By Mike Whitaker
Adapted from KillerInnovations.com
For large companies, does innovation happen tucked away in a lab? How does a professional services company innovate? Delve into these questions with Michael Whitaker (“Whit”) of ICF. He dispels misguided concepts about service innovation. The unique challenges of this industry demand a unique process. Whit shares his process for innovation at ICF.
A global company, ICF delivers strategic consulting services. ICF employs experts in a range of fields. It may seem an unlikely place to innovate. But it’s a non-traditional industry creating non-obvious solutions.
Whit joined ICF after ICF acquired his startup, Symbiotic Engineering. He went from a small, nine-person company to a large, global one. Innovation at Symbiotic Engineering may have been tenable. It is a bigger challenge at ICF. He watched efforts to instill an innovation culture. But it didn’t take off. ICF lacked a clear pathway to innovation. With advancing technology, ICF recognized the need to keep apace. It was time to get serious about innovation. ICF established Whit’s position as President of Emerging Solutions.
Whit employs a “pragmatic agitation approach”. The ICF performance engine is delivery of expert services. To provide clients with the cutting-edge, ICF must keep ahead of technology. It’s a delicate balancing act.
In the services business…
- profit margins are narrow
- clients are risk averse
- there is no R&D budget
- innovation is not the main focus
You have to weave innovation into the company’s daily workings. Service innovation must happen while keeping the performance engine on track.
The vast majority of employees throughout their entire careers have been incentivized and trained for execution, not for innovation.
This industry conditions most employees to execute not innovate. Execution and innovation are different skill sets and mind sets. How do you get the domain expert to think about innovation?
Whit considers his role as supportive and integrative. He works to lay out clear and believable pathways to innovation. The book Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change has been a good resource. He highly recommends this book to those pursuing service innovation.
Steps to building service innovation include:
- Choose an area to incubate.
- Conduct surveys to assess your organization’s culture of innovation.
- Establish a common language of innovation.
- Make innovation management a core project delivery discipline.
- Build training programs to grow innovation skill sets.
- Teach the language of innovation
- Encourage employees to share peer stories of innovation
- Encourage innovation discussions with the team and client
- Train a subset of employees on spark sessions
- Coach emerging innovation managers/leaders