Why innovation should be part of everyone’s job description
17 July 2017
Are innovators born, or made? The answer is both, which means it pays for companies to encourage every employee – from the C-suite down to entry-level positions – to consider innovation as part of their remit.
That’s because innovation can arise from the most unlikely sources, said Dr Marlene Kanga, a board member of Innovation Science Australia and Sydney Water.
“Employees, contractors and customers can be a source of great ideas. It’s best for organisations to be open to innovation and facilitate how these can be put forward
and tested,” she said.
Water utilities have coasted for decades using traditional business practices, but Kanga warned the industry could find itself at a disadvantage if it’s unprepared for disruptions like those that have completely up-ended other industries.
“It’s important for the industry to be proactive and consider what these disruptions might be and then develop strategies to accommodate them,” she said.
Queensland Urban Utilities (QUU) is one water utility that’s leading the way.
“For decades the water industry has employed a traditional approach: invest strongly in assets and build things that will last 100 years,” said QUU’s Innovation, Research and Development Manager Colin Chapman.
“Today it’s more about maintaining affordability, and having flexible and agile options. The mindset has shifted.”
City West Water (CWW) is another utility diving into more forward-thinking approaches. The Victorian Government-owned retail water business recently hired its first ever chief information officer. It’s a critically important role, said Managing Director David Ryan, and one that will help the organisation get on the front foot technologically.
“Customer expectations are changing enormously, and a way to deliver extra value is through technology. This is a field that is changing frequently, and so we wanted someone to bring in the best thinking from outside our organisation,” he said.
There are many ways to approach innovation, but the trick is to figure out what will work best within your organisation’s culture, said Dr Kanga.
“Some organisations have regular innovation forums where ideas are presented, others have a marketplace where votes are cast for the best ideas, still others have ‘skunkworks’, where employees can work on a new project for an agreed amount of time each week,” she explained.
QUU is also tackling innovation from both ends of the organisational hierarchy, said Chapman.
Employees can pitch their ideas online, at meetings with management, or by seeking out the help of volunteer innovation representatives throughout the business. So far this approach has been successful – more than 200 ideas have been proposed by staff members.
“It’s not about rigour: It’s about giving permission, space and freedom to develop campaigns that aren’t in isolation or duplication,” Chapman said.
Dr Kanga agreed, and said it’s crucial for management to demonstrate they are open to “having a go” without letting fear of failure get in the way.
“It is also valuable to partner with innovating companies and with research institutions,” she added.
With the right systems in place, you don’t need to bet the house, said Dr Amantha Imber, an innovation psychologist and founder of Inventium.
Instead, it’s best practice to place lots of mini-bets, akin to how a financial adviser will set up a diversified portfolio.
“Failure can no longer be a dirty word. We teach our clients to run very fast, very cheap and very efficient experiments where they might spend one or two thousand dollars testing key hypotheses around an idea that might add value to customers.”
“We can very quickly learn whether the idea has got legs and needs a bit of iteration, or whether we need to kill it.”
This not only ensures you’re casting a wide net, but also guarantees a pretty wide safety net as well.