6 Golden Rules For Turning Consulting Relationships Into Breakthroughs

Sohrab Vossoughi, an innovation consultant at Ziba with 27 years of experience, breaks down what both the client and the consultant need to do.


Despite the potential pitfalls, thousands of companies continue to incorporate design thinking into their business process, often with outstanding results. In an era when almost every product or service on the market is at least satisfactory and efficiencies have largely been optimized, innovation is still the most effective way for a company to differentiate its offering.


For the company that wants to begin pursuing this path, a new perspective is essential, whether it takes the form of a newly created internal innovation group, a shake-up of the executive team, or the engagement of a consultancy. In each of these cases, matching expectations with reality is crucial. In the case of the consultancy–my area of expertise–there’s also the relationship to consider.

At its core, innovation consulting demands trust. The consultant must earn the client’s trust by demonstrating insight, competence, and empathy with both client and consumer. The clients, for their part, need to earn the trust of the consultants by indicating that they are serious about doing something new, aware of the challenges, and eager to question their own core assumptions. While every client relationship we’ve formed here at Ziba has been different, trust has always been present in the successful ones, and it has a handful of reliable precursors.

Trust starts with the client acknowledging discomfort, identifying an internal advocate for the innovation effort, and adopting the right time line for evaluating a strategy’s effectiveness. For the consultant, it means letting go of the most seductive fantasies of design-driven transformation and acknowledging their own limitations, focusing instead on the client’s strengths and culture and striving for absolute transparency. Each of these is a tall order; together they demand great discipline. But 27 years of experience plus close observation of the last decade’s many innovation failures have made it clear that they’re indispensable.

1. For the Client

Get comfortable with discomfort
Any company that claims innovation is easy is either misled or misleading. Instead, it’s an uncomfortable approach that flies in the face of many accepted business practices. It encourages experimentation rather than decisions based purely on past experience. It rejects proven solutions in favor of uncertain ones and tests them through repeated failure and recovery.


Because of this, most companies don’t initially have the stomach for it. When an innovation strategy is presented to a client, the most common reaction is to evaluate it with the tools of traditional business: Is it efficient? Will it reliably produce results? Can its performance be predicted within a reasonable certainty? The answer to all of these is no. Design thinking has a powerful verification process, but it’s painfully unfamiliar to most clients. The sooner that’s accepted, the more productive the effort becomes.

Find a champion
Because sustainable innovation usually demands internal transformation, there needs to be an internal advocate to drive it. In our most successful partnerships, we’ve formed strong, trusting relationships with at least one powerful executive in the client firm, often the CEO. It’s absolutely crucial that such a champion has the full support of the C-suite and stays in frequent contact with the consulting team. In the long run, he or she is the one who makes the company innovative, not us.

Take the long view
A new accounting system or software investment may have an ROI that can be measured in months. Innovation strategies are measured in years. The process of failure and recovery is a slow way to go, but you don’t walk into unknown territory without repeated stumbling. That takes time and patience.

Efficiency improvements, distribution expansions, and other familiar business efforts are more comfortable because their results can be rapidly assessed. Of course, that’s also why they are so common. Innovation is about fundamental shifts that take more time and involve greater uncertainty. This is why innovation is such a differentiator: If it were easy, everyone would do it. Good things, in this case, come to those who persevere.

2. For the Consultant


Know your limits
As a consultant, you don’t change a client’s internal culture; that’s the client’s job. Chances are good that a client with enough foresight to hire you has probably already done a lot of things right, in a way that might be foreign to a bunch of designers. Respect that–effective design thinking depends on efficiency and pragmatism just as much as creativity.

At the same time, you are being brought in to offer a unique perspective, so offer it. Respecting your client does not mean holding back, but it does mean presenting solutions in your client’s language, with clear explanations of how to implement them and how they advance your client’s innovation goals. A solution that will only realize benefit through massive institutional change is no solution at all.

Embrace their culture
Innovation consulting, for all its fanciful terms, is still a client service. It succeeds when the consultant becomes like the client, understanding its brand DNA and internalizing its culture. But this is a non-intuitive task that refutes the popular myth of the Design Thinker stepping in to “save” the company by transforming it from the outside.

Real innovation requires something subtler and more painstaking. As consultants, we must dig into our clients’ heritage, motivations, and behavior and make their aspirations our own. We must observe them as intently as we do their target users and cover walls with images that evoke their attitudes, values, and unique strengths. There’s a hint of self-sacrifice to a good brand and culture investigation.

Be truthful
The ideal innovation consultant is part mirror, part crystal ball, using its research and analysis expertise to show present realities, and its design-thinking abilities to suggest next steps. The mirror and crystal ball must both be clear. There is often a temptation to sugarcoat findings, but one thing that makes established consultancies worth their reputations is a willingness to communicate honestly and clearly. That means letting a client know about their weaknesses as well as their strengths when it comes to innovation, and attaching an estimate of difficulty to every idea. Not everything is easy to do, and a good consultant is as conscious of the trade-off between risk and reward as the client is.



If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is, for both parties. But when we talk about essential concepts like trust, insight, and aligned expectations, we mean something more than just a spoken agreement. We mean a shared purpose and a commitment to joint exploration–a relationship that reaches beyond a service for hire to something approaching mind-meld. Design thinking is not a new kind of thinking–it’s two kinds, both creative and pragmatic, with client and consultant each contributing their part. Only when they align can design thinking succeed.

[Top image by Windell Oskay]

About the author

Born in Tehran, Iran in 1956, Sohrab Vossoughi moved to the United States in 1971. After studying mechanical engineering for three years, he switched to study industrial design