major pharmaceuticals company, a doctor by training, treated business problems as he did illnesses – do a diagnosis, decide on the appropriate remedy, then seek help to execute it. Further, he believed innovation had slowed in his business due to a lack of candor in the organization. His solution was to conduct workshops to improve skills and provide feedback. Since there hadn’t been a recent investment in this area, the workshops made sense. But, on its own, it was a simplistic solution to a more complex set of issues. People knew what to do but lacked the confidence to do it. Further the GM was unwilling to discuss what that might mean about his own leadership and maintained confidence in his own assessment. He feared that facing the underlying issue would lead to a more complex and time-consuming intervention. Although the workshops were effective at what they set out to do, they didn’t actually address the problem. As a frustrated team member put it, “We’re hitting the target but missing the point” !

The skill of using help has three main components. Once you’re faced with an issue and considering soliciting the help of an advisor, here’s what you need to have to get the most out of the engagement –

1. Be Good at Assessing Situations 

Ask yourself  – What kind of help will make the biggest difference ?

There are several ways to categorize problems — from simple to very complex. Because of this, astute Executives carefully consider the type of problem and the attributes of people needed to address them. For example, maybe the need is for –

A.  Expert Technical Insights  – to assist in solving a specific problem

B.  Leadership Consulting  – to help assess opportunities, marshal resources, determine corporate strategy, etc.)

C.  One or more Innovation Consultants (to develop the mindset to innovate for impact, effect culture change, explore new areas of opportunity,  set innovation strategy, etc.).

Executives make two common mistakes at this stage due to –

1.  A lack of time, curiosity, or even skill to adequately understand the problem at hand can lead to oversimplifying problems (as we saw with the Pharma GM). For additional insights see – Reducing Risks Associated with Innovation / Change

2.  Relying on a small number of trusted advisors – which has unintended consequences when the problems are defined through the lens of those advisors’ strengths. As the old saying goes – “ If the only tool you have is a hammer, you will treat all your problems like a nail ”. An example of this is leaders defining operational problems in terms of, say, communications or strategy – because those are the domains of expertise of their closest advisors.


2. Be Humble and Open-Minded

While the large industrial company COO was a curious leader, to borrow a phrase from Karl Weick, they argued as if they’re right and listened as if they are wrong ! While is should be obvious that using help requires a willingness to be helped, many times it isn’t the case ! Fortunately the COO had the requisite attitude and aptitude to move forward.

In the other scenario, it’s hard to achieve if you’re not open to learning ! In contrast to the previous example, the Pharma GM insistence on the accuracy of the problem definition denied himself the benefit of a wider range of perspectives, insights and solutions. For better outcomes, it’s important to distinguish between being right and being effective. While many leaders, like the Pharma GM, like to be right, it’s important to realize it takes awareness and confidence to say “ I don’t know ” or “ I might be wrong ”. This is a challenge for many people, especially those with power, who are prone to overconfidence and feeling vulnerable if there is a need to ask for help. The reality is it’s a sign of strength to know your limitations and act accordingly — and being humble – to make innovation more rewarding by being highly effective and better positioned to achieve objectives.

3. Be Skilled at Collaborating

The term “ Therapeutic Alliance ” is used in counseling and psychotherapy to describe the Therapist and Client collaboration to identify issues and the cause as well as to undertake important work in partnership with one another. For innovation to meaningfully improve business outcomes, this notion also applies to Executives and Consultants.

Skilled Executives will join with those from whom they’ve solicited help to drive outcomes together. The COO’s expectations were they would co-own the issue resolution with the Consultants with a mindset of shared responsibility.  In contrast, the GM’s shortcoming was the project was outsourced to others — who would then own the issue resolution – even though their ability to drive change on their own was limited.

Drawing on terminology from transactional analysis, a type of psychotherapy, the COO’s approach to working with the advising team was “adult-adult” — that is, a relationship of mutual respect.  In contrast, the setup with the GM “ parent-child ” where one side treats the other as though they’re of higher or lower status !  From this, it’s easy to see how innovation outcomes will significantly differ !

In addition to being aware of what not do, to Innovate for Impact it’s also important to have high competencies and be able to learn fast. For insights on the qualities to make innovation more rewarding see other Innovation Leadership / Skills articles and other sections of


Collaborating effectively with others (internal and external) is a key leadership skill – especially in demanding and volatile times where speed to market and leveraging high calibre talent is essential for success. Leaders who excel at this, accelerate growth – their own and the organization. With this and the importance of increasing the rewards from innovation, you’re much better positioned to create the future and the significant benefits that go with it.


Sept 28, 2021  –  James Fulton / CAIL           Innovation commentary