By Colin Jowell

Last week, I went to a local marketing conference, and having recently returned from South By Southwest in America, the differences were pretty stark.

At first, I couldn’t help but notice a display with a set of old fashioned stereoscope toys on display - a far cry from the NASA stand in the US where I got to walk on Mars using Oculus Rift. My heart sank, particularly as I went to talk after talk, berating Australians for our lack of innovation and our risk averse nature.  But suddenly I realized, we’ve been singing this song of self-flagellation far too long, and I was almost about to join in.

There was one talk that pointed out that despite controlling only 2% of adspend, we contributed disproportionately highly to the world rankings of effective campaigns  - 19% in fact. So either we are incredibly responsive to boring stuff, or maybe, just maybe, we know what we are doing more than we give ourselves credit.

It doesn’t take long to triangulate that observation. Consider our banking system, one of the most stable and advanced in the world.  Rapid adoption of technology has led to the highest levels of customer satisfaction – with satisfaction around internet banking channels around the 90% mark!  Or consider KPMG announcing its own digital market place for professional hours following a model that more resembles disruptors like Airtasker*  (also Australian!). And to trot out a few more well worn examples - the local invention of Wi-Fi and what ultimately became Google Maps rounds out the picture.

All of this does not add up to a staid, backward nation, but that’s not how we like to think of ourselves.

So what’s the problem? I believe some of it has to do with buying well-worn innovation clichés.  Clichés that, frankly, we should dump because they’re simply not true.

Here’s a few.

a) Act like a startup. Well considering most start ups apparently fail in the first two years, a fact we hear all to often, it’s no wonder most of corporate Australia reckons that’s an act they would rather not follow. Should you disrupt? Yes! Should you challenge convention? Yes! But startups, by definition, lack both operational experience and deep resources, and if acting like a startup means ignoring those incredible assets, that seems pretty foolish. Established businesses can and do innovate, but only when they embrace the toolkit at their disposal.

b) Innovation takes place outside of your organization. You know, those offsite labs and hubs we see and read about? I’m not denying they have had their successes, but are they really the most effective way to embed innovation into your organization? Maybe they are better suited to individualistic cultures? But for many Australian businesses, it really is about teamwork and consensus, and creating an internal “us and them” doesn’t fit well with that. Far better to follow the Westfield model where they put the lab in the mall itself.

c) Fail Fast. I mean, honestly, who wants to fail? And yes, we are by nature a pretty cautious bunch, especially when by global terms we’ve had a pretty successful run of late. Many might ask why we should fix what isn’t broken. When innovation is framed in terms of failure it’s little wonder people don’t want to take part, or think that it’s something we can’t or won’t do. Call it semantics if you like, but we really should be talking about a “Learn Fast” culture. 

It’s high time we started looking at innovation in a positive, culturally relevant way, rather than defining it in processes and terms that simply don’t fit with the way we work. Maybe then we would recognize that we do a whole lot better than we say we do.  We’d appreciate the skills within our existing businesses and how we can leverage them to drive change.  And we’d take on new projects more eagerly with the well-founded confidence that we can do it.

* Airtasker is a client of UDKU.