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Innovation – The silver bullet? Not Likely!!

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Innovation – The silver bullet? Not Likely!!Politicians and the media revel in the quick grab – the slogan or tag line which in a moment conjures up an image: Clever Country, Smart State, Education Revolution and now we have Innovative and agile nation!

It is one trademark of Australian politics over the last 30 years.

Ian Chubb has noted recently after the release of yet another report:

..”that there had also been at least 60 reports into the innovation system alone in the last 15 years – “and there would be more, if all reports into the higher education sector were taken into account”.

Read more in the article on AFR

(I can only imagine how many reports were done in the 15 years prior to that?)

I thought after my Blog I would make some observations from a perspective of having worked in start –ups and SME’S in Australia for over 30 years. In many cases Innovation has been a platform for these businesses and it has been a long hard road. There are no easy “metres”.

It is not a few slogans and another report and there is little evidence that it is a silver bullet to save business yet alone Australia!

When I listen to the current debate it focuses focus on Science and technology. There is no doubt this is an area of critical importance.

But innovation is a much broader concept. Innovation by definition involves the disruption of the status quo and there are few who adapt to this easily.

The bottom line is innovation in any sphere is tough.

What is Innovation?

Innovation is a new idea, more effective device or process.[1] Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs.[2]This is accomplished through more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments and society. The term innovation can be defined as something original and more effective and, as a consequence, new, that “breaks into” the market or society.[3]

This definition covers the spectra from new ground breaking drugs to new forms of organisation design (holocracy)

It extends to new forms of social policy plus any form of Public Infrastructure.

My introduction to innovation arose in my early years as a consultant. The innovation was “ to introduce performance appraisal” into a major Government organisation. A small team was selected to attend a program on the “management of change”. It was a powerful experience and I was left in no doubt that it was an area I was very interested to pursue. This was the early 1970’s.

The issues addressed included:

  1. Personal Change
  2. Organisational Change
  3. Innovation and Change
  4. Resistance to change
  5. Strategies for change

As I recollect there were a lively conversations and many recommendations and conclusions were made about the project we were undertaking. We presented these on our return and in the end “project” launched and it floundered as the resistance was formidable. In the end it just faded away! A not very rewarding experience for one so young.

Over many years now I have worked with Industries and Business who have:

  • Introduced new products to the Market
  • Identified new Business Opportunities and established market leadership in Australia
  • Created national and global brands
  • Introduced new technologies to the market
  • Worked with a number of Start-ups – many are still on the journey to greatness!
  • Restructured Industries
  • Pioneered new social technologies –Self Managed work systems, learning organisations

Maybe the toughest Innovation I have been associated with was establishing myself as an independent consultant positioning in the area of Strategy. It was a living experiment?

When I started this journey (1986), there was a very limited understanding of what strategy was and even less understanding of how to do it! So in the market I chose it was both innovative and entrepreneurial – especially when I decided to do it as a sole practitioner – working from home!

Very few worked from home in 1991!

In the late 80’s CEO’s of small business (and not so small businesses) said to me –“ I have a budget why would I need a strategy!” and Innovation was a word that all knew but actually making it a focus was not a priority.

It is exciting that the debate has come around to the topic of Innovation nationally. I now see that we have an Innovation czar! (Fin Review Sat 31st October 2015).

This is a good thing –symbolic action!

But I do want to suggest that in my experience the innovation journey is a long an arduous one in whichever area you choose. There are no easy solutions or pathways. 60 reports in the last 15 years, that is a lot of ‘seed planting” -so what has been the outcome?

Is Australia more innovative now than it was – and what is evidence?

The Australian Innovation System Report 2014 makes this observation in its highlights:

Australia’s small and medium sized businesses appear innovative by OECD standards (ranking 5th). This is a positive for our domestic competitiveness. Australia’s large businesses, which do almost all our exporting, are not innovation leaders by international standards (ranking 21st in the OECD). New to market innovation, is very important for international competitiveness. However Australian businesses of all sizes perform poorly on new to market innovation compared to other countries and this situation is getting worse not better. 

The last sentence is disturbing!

So after 60 reports and who knows how much money, what is different now – is the business culture in Australia likely to change?

A debate about Innovation and the appointment of an innovation “czar “is not a silver bullet!


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