Innovation requires switched on leaders

28/11/2016
Organisations that disappear in a ‘Kodak moment’ are examples of failed leadership, according to Melbourne Business School’s Professor Ian Williamson. 
 
Speaking at the Queensland Government’s Business Innovation and Improvement in Government (BiiG) conference in Brisbane recently, Professor Williamson said organisations risked extinction not because they were unaware of new technology but because they failed to act properly.

“In many cases, they actually made investments in the technology that led to their demise, but they were unable to transition. It wasn’t awareness, it was their inability to systematically transition.”

Ian Williamson MBS

Professor Williamson, who teaches Managing People and Managing Human Capital on Melbourne Business School’s MBA program, said leadership matters when it comes to change.

“Radical innovation requires allocation of resources on a big scale, which can only happen at the senior leadership level, and research shows that radical innovation is heavily tied to how senior leaders behave and conceptualise. That has a huge impact on changing how an organisation operates.”

Citing examples of Sony’s wildly popular Walkman being blown away by Apple’s game-changing iPod, and Blockbuster being wiped out by movie streaming, Professor Williamson said leaders need to be aware of what’s going on around them.

“Organisations continually have to re-establish their relevance to stakeholders. And when things happen, when the rules change, innovation becomes the way in which organisations maintain relevance. It’s about survival.”
Professor Williamson said innovating, and responding to innovative competitors, involves harnessing resources.

“Australia punches above its weight when it comes to inputs. We have a lot of infrastructure at universities, but, unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate into outputs – the hardest aspect of the innovation process.”

Surveys of executives around the world show that the two biggest obstacles to harnessing the resources to innovate are a risk averse culture – people don’t want to make a mistake and suffer the scrutiny – and time – good ideas take too long to execute, so lose their relevance.

Harnessing is much harder than invention in the innovation process, Professor Williamson said. It requires bringing together multiple, complementary sources of knowledge and expertise.

“Good organisations take a good idea and say, ‘Our first step is to think of all the complementary expertise we need to execute this idea.’ And they combine that knowledge through networks and interaction, which plays a huge part in deciding what gets combined and what doesn’t.”

Professor Williamson said the Asia Pacific Social Impact Centre at Melbourne Business School, which he heads, implemented the award winning MURRA program to support Indigenous entrepreneurs after harnessing multiple stakeholders to get the required resources.

“We had to go out and systematically talk with Indigenous organisations about the issues and challenges they faced. We had to explain to companies that the federal government makes it easier to win contracts if they have Indigenous suppliers in their supply chain, and we pointed out to government that successful Indigenous business would earn more revenue and pay more tax.”

The program helped Indigenous business Teter Mek win a contract to supply OfficeMax with its Tjindgarmi range of stationary, but only after Professor Williamson turned to Melbourne Business School alumni to help fund it.

“We needed a risk taker, and who in society would take a bet without evidence? Philanthropists. They’re the venture capitalists of the social sector. So, we went to our School’s alumni community, who said, ‘That’s a pretty creative idea. We’re going to give you the money for a pilot.’

Professor Williamson said the challenge for leaders is to be open to good ideas and systematic in implementing them.

“Successful innovation is not achieved by chance. You have to think of the issue you’re dealing with and, if you can solve that problem, then who would love the answer? You need to eat your lunch at the table rather than your desk, but then ask, ‘Who should be at that table with you?’”

Learn more about how you can drive a culture of innovation in your team and workplace through the Decision Making for Leaders course.