Building a Culture of Innovation

In 2013 on the cusp of its 100-year anniversary, a large, multinational consulting firm was in the middle of a identity crisis: it was quickly becoming a company of contractors rather than a company of consultants (trusted advisors) to their clients.

The consulting landscape was changing, and its clients needs had shifted dramatically. This firm's staff and leadership were measured by the amount of revenue that they brought in, not by the creative ways that they solved a problem. As a result, staff lived in a culture of fear that they would be laid off with a "Lack of Work" notice, and as a result its staff was largely not engaged or feel valued. While all of this was brewing internally, its key markets and that market's source of money was changing rapidly. Budgets were being slashed across the board, leading clients to hire consulting firms for staff augmentation, continually asking for lower rates. It was a race to the bottom.

Seeing these problems first-hand, in April 2013 the firm reorganized and created a Strategic Innovation Group, and specifically created the "Building a Culture of Innovation" (BCI) initiative to help solve the problems that they were seeing internally and in the market. 

Origin Story

Given our marching orders to "build a culture of innovation", I and five other colleagues from across the firm in various fields were asked in short form to define what we mean by "innovation" and how it works in the context of consulting. Working as a startup within the larger company, me and this team had the heady task of changing the current culture into one of innovation, but had little barriers or constraints in which to operate.  Seeing the shift in our culture from consultants to contractors, we assumed the key to an innovative culture lied with tapping into the ethos of consulting and then to build out entrepreneurs--to solve the problems, in the best way, to create the most creative and innovative products and services.

We quickly outlined a series of goals to guide the the process and measure our progress:

  • To reinvigorate the culture of consulting and ignite the entrepreneurial spirit of the workforce
  • To focus on the problem (identification, deconstruction, and selection) and the solution (selection, prioritization, and implementation)
  • To increase the ability of the firm to connect and share ideas that have a successful exit to the market

For more information about the consultant ethos and how we planned on building the skills within the workforce, visit the page on the Innovation Playbook in the case studies section of this website. 

Innovation Pilots Development Cycle

Piloting Innovation

In true startup fashion, we tackled this as a product that needed to be built, and jumped head first into understanding the culture of the firm and of its relationships with clients. We knew the key to an innovative culture was to find innovative sub-cultures to study their habits, policies and processes. Secondly, we designed and created four pilot programs across the firm and country to test out our assumptions. 

During these pilots, we pulled from known, tried-and-true methodologies to build innovative sub-cultures such as:

  • Lean Startup
  • Design Thinking
  • Agile Development
  • Community Building 

Following the development cycle in the diagram to the right, these pilots were designed for continuous improvement and measurement. The lessons learned from each new pilot was directly applied to our assumptions and the team pivoted as necessary to meet the demands of the pilots and the firm. 

The Innovation Ecosystem 

Over time our pilots created successful pockets of innovation in the larger culture. As we were nearing the end of the first year of this BCI initiative, we searched for ways to make these innovation pockets scalable and repeatable for learning and successful building of products and services that has impact across the Enterprise. To this end, we created the Innovation Ecosystem--a set of tools and events design to identify, prioritize, resource, and implement the best ideas within the company's culture. It combined the best of virtual tools and in person experiences to match workforce realities. Further, this ecosystem would capture learning, create transparency, and turn process into action. 

It consisted of a series of virtual tools and in-person events:


  • Pitch Jams: Individuals pitch their ideas like they would a startup company in front of their peers and mentors for direct feedback. Pitches are 2-5 minutes and include problem and solution statements and concept validation.
  • Innovate Now!: Using facilitation and Design Thinking techniques, participants in this longer session identify problems and gain a deeper understanding of those problems to design a solution and pitch their ideas with more impact.
  • Combustion Chamber and Cells: Participants in a Combustion Cell or Chamber pitch their idea "Shark Tank" style in front of leadership in return for money or resources (an "investment") to develop their idea or product.  Participants have a more well developed product and as such, pitches consist of problem/solution statements, competitive analyses, market sizing, concept validation, customer acquisition strategy and project plan to bring their idea to market. The Combustion Chamber is a firm-wide event and have higher stakes and rewards.
  • Ideas Festival: An one-day innovation summit to inspire, ignite and engage intra-preneurs in the Innovation Ecosystem. Through the summit new ideas are identified and incubated and directly feed into new products and services, adding to the thought leadership of the firm.
  • Solver Space: A solution development space, using analytics to power new capabilities and technologies. The goal is to convene in a space where new concepts and solutions are developed through a fusion of existing ideas and best practices from various fields. 


  • The Garage: Promotes challenge-based crowdsourced innovation through a series of highly scoped challenges that result in new capabilities and/or solutions for clients, the market or the firm as a whole. 
  • The Idea Exchange, a grassroots crowdsourced innovation forum where the firm's staff connect and generate ideas through organic, thematic, and threaded discussions on various topics.
  • The BAHx, a developer and designer sharing community like GitHub
  • Innovation Central, a knowledge-sharing website, including all the most up-to-date information about innovation happening at the firm

Innovation Enablers 

An Innovation process reflects the principle that innovation is a Discipline. It is fundamentally a science, but one geared toward the systematic application of learning. At the firm, we deliberately set out to build a core set of practical skills that enable our people to be innovative and continuously learn and be curious about the world. We also channeled our innovation principles and philosophies in a series of knowledge around what it means to innovative in the field of consulting and at the firm at large. Once learned, these skills are applied through a series of tools and events that create a cycle of learning and doing that makes us better at solving problems and drive innovation for the firm and our clients. 

Below is some skills and knowledge created as part of this ecosystem--it builds awareness and encourages the sharing of information about innovation at the organization. For more information about these innovation enablers, please visit the Innovation Blueprint and Playbook page


  • The Innovation Blueprint 
  • Innovation Playbook
  • Innovation Central
  • Innovo--the Innovation Magazine
  • The Pulse


  • Problem Identification
  • Problem Deconstruction
  • Idea Generation
  • Prioritization and Selection
  • Prototyping and Testing
  • Ideas Pitching 
  • Go to Market Strategies

Partnerships and Alliances

Innovation is about increasing connections. One way to increase connections is through effective partnerships. By combining the best of your capabilities with partners' market-leading products and services, we are able to innovate faster. As part of the Ecosystem, we created a series of alliances that includes large corporations, incubators, entrepreneurs, academia and expert crowd networks. Here are a few partnerships we've created:

  • 1776
  • Intel
  • Amazon Web Services
  • Microsoft
  • Crowdsourcing platforms: IdeaScale, InnoCentive, Top Coder, Mindjet