Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Zero Gravity Consultants - Helping Organizations Reach New Heights

While conducting some research I discovered a book by Cynthia Barton Rabe called The Innovation Killer. While the book is about how too much knowledge in an organization can create group-think and smother innovation, she actually makes a very strong case for the use of consultants, labeled as zero-gravity thinkers.

I like that term!

Here's the premise: an organization controls the gravity of their environment through processes, culture and the very talent they employ. Unfortunately, some organizations have set "the gravity dial" to an almost crushing level with the mix they created that they are unable to think in an innovative manner and end up manifesting many of their own problems.

Where do we as consultants (zero-gravity thinkers) come in? We ask the "what if's" as the experts state the "what is". When it comes to innovation, expertise is a paradox. You can't innovate without expertise, but too much expertise will destroy innovation. As a consultant we introduce balance and prompt the experts to think in ways they've long abandoned since they became experts.

Overall, the primary advantage of a zero-gravity thinker lies in one of three characteristics they possess. They have a psychological distance from the expert team. While they may have a vested interest in the success of the team or project, they don't have a common bond in the knowledge they posses or the culture because they are not part of the organization. Therefore, they are able to bring different perspectives to the table.

The challenge is to get the group to accept the zero-gravity thinker. As consultants, I understand this is one of the greater challenges we have to overcome. Rabe offered this advice to help build acceptance:

  1. You and the leaders must understand the concept - your role as a consultant is temporary in nature and there is a rationale behind it. Everyone must understand that by having you in the role of consultant / zero-gravity thinker is a method to stimulate creative thinking, not to punish poor performance.
  2. Those that are being consulted should have a say in who they are consulted by.
  3. You should have one on one conversations with those you are consulting and let them know you are not an expert in their specific business, but your job is to use your expertise from other areas and think of how they may apply back to the task at hand. You'll be asking questions that may seem to have obvious answers, but they are being asked to stimulate thinking.
Overall, if you can develop an interactive environment where the group is open to trying new methods and testing new assumptions, you can be a high-value resource as a zero-gravity thinker and stimulate innovation.

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