In an economic downturn, the pressure is on to drive innovation
To say it’s been a wild few years would be an understatement. The Covid-19 pandemic forced companies to pivot and adapt, and nothing has been the same since.
Cut to today, 2022. Supply chains are strained, the global economy is shaky at best, and budgets are being cut across virtually all industries. The pressure is on for consultancies and agencies to help clients innovate and drive meaningful impact. If consultants fail to meet or exceed clients’ expectations, they risk losing business as the work shifts to the client’s in-house teams — or worse, to competitors.
Fortunately, innovation budgets aren’t taking as much of a hit as some other areas. This is a trend we’ve seen in past economic downturns as well.
Think back to the Great Recession of the late 2000s. Thousands of businesses shuttered their doors — but others found a way to thrive. A Bain brief points out that some organizations fell victim to “the misconception that extreme cost-cutting would be enough to survive the storm.” As a result, many companies slashed R&D budgets and scaled back on innovation. But in the end, the organizations that came out on top cut costs in other areas and actually doubled down on innovation. Ultimately, many teams found that not taking risks was actually the riskier move.
That doesn’t mean the path to innovation is an easy one, however.
Turn challenges into opportunities for innovation
Even in the face of a potential global recession, opportunities are limitless for consultancies and agencies. You can help clients streamline existing processes, rethink their company vision, fill emerging gaps in the market, identify additional revenue streams … the list goes on.
Let’s take a look at five ways to drive real impact and strengthen client relationships during challenging economic times.
5 ways to drive impact for your clients
1. Adapt to hybrid collaboration
As the return-to-office debate rages on, it’s clear that many teams are still struggling to work together in remote, distributed, and hybrid environments. But even if your team isn’t directly involved in developing a client’s hybrid work model, you can still make a massive impact on the way they collaborate. You may be supporting them in a completely different capacity, but you still have the opportunity to model what excellent collaboration looks like in a hybrid world.
One of the most common complaints we hear about hybrid work is that meetings can be inefficient, awkward, and a very different experience for people who are in the room vs. those who are dialing in. That’s not exactly an environment that fosters innovation, is it? The key is to thoughtfully design all of your meetings with hybrid in mind — and that’s where collaboration design comes in.
We define collaboration design as facilitating intentional teamwork through playful and provocative methods of visual thinking to take ideas from imagination to activation. This discipline inspires teams to connect and innovate together. It’s about more than just thinking through your meeting agenda; it ultimately requires crafting the entire collaboration experience. The following four tips for driving impact will help you do just that.
💡 Tip: Use MURAL’s Facilitation Superpowers™ features
Guide collaboration with features that make meetings and workshops more interactive, engaging, and fun. Learn more.
2. Build empathy, trust, and psychological safety
Empathy may sound like a fluffy, feel-good concept that’s far removed from the goal of driving innovation. But the fact is, building an empathetic and psychologically safe environment for everyone to collaborate is critical to driving real, meaningful impact for clients.
Psychological safety describes a team culture built upon mutual respect in which people are comfortable speaking their minds, taking risks, and trying new things without fear of repercussions. Innovation is impossible when people don’t feel that they can share their concerns and ideas, and as a consultant, you’re in the best possible position to encourage that open conversation.
Here are a few of our favorite ways to foster empathy, trust, and psychological safety with your clients:
- Check-ins: Start meetings with a quick check-in or icebreaker to get everyone comfortable speaking up.
- Private mode: Use MURAL’s Private Mode to allow folks to contribute anonymously when you’re discussing a sensitive topic.
- Reward good ideas: Reinforce the importance of speaking up by rewarding wins and good ideas, early and often.
- Encourage making mistakes: Emphasize that there are no bad ideas or dumb question, especially in the early phases of a project. You might even consider having people come up with “bad” ideas on purpose to help them shed the fear of looking silly.
Here’s the catch: People are more likely to be vulnerable, silly, etc. if you are too (within reason, of course). When you and your clients work together to overcome a lack of engagement, self-imposed barriers, and other challenges — that’s how you build trust. And as author and speaker Scott Berkun explains, “It’s only through earned trust that we can convince anyone to do something new.”
📑 Template: Team well-being and emotions check-in
Use this free template created by our friends at Design Sprint Academy to check in on team dynamics and well-being during a long workshop, an ongoing project, or a sprint. Get the template.
3. Focus on the right client challenges
You’ve probably been in a situation where a client thought they needed to solve one problem, but when you dug deeper, you found that there were deeper or more complex challenges that needed to be addressed. It can be hard to convince people to solve the underlying problems when they want a quick fix — but ultimately, they hired you to get to the root of things. Slapping a bandage on the issue won’t drive real impact, and it just leaves room for problems to compound down the line.
So, how can you work with clients to ensure you’re tackling the right challenges? The key is to involve the right people from the jump and guide them through the process as a team.
When you work with a diverse group of stakeholders to identify the challenge that needs solving, they will feel more invested in solving that problem. They’ll also understand that you’re in it together — for example, that you’re not expanding the scope of a project but rather collaborating to focus on what really matters.
For example, let’s say a longtime client comes to you with a new challenge. They’re trying to get their Marketing department to implement a new project management methodology that has proven successful for other teams at the org, but the Marketing team is not interested. Adoption is low, the team is vocal about their dislike of the new process, and leadership is frustrated. The client wants you to help drive adoption — but is that really the issue at hand?
Instead of diving headfirst into the project, you first want to ensure that it’s the right thing to do. You interview members of the Marketing team, members of the other teams that use the methodology, and company leadership. Perhaps you find that the team simply needs more training — or maybe you discover that the methodology simply isn’t the right one for this team and there’s a better approach you can take. Either way, by doing this legwork, you and your client can feel certain that you’re solving the right problem and making the biggest impact.
📑 Template: Design thinking canvas
Design thinking helps get to the root of a challenge and identify the best path forward. Use this template from our friends at What Could Be to plot the path between where you are starting and where you need to go. Get started.
4. Scale new methods and ways of working
You’ve identified a problem, ideated solutions, and successfully tested a prototype. Now, it’s time to scale the solution across additional teams and departments. But you can’t do it alone, and neither can your clients; it needs to be a team effort.
Here are three tips from MURAL and ExperiencePoint for scaling new ways of working.
- Chunk, don’t sprinkle: Concentrate on at least 50% of a population, such as a business unit.
- Describe what connects them: Make sure everyone understands (and is bought into) the common vision everyone is pursuing. This is much easier to do when someone they trust (e.g., their team leader or a department head) was involved in the work early on.
- Build the right skills and the right conditions: Ask yourself (and your clients) what in the organization needs to change so that behavior can? What habits can the team build upon?
💡 Tip: Publish templates in MURAL
Did you know that you can create your own templates in MURAL (or customize existing templates) and publish them to a shared workspace? This will allow your clients to access the templates at any time, making it easy for new methods and ways of working to spread organically at their organizations. Learn more.
5. Prove your impact
The single most important thing you can do to prove the impact of your work is to align with the client about what positive results actually mean to them. Andrew Webster, VP of organization innovation at ExperiencePoint, knows a thing or two about this. In a webinar, he shared an anecdote that illustrates how mismatched expectations can undermine a consultancy’s work.
Andrew’s team at ExperiencePoint was working with one of the largest automobile manufacturers in China to build innovation capability at the client’s organization. They met with the client’s core team and asked how they would determine success from the scaling of innovation and design capabilities across their organization. The company replied with the benchmark of releasing a car on the market that was a product of design thinking. But realistically, this would take at least 3.5 years, while their CEO was looking for ROI within three months. Ultimately, their success metrics were misaligned, so they worked to get everyone on the same page.
But impact isn’t just about the end result or outcome of a client engagement. It also means being able to show how you arrived at a solution in order to get buy-in from and build confidence among stakeholders throughout a client relationship.
Susana Cantú, a senior designer at Steelcase, puts it this way: "Instead of just explaining what we're working on or how we got to a particular solution, we can show them.” This allows her team to show outline their research, show their thought processes, and justify their decisions.
💡 Tip: Secure, enterprise-ready collaboration with MURAL
For clients in highly-regulated industries such as financial services, government, and defense, collaboration can be complicated. But when you use MURAL, you and your clients can feel confident that you’re meeting and exceeding some of the most broadly recognized security standards and flexible enterprise-grade security tools to address compliance requirements. Learn more.
Drive impact with more effective client collaboration
When the economy is suffering, consultants are under more pressure than ever to innovate and drive results for their clients. With these tips, you can ensure that your work is having a meaningful impact on your clients.
Get more tips to facilitate engaging, impactful client meetings in our downloadable Client Collaboration Cheat Sheet — a handy guide to keep in your back pocket when you’re planning and facilitating client meetings.
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