Ideas Boom: Focusing on positives masks growth opportunities

Business Council of Australia - Innovation from BCAcomau

There is a great deal of talk at the moment about innovation: how to do it and why we need to do it. The Australian Government is calling it "The Ideas Boom".

But while the rhetoric and political spin have freshened up the stale conservative nature of Australian political debate, the Prime Minister's desire to encourage an "agile" and "disruptive" economy is proving more difficult than meets the eye.

The institutions - or "the rules of the game" - are glossed over in terms of "cultural change" (see the BCA presentation above), but there is barely an attempt to understand what holds us back and why.

Two days ago, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Harry Johnson found the easiest way to overcome the obstacles facing entrepreneurs in Australia was to move to the United States. His ideas will boom elsewhere.

So why is it that there are so many obstacles to innovation in Australia and why, despite the current focus on the "Ideas Boom", is there no agenda for change? Governments in Australia hold a deep-seated belief that they can direct policy outcomes by throwing money at various programs (or "programmes" - how readily people follow government trends!). The endless "Ideas Boom" funding advertisements popping up in the middle of "The X Files" are a case in point.

After many years studying institutions and trying to innovate in a variety of sectors, I have experienced time and again a general lack of willingness on the part of leaders to confront the obstacles to innovation in organisational, policy and regulatory systems. My favourite approach, for example, is to ask everybody in an organisation to list three things that currently make their job difficult - I refer to this as the "pet peeve" technique. The idea is that where job difficulties overlap, fixing these first can give you a "quick win" in improving existing systems. Invariably, I am told by leaders that we should focus on the positives, not the negatives, and that allowing everybody to have a whinge will only lead to no good.

But let's think about this from an individual perspective. What if you were to reflect on your own performance by only looking at the positives? Imagine a person who refused to look at the negatives while attempting to be a reflective practitioner? It would be the worst kind of outcome. The individual would think they were great while the rest of the world thought quite the opposite. Why is it any different for governments, businesses, or, indeed, leaders?

If innovation is to become widespread and a real, rather than rhetorical, part of the Australian economy, there needs to be some genuine reflection on the part of governments, policy-makers, and business leaders.

What is clear is that throwing money at innovative projects is not a long-term solution (other than government ticking off a policy agenda item, for example "we have invested in innovation to the tune of $X million"). There needs to be a "first principles" review with some deep and hard reflection.

If the ideas boom is to materialise, then focusing on the positives won't help to change the barriers to innovation. Only by identifying the underlying problems that led to the current "innovation crisis" will enable us to find solutions with impact. Otherwise, focusing on the positives will only reinforce the current problems while masking the real opportunities for growth.

Culture, after all, is "the way things are down around here" in response to the "rules of the game". If innovation is about creating something new, then trying to change the culture without changing the rules is the opposite of innovative.