Innovation vanishes in black-box consulting model

Ross Dawson coined the term “black-box consulting” to describe low value consultant-client transactions in his book, Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships.

When I first read Dawson’s contrast between isolation and co-creation consulting models over ten years ago, his views struck me as the way of the future for anyone who is in the business of offering advice—including doctors, designers, real estate agents and tech consultants.

Now I am even more convinced of how important it is for clients and consultants to wrestle with questions and options together.

Black-box consulting happens when neither client nor consultant emerges from the assignment any wiser. Essentially, the client receives an outcome without meaningful participation in the process. Dawson says that this opaque model turns the service into a commodity because there is no shared knowledge-creating experience which leads to better decisions. Moreover, the black-box yields no learning, no ah-ha moments, no growth and no transformation.

Which also means that black-box engagements prevent any chance to think through fresh possibilities together. Black-box relationships are about minimal interaction, avoidance of risk and low personal commitment–the opposite of what’s required for innovation.

So clients and consultants do themselves a disservice when they rely on third-party selection processes and impersonal working relationships, which limit their ability to create value together.

Dawson’s book presents a framework for clearly seeing why transactional advice-dispensing models lead to competition driven by price rather than value, as well as doing things the same old way.

– Sharon VanderKaay


  1. Dorothy Russel

    Hi Sharon,

    Thanks for bringing this book and author to my attention. My favourite book about consulting relationships is “Flawless Consulting” by Peter Block (1981, 3rd ed. 2011). He talks about 3 different types of roles consultants choose: “expert role”, “pair-of-hands role”, and “collaborative role”. He definitely advocates for the collaborative one.

    • Sharon Vanderkaay


      Good to hear from you. Back in 2001 I had a chance to participate in one of Peter Block’s workshops. I told him I was a huge fan of his work which really changed my view of how consultants can leverage their knowledge. Thanks for your comment. -Sharon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

  • About The Nature of Innovation

    We see our collaboration with clients and colleagues as providing a living lab for enriching the creative process. Farrow’s built work has been internationally recognized for leadership in human-centric design. This is where we come to discuss our ideas as they hatch and our experiences as they happen.
  • Admin

%d bloggers like this: