The difference between ‘innovation management’ and ‘being innovative’

Are innovation management roles, innovation roles, and innovative roles the same?

Finding the right innovation people can be a hassle

Ever since I started as an innovation management consultant (and part-time innovation management researcher) some 15+ years ago there has been great confusion in the market about what an “innovation person” is supposed to do. What are the responsibilities of an innovation person, isn’t it just to come up with innovative stuff? Any person who has worked with something innovative, has created something innovative, or has been involved in developing something new, has jumped on the train as “innovation managers” and are drilling the innovation hype to maximize benefits, regardless of actual dexterity. How hard can it be, right? Managing something innovative just means being a bit of a creative person, right?


In 2008, when I first designed the innovation management services we were to offer our clients at one of the large international IT consultancies, I did a benchmark study to define what our competitors were doing in this field. My findings back then may have changed slightly over the years, but the general market still leverages the same characteristic. When we were offering ‘innovation management consultants’ they were offering ‘innovative consultants’ and clients assumed it was the same thing, or at least that both led to the same result. But they don’t – one is a long-term infrastructural investment and the other is a short-term project boost. Let me define the difference between an innovation management consultant, an innovation consultant, and an innovative consultant. There are vital differences in traits you should be aware of which will help you match your needs and expectations with what you recruit. (And the same structural logic goes for any type of innovation role inside and outside your organization.)

1.  Innovation management consultants
These people are skilled in the field of innovation management. They are aware of the contents of ISO 56002, they can define the components of an innovation management system, they are familiar with the Innovation Management Body of Knowledge, they can assess an organization’s innovation capabilities, they can develop a professional innovation strategy, they may even be certified Innovation Managers. Their key purpose is to support you in developing your own innovation performance.

2. Innovation consultants
These people are generally skilled in running innovation projects. They are more skilled in operational innovation management than in strategic innovation management and are not very seasoned in defining or constructing an innovation management system for you, but they may be stellar at facilitating an innovation project methodology, helping you analyze and understand a certain need or problem and find an innovative solution for it. They do not necessarily help you build your own innovation capabilities, but they will understand how innovation services work and help you apply them on a from-time-to-time basis. They will not teach you how to fish, but they will help you catch one.

3. Innovative consultants
This is what every competitor except us offered in 2008 and most still are – experts in technology that are also creative people. They most likely know very little about innovation management, but offer to help you think up new innovations with the support of their subject matter expertise. They will take on the need or problem you propose and suggest solutions based on their technological focus. They will complement your skill base, but the innovation management expertise must be provided by yourself. A great complement in certain situations, but not to be confused with experts in innovation management.

My reflections and recommendations
As long as you are aware of what kind of role you are hiring for, what kind of person you are hiring for that role, or what kind of consultant you need at any given moment for your innovation performance and development, then these above-mentioned people are all very useful. You need innovation management people to define how you are supposed to work with innovation, you need innovation people to run the services and projects in your innovation management system, and for specific problems you will need innovative people in your innovation projects. But be conscious about the different roles, because you wouldn’t bring a carpenter to draw your new house, and you wouldn’t want an architect to do your plumbing. There is a time and a place for all, but with separate purposes.