Accenture Labs and the blue flame of passion

It sounds like the title of an adult film, but Michael Redding swears by what he calls the “blue flame of passion.”

This is that pet project, sometimes pursued during office hours, but more often not, which innovative employees in corporate IT departments work on to fulfill their creative needs.

“I’ll talk to someone on my team. I’ll say, ‘Okay, that’s what you’re doing . . . but what are you working on?” said Redding, the director of Accenture’s Technology Labs in Chicago, with whom I spent an hour recently when he visited Toronto. He doesn’t ask the question accusingly. It’s more of a just-between-you-and-me tone, a conversation between co-conspirators that helps someone like Redding find the unusual concepts that make their way to the consulting firm’s clients.

Accenture Technology Labs employs just less than 200 people in four facilities in the U.S., India, and France, and Redding is responsible for helping clients better understand the opportunities in front of them. This could be making the case for cloud computing, or perhaps something that hasn’t gotten a lot of hype yet.

“If we’re put into the resell game, we’re going to compete on price. You need to create differentiation and show a big outcome,” he said, adding that the idea is to focusing on creating “pioneering engagements” that will provide the proof more laggard adopters will need. “The rest of Accenture is about scaling.”

There’s a left brain/right brain aspect to this which seems true of many IT departments as well. Many tell us through surveys and interviews that they spend more time than they’d like on the scaling, but that makes sense, because that’s where all the problems happen. It’s also difficult to act like a lab when you don’t have the budget to do the experiments, which is why it’s instructive talking to someone like Redding who helps clients get the go-ahead they need.  

“We try to suggest a value hypothesis,” he said. “If you know the scientific method then you know a hypothesis is a way of testing out a theory. A value hypothesis is the same idea but looking at how it will bring the organization forward. We say, ‘Let’s go on a journey,’ and before anything starts we’ll do a diagnostic on their portfolio.”

It’s not just a sales pitch, either. Redding said Accenture tries to act as a “co-innovator” and puts its own people and other resources on early-stage projects. “No client wants to be in a situation of, ‘Here’s a cheque, hope it works.’”

A lot of the Labs’ success is dependent on the people that work there, and that’s where Redding’s blue flame of passion comes in. He said he knows about it first-hand. He was an eager developer of biometric security solutions earlier in his career, long before such technology was accepted and used by airports and other organizations.

It no doubt makes a lot of sense of enterprises to draw on the expertise and ideas of Redding’s team, but they also need to do more to ensure that innovation isn’t something you tap into on an outsourced basis. As partnerships with these consulting groups are formed, how can customers absorb some of the cultural characteristics that allow ingenuity to be encouraged and promoted? As the most innovative IT managers know, there’s a big difference between keeping the lights on and keeping the flame.

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