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Business as unusual – innovating professional services – 7

December 21st, 2015

Professional Service innovation blackboard

by Alastair Ross, Director, Codexx Associates Ltd

Part 7. Key challenges and sustaining innovation

Introduction

This is the last in a series of seven articles on professional service innovation. The objective of the series is to provide a basic introduction to innovation management for managers, partners and change agents working in professional service firms. This final article reviews the key challenges that professional service firms will face in establishing, accelerating and sustaining an innovation programme and some of the approaches that can be used to address them. To read the first article in the series go here.

Key innovation challenges

In establishing and operating a programme for innovation within a professional services firm, many challenges will be faced, for example:

“Carving out real time for innovation instead of chargeable work is a major challenge…we don’t do enough of it.” Partner, Management Consultancy

Motivation challenge for employees is that chargeable hours win.” Partner, Accountancy

“Innovation does not come naturally to most risk-averse lawyers.” Partner, Law Firm 

“People don’t want to take risky ideas to the boss.” Partner, Management Consultancy

“We’ve been in our functional silos too long and they’re too deep.” Manager, Business Services

“There is lip service to innovation at senior levels due to the difficulty of making the required cultural change.” Partner, Law Firm

These quotes are from clients and a Codexx study in 2012-13 investigating the key challenges encountered by professional service firms in innovation. The study examined 15 predominantly large professional service firms in law, consulting & business services, accounting and insurance. The participating firms were asked to identify their top 5 innovation challenges. The results are shown in Figure 1. A copy of the study report can be found here.

Innovation challenges figure

Fig 1: Innovation challenges in professional service firms (Source: Codexx)

Two of the top three challenges are culture-related issues, each identified by 9 or more of the respondents. The highest challenge was ‘the motivation for employees to innovate’. Firms see that in most cases there is not enough encouragement for employees to innovate. The second highest challenge identified was ‘no/poor innovation process’ – the lack of an effective structured approach for gathering, exploring, selecting and implementing ideas. The third highest challenges was ‘a hostile culture to innovation’ which has some similarity to the highest challenge, the difference being that the first challenge covers a lack of incentive for employees to innovate which covers things like management encouragement and support and reward. This third-ranked challenge identifies an active discouragement for employees and managers to spend time on innovation.

The ‘Other’ category covers a number of other challenges that were identified by respondents. Some of these do overlap with the existing categories, but others capture additional challenges such as the difficulty of managing multiple stakeholders and the issue of functional and departmental silos which can limit the sharing and development of new ideas across the firm.

Innovation system diagram

Figure 2: The innovation system (Source: Codexx)

Addressing key challenges

Establishing and operating an innovation system, covering the 7 practice areas, as outlined in Part 3 of this series and shown in Figure 2, is the most robust approach for dealing with the common challenges faced:

  • Employees will be motivated to participate in innovation activities if there is supportive leadership within the firm and a performance management system that measures and rewards innovation participation. Champions need to be found, to lead projects and help execute required changes.
  • An ideas management process will address the frustrations and inefficiencies that occur when ideas cannot easily be explored, evaluated and selected for implementation in an effective way.
  • A hostile culture for innovation occurs when partners and employees are exclusively focused on today’s business and are effectively penalised when working on innovation (i.e. tomorrow’s business). This can only be addressed by moving the culture to innovation-positive through communication, espoused values in the firm and recognition and reward systems that support it.
  • Innovation needs to be resourced – in a professional service firm this particularly means partner and employee time made available for innovation, some common tools and methods (process mapping, analysis and Lean-enabled improvement for example).
  • Firms need to engage clients in their innovation activities, to gain insight and identify opportunities for enhancing value and to look externally for new ideas and resources.
  • Learning needs to be enhanced in firms, especially to support process-based innovation, with the use of process management and measurement and continuous improvement. Additionally a culture of capturing, sharing and reusing improvements is needed to get innovation beyond the silos of teams and departments and applied across the firm.

Sustaining innovation

Leading a programme to establish sustainable innovation within a professional services firm requires a long term outlook and effective change management. In making change within a partnership it is key to get the support of the majority of partners (unlike a corporate where a board-driven ‘It’s my way or the highway’ approach can be effective). Partners need to recognise that the benefits of the change will outweigh the pain and cost of the journey required. This individual assessment of the pros and cons of change are captured in the ‘change equation’ developed by Beckhard and Harris. This is a simple equation but is powerful in recognising that the viewpoint of change must be both at the personal as well as the organisational level. That is, answering the question from the viewpoint of those key individuals who hold power within the organisation, rather than simply from the viewpoint of the organisation as a whole. This is because it is the perspective of the key decision-makers in an organisation that is critical. The ‘change equation’ states that for successful change:

 

DVP > C

where

D= Dissatisfaction with the status quo

V = Vision of desired future state

P=  Practical Plan to realise the future vision

C = total perceived Cost of change (covering energy, emotional, financial)

(Source: Richard Beckhard and Rubin Harris).

So for someone to be supportive of a proposed change the combination of their dissatisfaction with today’s situation, the attractiveness of the future vision and the proposed plan to realise it must be more compelling than their perception of the cost of making the change. Change leaders need to be able to effectively ‘sell’ the proposed innovation programme at the outset and then continue to sell it during the years it takes to fully establish it within the organisation. This is why measurement and communication of benefits, visible recognition and reward of those effectively leading and participating in innovation activities and establishing innovation behaviours as key to progression in the firm are all key to successfully sustaining the innovation programme.

Summary of the series

The objective of this series was to introduce the key elements of an effective approach for driving and managing innovation in a professional services firm. This is based on my experience of working in Codexx on innovation and re-engineering with major professional service firms over the last decade.

In this series I defined a framework for considering and identifying innovation opportunities, using the ‘innovation dimensions’ model and then gave examples of the four key innovation categories. I then outlined a system to support innovation within a firm, based on 7 key practice areas. In the final two articles I discussed approaches for starting and accelerating innovation within a firm and identified the typical challenges that will be encountered in this journey and key approaches for addressing them.

I won’t pretend that this series will make its readers experts in innovation – that was never the intention! Instead, I hope that readers will have a better appreciation of the opportunities and challenges for applying innovation in professional service firms and to recognise that there are proven approaches to effectively manage innovation so that it can ultimately deliver improved competitiveness for their firms. And from my experience, there is major opportunity for professional service firms to utilise innovation to drive significant improvements in the value provided to clients and the efficiency in which it is delivered.

References and further reading

This article and the others in the series are based on the approaches, references and case studies detailed in my book ‘Innovating professional services – transforming value and efficiency’ published by Gower in May 2015. This is based on the author’s ten years of experience working with professional service firms on innovation projects. It provides in-depth coverage and case studies of the topics featured in this series. For more information go to: https://www.codexx.com/2015/innovating-professional-services-new-book/

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