Thunder Down Under: One-on-One with Australia’s Innovation Thought Leader

Allan Ryan is credited with bringing the Innovation Movement to Australia. Nine years ago he got the idea to form a consortium of leading organizations to help companies rethink their basic approach to driving growth through innovation.

The Hargraves Institute, named after Australia’s most famous inventor and explorer, Lawrence Hargrave, was born from Ryan’s passion to help companies become more innovative, and the insight that companies of the future would need to collaborate with each other to accelerate progress. In addition to being the founder and Executive Director of Hargraves Institute, Allan is also Executive Director of Managed Innovation International, and Adjunct Professor of innovation, UTS Business School. Edited excerpts from our conversation:

Tucker: Two years ago, you stopped using the word innovation entirely. Australians were sick of it. With the downturn, what’s the state of innovation now?

Ryan: Innovation has come roaring back. When times get tough, smart leaders look to both cost-cutting and jumpstarting revenue growth. So innovation is very much on the agenda again.

How has your vision changed over the years since you founded Hargraves?

Ryan: Five hundred innovation eventslater, [our] companies know as much about innovation as the consultants [laughs]. Australia is a bit isolated, so Aussies tend to put their heads down and just do the work, rather than yapping about it endlessly. We’ve got member companies that know the models. They have mastered the tools – and they use them to deliver results. Last year one of our member companies (in the consumer products market) collected over 8000 ideas. They then implemented a thousand projects, and recorded the savings and sales growth in a dashboard seen by the entire organization. The contribution was in thetens of millions of dollars.

Australia is home to some world-class innovators like Cochlear, ResMed, and Atlassian, among others. But you’ve also got a lot of companies that are based elsewhere. Don’t the multinationals tend to want to do the important projects in their headquarters markets?

Ryan: That’s an outdated notion. A lot of the multinationals are using Australia as a great place to market test new products and services. Think about it: we’re a first world economy. We’ve got world-class managers, and the fact it’s isolated means market feedback can be achieved faster and cheaper than in the U.S. or Europe.

What innovations have come from companies’ Australian units?

Kimberley Clark’s team here came up with the latest Huggies Nappies diaper. That one was developed completely from Down Under and now is distributed internationally. I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to try this product, Robert? [laughs] Google Maps came from a Sydney-based company, Where 2 Technologies. Coca Cola’s ‘Share a Coke can’ promotional customization came from Australia. It’s a long list.

So how does innovation happen in Australian companies?

Ryan: I divide innovation into two types. Firstly there are the folks whose job is to innovate – the professional innovators so to speak. These guys live and die on their ideas. The second type are those who have jobs where innovating is voluntary. They can choose to do “everyday innovation,” very much to thepoint of your book, “Innovation is Everybody’s Business,” or they can stick to their day jobs.

Any examples of voluntary innovators coming up with unexpected breakthroughs?

Ryan: Sure: just recently, a volunteer innovator at Coca Cola Australia came up with the idea of personalizing Coke cans with people’s names on the can. She works in accounting, not marketing. It was a simple suggestion, and there were over 100 senior managers, in Australia and globally, that had to approve the idea, and it finally got approval. It has become the most successful promotion ever, and Pepsi couldn’t touch it.

What in and what’s out tool wise in Australia? For example: where’s open innovation?

Ryan: It was a fad. I can’t think of any company or any product that has come from open innovation in Australia. It’s a buzzword. What is important is collaboration. Innovation takes time and commitment of resources, especially by leaders. Open innovation assumes someone has a ready-made idea or solution to your problem and ‘hey presto’ they enter it into your website. Collaboration is people-to-people interaction, discussion, conversation and development of mutually beneficial innovation where both parties win. Collaboration is a lot of hard work and brings the greatest results.

Design thinking?

Ryan: Design thinking [has become] a commodity. The big names in design thinking came to Australia to work with companies, but they didn’t get invited back. Every business school is teaching it, it’s built into every one of our programs at Hargraves. It’s become a correspondence course.

What about idea management software?

Ryan: if it’s used right it has staying power. But the scariest thing for most people is sharing their idea. Sharing is about putting yourself out in the open, putting yourself at risk. It’s about putting your heart and soul out there. Brene Brown did a fabulous TED talk where she talked about the power of vulnerability. But if you’re worried about being vulnerable, why would you input your idea into a system where everyone and anyone can see it and criticize it and criticize you! So after ten years trying to get people to submit ideas to a portal, we came up with what we call the Idea’s Best Friend Program. It’s designed to help people, especially introverts, to engage with idea management systems a little easier. The proof of our ‘Catalyst’ approach is best evaluated by looking at the longevity of innovation leaders and their programs. We have many examples of programs that have grown and grown for over 5 and 10 years. Time is the best test. Do you know of innovation managers and programs that start with lots of hype and then disappear in less than two years?

And finally, what tools seem to have staying power?

Ryan: The secret of tools is to have a toolbox. There is no one tool. There are many that work well. The problem with people who are experts in one tool is that if you have a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. So it’s not the innovation tools that matter. It’s the results that the tools bring about.