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What will it take to get innovation back on track?

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“Open innovation” isn’t a term you associate with Australia. We don’t even fund it anymore.

When we used to, it was called Innovation Exchange. But it collapsed. Listening to accomplished speakers highlighting this point at the recent Innovation Series event at Langham Hotel, I asked myself: “Why?”

Why, in a country as great as ours, are we so bad at collaboration?

We came up with the Victor lawnmower, Vegemite, Fosters and Greg Norman, and even managed, rightly or wrongly, to sell them overseas (except Norman, who went willingly and after that 60 Minutes thing, where Chris Evert sucked his toes, we willingly obliged).

As I pondered the musings of Ben Waters (Director, ecomagination, GE) and heard about how the legendary American company created a “virtual global research centre,” spinning off ecomagination projects in partnership with a number of companies and providing seed funding to 10 start-ups, I again asked myself. “Why?”

Dr. Alan Finkel (CTO, Better Place Australia) is looking to “drive” Australia into a sustainable future. Literally. Better Place is a company that plans to provide clean energy to Australia’s fleet of electric cars. Still, I asked myself: “Why?”

Then it dawned on me.

Collaboration isn’t merely putting two companies in a room together and saying “work together.” It should be about asking the right questions in the first place and being willing to share our failures as well as our successes. When I was asking “why,” I should have been asking: “How can we define the problem?”

Fear of failure?

Waters presented a damning stat. The percentage of businesses in Australia that brought something new to market last year was just 2.4%. This means Australia lags behind almost every country including (gulp) New Zealand! I don’t even need a joke about sheep to highlight how bad that is (no offence NZ, it’s just that we are bigger and supposedly endowed with better resources).

Why is Australia so far behind? Perhaps we don’t celebrate failure enough. Thomas Edison famously quipped, “I haven’t failed. I’ve found ten thousand ways that do not work.” In Australia, we keep failure to ourselves as if it’s something terrible.

For open innovation to work, it needs to be a top-down approach. But top-down facilitated collaboration requires buy-in down the line.

The top needs to accept failure, but when more than one company is involved, how is this defined and who takes on the risk? What happens down the line when middle management is only given incentives to succeed? If the collapse of the Innovation Exchange is anything to go by, we haven’t come up with an answer as yet.

Do we even know if we’ve asked the right questions?

Is past still a guide to the future?

“Money turns research into knowledge, innovation turns knowledge into money (and) getting 99% of it right helps when something goes wrong.” – Dr. Alan Finkel

Knowing what we need to know is just as important as getting it right. The problem is that research and research facilities involved in these projects are basing judgments on the past. Nothing wrong with that, but when innovation is all about creating the future I wonder how many ideas get killed off based on a now irrelevant view of the past.

Does collaboration help us get it right 99% of the time? It’s not guaranteed, but is that OK? And why should we need to get 99% right just to make it OK to fail? We should share our failures and if we fail, this shouldn’t jeopardise facilitated collaboration. It shouldn’t, but often does.

Open innovation shares the risk that comes with creating new futures. If we collaborate together and fail together, we will know how to succeed together. Share it, speed it up, challenge, learn lessons and improve.

When an industry transforms, it’s not new, it’s just better imagined. Collaboration helps us see with new eyes.

Why do we actually innovate?

We innovate to make the world a better place. It may also be to make money, but I contend that if you are not making the world a better place, you will struggle to make money. If you are only focussed on the money, you will neglect the needs and wants of the world, and you will therefore become irrelevant (ok, so the Crazy Frog ringtones may be an exception here).

How do we know what the world needs or wants? Ask it. Want better questions? Collaborate. By tapping into the collective consciousness of the world and applying sustainable business models, we really can make this planet of ours better.

Collaboration and open innovation have seemingly always been pitched as two or more companies overcoming risk in order to launch a product that neither could have launched on its own. It is promoted and focussed on the outcome, not the process.

The focus for collaboration should be on the question, not the answer. If we know what to ask, we mitigate risk better than any other method out there. The data of the past is only useful for the future if you ask it the right questions. To craft the right questions, you need dialogue and a willingness to challenge the ideas of the past and images of the future.

In that sense at least, and judging by the calibre of personnel discussing this very topic as part of the Innovation Series, we are on our way. The Innovation Series is an initiative of Zernike Australia, in partnership with the Australian Institute for Commercialisation.

Ben Flavel is an entrepreneur and innovation consultant assisting corporate, SME and fast-growth companies through innovation creation and evaluation, culture development and strategic renewal. Currently, he is an innovation consultant at NeoCogs and director at eQueue He can be contacted on 0417 323 809 or [email protected]

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