aaron renn on innovation

Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile has an especially fine piece on innovation, and the reasons it's hard to cultivate. 

If we consider the parable of the sower, we tend to think that the problem of innovation is not enough seeds. But the true big problem is not enough good ground. Every city and organization I know has tons of seeds raining down on them every day. I’m constantly amazed at the incredible innovative thinking and ideas that I come across in practically every city I visit. The problem is that most of those seeds are landing on the rocks or in the weeds.

But as a consultant, I was a little surprised by this:

Consultants … exist outside the org chart. To steal a phrase, they stand behind a “veil of ignorance” about their status in the hierarchy. Consultants take great pains to maintain this, which is one reason why consultants have such nebulous, generic titles. …

In fact, I hate to say this, but a lot of times all consultants do is talk to middle managers at the client and document up what they’re told for higher level consumption. That’s one reason middle management particularly despises consultants.

True, but this can also be why middle management sometimes loves consultants.  When I start exploring a client agency's issues, I sometimes find that some mid-ranking planners have already figured out what needs to be done, but aren't able to get their insight up through the layers to the executives.  My role is sometimes to be that conduit.  Obviously, I don't pass on ideas that I don't think make sense.  I'm expected to reach my own professional judgment about the best way to reach the agency's goals, and I do.  But if that judgment happens to match what certain mid-level staff already know, and sometimes it does, then yes, in presenting my recommendations to the executive I'm also presenting theirs. 

Obviously, the people above them who were blocking those ideas may not appreciate it, but this is why "middle management" is a relative and nebulous term, not unlike "middle class."

8 Responses to aaron renn on innovation

  1. Aaron M. Renn February 8, 2011 at 6:17 am #

    Have you noticed anything different about transit agencies vs. other firms that makes their middle management more prone to accept consultants?

  2. EngineerScotty February 8, 2011 at 7:15 am #

    Time to go watch Office Space again…

  3. Tom West February 8, 2011 at 9:22 am #

    @Aaron: I think it’s a transport thing rather than a transit agency thing – I get the same impression about private companies in the transportation buisness.

  4. Jarrett February 8, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    Aaron. I’ve had little experience consulting for the private sector, so there may be a cultural difference, but I’m not sure. My impression is that in most gov’t bureaucracies there are middle managers who are passionate believers in the product and the larger social/environmental goods that come from it. They tend to appreciate my role as a consultant if it helps to broaden support for their ideas. Of course, they tend also to be especially open to new ideas for reaching the same goals.

  5. Steve Lax February 8, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

    As in any industry, there are good consulting firms and poor consulting firms and good individual consultants and poor individual consultants. I’ve experienced both the good and the bad in my work.
    One problem (at least in the U.S.A.) is how public agencies must select consultants using a Request for Proposals process. Many RFPs are poorly written. Others have conditions in them (such as a percentage of work has to be done by a firm that qualifies as a minority or disadvantaged owned business) that may not be appropriate to having a unified consulting effort. And, there is often pressure to award on cost alone. Also, since consultants often do not know when their next jobs are coming down the pike, they overbook work and then assign less qualified staff to some parts of the jobs they have.
    But, when you land the right consultant for the work that needs to be done, that consultant is worth her or his weight in gold.

  6. jack horner February 8, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    It’s the Appeal to External Authority. Management might lose face if they listened to junior staff with good ideas. But they might listen to a consultant say the same things.

  7. Firefly February 9, 2011 at 10:06 am #

    @ jack horner,
    The Appeal to External Authority is exactly what occurs at my transit agency in the Mid-West, US.
    Few people in this city will trust any ideas from the public sector unless a private consultant verifies that they agree. Likewise, few will trust ideas from local private consultants unless verified by a consultant with a big name from a major city on the East Coast.

  8. Art Busman February 15, 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    A citizen suggests something, it is discarded as pure ignorance. Front line workers suggest something, it is given due lip service and ignored. Middle mgmt suggests something, it is glanced at and immediately deemed impractical and unsuitable. A consultant suggests something, it is the word of God. And if it’s being done in New York City, it must be the most brilliant thing in the universe.