It’s official: the “Century of Ideas” has begun.
The Turnbull government has come out swinging with its first major policy document: an Innovation Statement. After decades of lamenting the “brain drain”, Australians can now look forward to an era of greater investment and lower risk for researchers and entrepreneurs who invest in the commercialisation of new ideas.
The Prime Minister is being lauded as an “evangelist of change”. So just what is so innovative about this innovation policy? And how can we adopt some of the underlying policy principles to drive innovation in the workplace?
Turnbull’s statement focuses on two related factors that promote innovation: (1) increasing certainty, and (2) reducing risk. In industry, these factors directly affect the commercial viability of research and commercialisation activities. And in the workplace, they affect the psychological viability of collaborating with colleagues in a creative process.
In the context of the Innovation Statement, certainty refers to funding certainty; certainty that the funding that supports research will be adequate both in dollars and duration. Turnbull has committed to the injection of much-needed funding into CSIRO and other large initiatives. So what is the equivalent of funding certainty in the workplace?
Well, the obvious equivalent is job security. We need to create workplace cultures where people can experiment with a new idea – taking intelligent risks – without fear that their job will be on the line if the idea happens to go awry in its implementation.
We also need to give people the time and freedom to be creative. Creative pursuits tend to be regarded as ‘important but not urgent’ and can easily be crowded out by a growing list of ‘urgent’ (but not always important) demands on our time. Google’s infamous ‘20% time’ (which has since evolved) is an example of how companies can give people confidence that the time they invest in innovation will be honoured – if not tangibly rewarded.
At a deeper level, funding certainty also has a psychological or emotional equivalent made up of relational elements like trust and respect. It’s about knowing that you will still be valued – regardless of whether your idea booms or bombs.
How does your organisation support innovation at a practical and emotional level? What initiatives could you put in place to foster creativity and continuous improvement?
The other side of the innovation equation is risk. Funding alone will not be sufficient to stimulate innovation if the downside of failure is prohibitive.
Among other things, the government is introducing tax offsets to encourage investment in early-stage research and reducing the default bankruptcy period from three years to one. So how do these initiatives translate into the workplace?
Psychologically, it’s about giving people permission to fail. Too often, a culture of criticism erodes people’s confidence in their own natural creativity and stifles their willingness to share or pursue their ideas. The cost of doing so – feeling defensive, embarrassed, or even irrelevant – is simply too great.
As advertising executive Charles Brower put it:
“A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man’s brow.”
At a basic level, Facebook’s adoption of the “Done is better than perfect” slogan is a great example of how a company can acknowledge the value of forward movement and reduce anxiety around ‘getting it right’. Taking it further, it’s about celebrating innovation attempts – even when they aren’t successful. Indian conglomerate Tata Group does this through its ‘Dare to Try’ award, which recognises “sincere and audacious attempts to create a major innovation that failed to get the desired results”. (Tata Motors was recently ranked #26 in Boston Consulting Group’s Most Innovative Companies 2015.)
It is natural – and necessary – to be critical, at the appropriate time. Constructive feedback is vital to ongoing improvement. But offering criticism as a reflex, when an idea is not yet fully formed, will not only kill the idea but also dull any inclination to offer new ideas in the future.
How do people respond to new ideas in your team? Is it with ‘a sneer or a yawn’? How can you encourage your people to share and develop their ideas in the spirit of collaboration?
A third factor: time
So will the so-called “Century of Ideas” be successful?
Only time will tell. And while that might sound like a cliché, I mean it more literally than that. Innovation takes time to manifest.
To take an example that has been doing the rounds on social media lately, Airbnb started in 2007 because two housemates couldn’t pay the rent. To make up the shortfall, they came up with the idea of renting out three air mattresses for $80 each. And Airbnb was born. Or was it?
Well, maybe technically. But it actually took two or three years, and several iterations of their business model, for Airbnb to become the global phenomenon that it is today. (It was valued at around US$25b in June 2015.) This is just one example of how it took several years for an innovative idea to become an ‘overnight success’.
Some might say that the problem with innovation is not that it takes time, but that we lack patience. Expecting results prematurely is like putting a tin of cake batter into a oven and then throwing the batter away because the cake hasn’t risen after just five minutes. It won’t work, and it’s a waste of resources.
Are you ready to embrace innovation?
Victor Hugo said:
“There is only one thing stronger than all the armies of the world: and that is an idea whose time has come.”
It seems like Australia is finally ready to embrace innovation. But funding and legislative change is only the beginning. For innovation to thrive, we need to cultivate organisational cultures that truly support both individual creativity and collaboration – by increasing certainty, reducing risk and being patient as the creative process unfolds.