Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

Giving stuff away – the false value of intellectual property

Selling a consultancy is challenging and often not very financially rewarding. I’ve done it a couple of times and what looks like a great opportunity to generate some return for all the effort, is incredibly hard work and often not very lucrative. When you talk to advisers, they will talk about intellectual property a lot. A classic question would be, “what have you got which a buyer might be able to commoditise?”, “what can you bring which doesn’t rest in your head?”, “where’s the intellectual property?”

For me, intellectual property is what I trade in every day. Not only that, it’s what keeps me interested in being a consultant. I’m not talking about the latest piece of technology or bio-chemistry which will transform the world, I’m talking about ideas which can help to improve the business that I’m working with, practical simple ideas which cost little but deliver lots.

And contrary to popular belief, the value of those ideas is not the output or ‘deliverable’ which we sell to our client. Ask yourself when you last used a template or process created by someone else. Typically it doesn’t work so well. Why? Because you instinctively didn’t trust the person who created them to have gone through the same rigour or journey that you face…

No, the real value comes from the process of getting to that idea, the iterative, messy business of creating something new for a problem through the collective capacity of a focused and energetic bunch of people. Why is this more valuable? Simple….because you can do it again and again, and every time you do it, the team gets better and better, they trust each other more, they learn about each others strengths and weaknesses and become more efficient and productive…now that’s real value.

Now getting back to the question of value, what happens if I give this intellectual property away? Say, something I’ve worked on for years in terms of a concept, process, methodology, the sort of thing that consultants trade in a lot. Well, if it’s something that can be commoditised, where my interaction is no longer necessary, then perhaps yes. There is a commoditised value to the IP and I’ve reduced it by providing it for free.

However there’s a behavioural trait to ‘owning’ intellectual property of the type I’ve described which concerns me. I think it leads to a protective instinct and goes away from the daily challenge and enjoyment of creating, developing and building something new…without which this job is meaningless.

For me, my value is in creating the environment and the process for my clients to get to the result. And the best thing about giving this stuff away is:

Clients see you as the architect and not the custodian

Now that’s a good place to occupy as a consultant.

Categories: Consulting, Intellectual property

Tags: , , ,

3 replies

  1. Hey my man. Top blogging!


  2. Ben, I hope you are right. We have just launched our site that curates and makes accessible the latest faculty thinking from the top b-schools we work with. There is, however, some pressure to add a ‘toolkit’ to every Idea, which I am resisting for the very reasons you set out. I think people absorb these ideas and over time can access them or add them to the pool of thinking with their colleagues to come up with better, newer, more innovative solutions. The site is designed for executives but maybe we should be pitching it to consultants instead!!


    • Great to hear from you Rodders. The concept of a toolkit is a scary one as you suggest…capturing the creation of ideas in a process which almost inevitably will be linear (and therefore completely inappropriate) seems to me to be an exercise in futility!


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