20 June 2016

Why are we on the innovation bandwagon?

| Andrew Snell
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Innovation is a buzz word, which is a bad thing. It’s bad because innovation is important and it’s hard. By letting it become a buzz word and everyone jumping on the bandwagon it makes it difficult to distinguish between real innovation and general evolution.

I can’t think of any type of business, organisation, department or agency that doesn’t have some sort of innovation agenda. Very few of these actually ever innovate – iterate, evolve or refine, yes; innovate no. People are bad at accepting they didn’t achieve what they set out to do. When a group of people fail to innovate, it gets justified, the results are changed. It’s said innovation is achieved when it isn’t.

There are two basic factors that mean most people within any group cannot really innovate. Firstly, they are too comfortable in their current position, there is no need for them to change to satisfy their basic needs. Secondly, they are too risk averse, so even if they do see a reason for change, their reasoning won’t let them take action to achieve it.

It means the ambition of innovating in a lot of situations is unrealistic. It is simply not possible. The desire to do so because “everyone else is” damages the entire playing field. Innovation as a concept has become so popular that it has become difficult in some environments to make decisions that don’t have and innovative component. That risks current systems grinding to a halt.

Government and large organisations are good examples. They want to innovate because they think they should, not because they need to. It becomes a situation of taking action that is or seems innovative and looking for a problem it can solve, rather than finding an innovative solution to a real and pressing problem.

These organisations damage the notion of innovation more than anything else. By their very make-up they can’t truly innovate; their structure, roles, governance and systems do not allow the flexibility required to be innovative. It’s this that creates the difference between the rhetoric and the actual sides of innovation.

There is the argument that making smaller changes, the modernisation of tasks and process, is a way of innovating. The problem, if we accept that, is the sheer scale of the innovation spectrum. There is a huge gulf between “innovative” changes to current processes, and the risk and investment required in terms of time, resources and knowledge to conceive, plan, prototype and deliver an entirely new solution.

The two ends of the scale relate very little to each other, which means the people working at each end understand very little about each other’s perspective. In their own context each is justified, but when it comes to defining innovation there are too many variables. A definition for innovation should be simple and limiting, rather than broad and inclusive.

Given the difference in its perception, and the kinds of organisation that stems from, innovation in Canberra is a difficult topic to define, undertake, and measure. There is a lot of talk about being known as an innovative city – but what do we mean by that? Not everyone or every organisation can be an innovator, and nor should it be encouraged. Innovation should involve taking bold risks, and there are some situations where that isn’t appropriate.

Innovation is a word we hear almost every day now though, and I want to know what it means to the people of Canberra. So, no matter what your understanding of it, I’m asking you to give me your perspective. Is the focus on innovation a good thing? Can everyone really be innovators? What does an innovative business or organisation do? And finally, do you think talking about innovation will make a difference to how we look at our world, or is it all just a fad? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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You need thinking time to ‘innovate’. Unfortunately, years of ‘efficiency’ – i.e., setting a general baseline of ‘trying to function normally without enough staff to do the job properly’ – results in people simply being flat out just getting their job done so they are not personally blamed when it all falls in a heap. Classic example – the Cth public service. Personally I think it’s quite innovative that more does not fall in a heap, given the contrived ‘fiscal environment’ being endured at present.
But I digress.
IMO, encouraging a society/culture where people have generally fewer worries gives people a chance to go beyond day to day survival mode and find solutions that will catch on and benefit everyone.

Hi Andrew,

Good article. Aussie small businesses are being strangled to death by red tape, compliance and clueless governments at all levels with a punitive regime that makes the risk vs reward equation unviable.

Imagine if the govt had invested that $12BILLION spent propping up the car industry somewhere growing rather then shrinking, ie biotech, renewable energy, building ports, etc…. Instead of saving “zero jobs in the end” we would have probably created thousands of jobs that the govt would never have had to contribute another cent towards….
Spending money on dying industries is like investing in a dud company. It might feel good to be able to help, but ultimately your just delaying the inevitable and going to get massive destruction of capital.

This is just one example – the NBN rollout is another (I actually agree we need NBN – but not in all geographic areas). Canberrans $1Billion dollar tram another…

I recall someone (Barry Jones perhaps) pointing out several decades ago that four advanced economies had failed to change substantially in the twentieth century from an agricultural/mining base – Argentina, Russia, New Zealand, and Australia. Despite the best efforts of the Cochlears and CSLs, has anything changed very much since then? Selling a tree for $10/ tonne as wood-chips rather than selling it for $10,000 as fine furniture is not the most insightful or visionary strategy. Compare this to Switzerlands watchmaking and Pharmaceutical sectors and you’ll quickly see we are the ‘barbeque today beats banquet tomorrow’ country.

Our minimum wage needs to stop increasing. There are simply too many people that are not productive enough to warrrant $638 per week….(i will get attacked on this, but please consider this before responding, while ever our minimum wage is $638, jobs that require higher productivity then $638 for 38 hours, will continue to flow offshore. Its simple maths. If you need 38 hours worth of work done for $500 to be able to compete with cheap imports, then you can’t get Australians to do the job, you have to take the job to another country. Im sure there are many jobless Aussies that would prefer to take a job for $500 a week and be employed, then see the job go offshoes and be out of a job. Whilever we keep increasing the minimum wage, based on nothing more then attendance hours at work, we will continue to see Aussie job losses to other countries.

Solution? The “Business of Australia” requires motivated staff, great products and services, and a lid to be kept on costs.

Looking at our balance of payments however, you can see that we are a profligate country, spending more than we earn and selling off assets to pay for it. Keep going and eventually all our assets will be owned by foreigners from whom we will rent the properties, sending our income offshore at an even faster rate.

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