Exploring Co-designing Frameworks in Innovation Consultancies

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In this post, Chengcheng Hu proposes a new way of improving the innovation consultancy process by examining the client – consultant relationship. Leading up to the Degree Show, she shares her perspective of the Anti-Solutioner as an Innovation Manager.

There are lots of jokes about consultancies, one of the clichés being that consultants would borrow your watch, only to tell you the time. Telling you something you already know is the oldest trick in the consultancy book. It prevents new knowledge from being created, whilst avoiding the issue you wanted solved. Indeed, most jokes indicate the ambiguous situation faced by consultancies – companies desperately need their assistance, but at the same time complain about their ineffectiveness.

The challenge is, how can consultancies deliver real value and help companies make innovative progress? How can clients and consultancies with different professional knowledge and practice backgrounds reach a common perspective on their business outcome? From my perspective, the answer lies in the communication process between clients and consultancies. I believe design can facilitate and bring chemistry to the process in a business consultation setting.

During the last decade, the presence of innovation in the consulting industry has increased drastically (O’Mahoney, 2011). This draws great attention to the trend of consultancy firms attempting to transform from traditional consultancies (such as management and design firms), to innovation agencies. As consultancies cannot avoid being in the social sphere, my research looked into the social role of innovation consultancies in communicating and generating shared knowledge. By exploring the tension and interplay in client-consultancy relationships, there was an opportunity to strategically manage this relationship and enhance their innovative performance.

Based on my research, I propose a co-designing framework that demonstrates a playful, design-based culture to improve the consultation process. Coming from a design background, I see design as not just a way of thinking, but a concept about making and testing. Design is a process-based approach that is closely associated with implementation. By conceptualising managers from both sides as designers, the joint designing experience becomes more contingent and reflective.

I propose this framework to small, multi-disciplinary teams that are facilitated in a physically playful space. Consultations characterised by playful constructions and experimentations are essential for managers in “throwing off constraints” (Millar, 1968, p. 21). This explores new possibilities, encourages engagement, and unlocks creativity. The ongoing interplay and tension during the communication-constructed consultation process becomes key in impacting the relationship, thus determining its innovation capabilities.

Going back to the joke of the watch and the consultant, a good consultant would go beyond radically improving your watch. He would facilitate and encourage you see the watch in your own way. But as an Anti-Solutioner, I would go a step further, and question the entire issue and any known solutions attached to it. Innovation consultants must let go of pre-determined solutions, and embrace co-designing frameworks designed to inject new ideas into traditional consulting models, thereby breaking rational problem solving processes. Good consultants must not be afraid to freely experiment and explore unknown spaces around the problem. By doing so, unique and innovative opportunities will be discovered beyond the face of the client’s watch.

To learn more about the Anti-Solutioner and Chengcheng’s research stay tuned for the upcoming MAIM 2015 Degree Show, taking place at Central Saint Martins in the week starting on the 23rd of June.

*Millar, S. (1968). The Psychology of Play. Harmondworth: Penguin.
*O’Mahoney, J. (2011). Management innovation in the UK consulting industry. London: Chartered Management Institute.