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Pete Thomond – Disruptive innovator


Illustration: Sam Griffin

Pete Thomond spent the past four and a half years working out the secrets of successful innovation. The British academic and business consultant was co-manager of the “Disrupt-it” project, a €3 million European Commission co-sponsored programme of research and business tool development. Now he’s spreading the word downunder, as a Research Fellow and innovation consultant at the Brisbane Graduate School of Business. At 29, he’s young, but how many people do you know with a PhD in disruptive innovation?
Interview by Jodie O’Keeffe

Beware the tyranny of success.

The things a business is good at become the very things that kill it in the long run. One indicator is when you’re oversupplying customers. In Europe, British Airways and Air France were massively over-supplying customer service on short-haul flights. Then, EasyJet and Ryanair came along with a simple, low-cost service and transformed the industry.

Necessity is not always the mother of invention.

In Europe there has been an awakening to the innovation agenda. Australia has fewer resources, so I expected to find a lot of innovation through necessity. But the opposite seems true. A lot of Australian companies are being strangled by the tyranny of success. They’re right on the edge of it. I sense there’s going to be a breakdown before there’s a breakthrough. Either that or people have got to get hold of these innovation concepts and really start driving them.

People are change-averse.

In pushing the innovation message, I’ve learnt just how ingrained people are in what they do. Not because it makes money, not because of processes or financial restrictions, but it’s a kind of cognitive inertia. People just get stuck into a way of thinking and it’s a challenge to change.

Start in a niche market.

Disruptive innovations start on the periphery, they get ignored. There’s a pattern: if your company is overlooking the low end of its market, or overlooking some related niches, there’ll be another company out there to capitalise on that, and, before you know it, they grow and disrupt your industry.

Be patient for growth, impatient for profit.

Driving disruptive change need not be a gamble. Start with a niche market and treat it like a bowling alley. Take the first pin down, take two, then three. Be patient for that growth, but make money every time.

It’s not always about new technology.

Working with European companies, often the most successful innovation involves taking existing technologies, repackaging them and bringing them to market in smart, novel ways.

There are four ways to increase your innovation success.

They involve a good dose of common sense and improving: training and awareness; opportunity recognition; ideas management; and resource allocation.

You’ll need to shake up your HR.

If someone in the company has a really great idea, but they give it to the guy who has been developing the same widget for nineteen years, it’s just not going to happen. It’s my job to get that person to stand up and admit for themselves, “Okay, I’d love to be kept up on development, but I’m not the man for the job. We need someone new”. You know you’re winning when you hear someone say that.

Australia has a bad case of ageism.

An example from a meeting I went to last week:

Manager: “Before you start Pete, with all due respect, what the fuck do you think we’re going to learn from someone like you?”
Me: “How old are you?”
Him: “Fifty-two.”
Me: “And what colour underwear are you wearing?”
Him: “Excuse me? What does that have to do with anything?”
Me: “Exactly, what does my age have to do with innovation?”
I banged in with some of our success stories from Europe and said if you don’t think that’s relevant to your organisation, I’ll leave now. His team said, “No, we’re listening”.

Dr Peter Thomond joined the Queensland University of Technology’s Brisbane Graduate School of Business in September 2005 as a Research Fellow and innovation consultant. His PhD, completed in 2004, is entitled “Exploring and Describing the Pursuit of Disruptive Innovation in Average Performing Firms”.

Illustration by Sam Griffin