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innovate or die

For almost a decade, I worked with professional service firms developing sales, marketing and account management strategies that would help them grow. One thing I had a tough time wrapping my head around was why so few firms were open to innovation.

Why is it that professional service firms, especially accounting and law firms, find it so difficult to embrace innovation in order to build a stronger future?

As I continue to work with a team of innovators and we discuss such topics, I'm now learning that there are a few factors at work here.

The biggest factor is that professional service firms are driven primarily by billable hours and any time someone is not billable they are seen as not adding value. This means that in order to innovate someone has to "stop adding value" by not being billable.

There is far too much focus on "today" in professional service firms and not enough on the future – this mentality will continue to hold back firms and do more damage in the long run.

Most professional service firms also don't have a system for driving innovation in an efficient manner so they often waste a great deal of time getting caught up in details that don't matter. An initiative that should take three months often persists for the entire year as they try to make their way through the process of defining, discovering and attempting to develop an innovation.

There is also a significant deterrent that comes when firms are achieving a level of success that they are pleased with. Many of the law and accounting firms I worked with were doing very well so they didn't see a need to innovate. The partners or executives would often say they just need more people because the work is there. While that is true, it doesn't last. It never does.

While those are the biggest reasons as to why professional service firms struggle to innovate, there are many other contributing reasons. Firms are often not good at implementing new services or products, they don't have a culture that supports, fosters, or encourages innovation, and they are often too smart for their own good and get overly complex with their innovation initiatives.

Nevertheless, despite all of that dreary news, there is still hope for the professional service firm that wants to innovate and grow. By taking small steps in the right direction, firms will grow to become more competitive and insulate themselves from market pressures.

First, a firm's overall corporate strategy needs to incorporate an element of innovation as one of its top long-term goals. Without a strategic focus and investment in innovation, any efforts will often fall flat as they will be approached loosely or in a silo that eventually gets overtaken by billable work.

Cementing innovation as a long-term goal, and having clear objectives and actions in place that support the achievement of that goal, will give innovation a fighting chance in an environment that perhaps isn't as familiar with innovation.

Next, get a quick win by surveying or researching your client's business, their industry, and even their own clients. Looking deeper into your client's business and understanding their problems and opportunities will help you find ways to add value through a new product or service and will enable your firm to get off on the right foot.

Henry Ford said it best: "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."

While that quote is overused these days, it is absolutely true. Insights from clients can drive new products, services and systems that will fill a need.

However, professional service firms that are looking for a leap in innovation need to go beyond customer insights and explore future trends, industry experts, and, yes, even patent databases for further stimulus to drive new ideas.

This is the difference between firms that innovate and those that die. If you're in a professional service firm and believe that there is no threat, quite frankly, you are crazy to think so.

There is more than enough evidence to suggest that innovation is disrupting firms worldwide.

For example, let's look at accounting. Accounting firms are facing a tremendous amount of disruption from new innovative companies such as FreshBooks, Xero, MYOB, Saasu and Invoice2Go – not to mention the threat that comes from integration between all of those new companies and systems that most accountants already use, such as a CRM, ERP, bank accounts or payment gateways.

Law faces the same challenges with companies like LawPath, LegalVision and LegalZoom, among many others sprouting up every year. The more established these companies become, the more mainstream and popular they will get with their target market.

And while many of you will laugh at the thought of these companies displacing the traditional law firm, they are already doing it! And as they continue to get better at it, they will continue to take away market share from those that are not innovating.

Imagine if you could ask software development companies 20 years ago if they thought large global corporations would buy subscriptions online, for products they didn't own, to manage critical parts of their business.

I know first-hand that they didn't think so, then along came companies like Salesforce, Dropbox, Workday, Marketo, Evernote and SurveyMonkey, among many others, to disrupt software companies that originally built solutions to manage these aspects.

Professional service firms need to make the decision to invest in innovation before the marketplace changes too much and forces these traditional firms to enter a cost-cutting phase that will lead to a loss in margin, good employees and clients.

Ryan Caligiuri is an associate and innovation engineering practitioner with inVision Edge, an innovation and growth company. InVision Edge is also the leader of the Canadian Innovation Engineering Network.