IN GOOD COMPANY: Top Australian business leaders share how they foster innovation

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With the right people you can build the crasiest things. Taylor Weidman/Getty

We live in a time of great change and volatility. New technologies and methods of doing things have revolutionised industries from banking and retail to farming and publishing. But how can your business keep up? How can you instill a spirit of innovation within your own company?

We spoke to several Australian business leaders to find out how they foster innovation within their own companies. In a common theme, they all say it’s about the people.

The ideas come from people

For Jonathan Barouch of LocalMeasure, employees and even customers are an integral source of ideas. The company involves everyone in the product planning cycle – to reap the rewards of different expertise, experience and points of view.

“Often the most innovative ideas come from one party clearly articulating a problem that someone else on our team is excited to solve,” says Barouch.

The 30 people in Barouch’s team discuss the problems at lunch every Friday. They also have a special channel in their group messenger just for ideas and an online portal for voting on and discussing them further.

“All the best ideas have come from our drivers, dispatchers and customer service staff,” says David Berger, co-founder of Suppertime.

“It’s our job to collect these ideas and turn them into working products.”

Suppertime also hosts a weekly meeting for its staff to present ideas and give feedback. The key is finding people to take them on and implement them quickly.

Cross pollination

The idea of leveraging a larger, diverse group to solve problems and source ideas is also employed by Zach Johnson, CEO at accelerator Spark Bureau.

Spark Bureau curates its membership to create a microcosm of the business community – including local government, providers of financial, legal and accounting services, early-stage startups and established businesses.

“I think variety is exceptionally valuable. Think back to Steve Jobs’ mission to marry the humanities with technology, or the multi-disciplinary teams at innovation companies like IDEO,” says Johnson.

“While the cross pollination won’t automagically improve innovation, the right people with the right motivation in the same place at the same time can only enhance creative problem/solution matching.”

Giving people the space to shine

But it’s not all about having the right people, they also need to inhabit a space that gets the best out of them. It could be creating collaborations paces within your offices like Mirvac, or, as Steve Jobs famously did with the Pixar workspace, designing a building to force employees to talk and interact more.

LocalMeasure has adopted some of this approach, kitting out their offices with “white boards, chalk boards and a physical space that really helps for collaboration.”

“The best way to drive innovation is for the folks in our business with big ideas to crash into the people who build our product everyday,” Barouch says.

Johnson doesn’t advocate this kind of “forced” interaction, but he looks to create opportunities for people to collaborate and converse in different environments – both inside and outside the office. Like a bar or cafe, or one of the events they run.

“Our events calendar and training classes are designed intentionally to bring more people together who wouldn’t otherwise meet or interact,” says Johnson.

People need to be empowered

If bringing people together isn’t enough to get them enthused, you can always add competition and autonomy. At Envato, they run a biannual event called “Hack Forts”. The product and development teams are let loose, to form their own teams and and execute an idea in two weeks.

“Opening up to let teams choose their own adventure means more people are getting a chance to put ideas on the table. They form teams only if they can win others over to the idea, so there’s a natural selection process” explains Collis Ta’eed, Evanto’s CEO. “Once there’s an idea in play there’s an additional drive to deliver because it’s the teams own idea. That autonomy can translate to incredibly driven teams.”

An aspect of this is cross pollination, but its also about lending support for wild experiments and having some fun.

“I’m not sure it would work in everyday work – though there are companies trying that – but it’s a neat way to get a burst of innovation! It’s also really fun, the prizes are sometimes as grand as a helicopter flight over Melbourne or as silly as a photo of the team in costume to put up in the office.”

For Nathan Besser, another co-founder of Suppertime, it is also about empowerment, even if you doubt the ideas will work.

“If someone in our team has an idea they truly believe in, we always give them the opportunity to prove themselves, even if it is something that we don’t believe will work.

“No one can predict outcomes, but if your people show commitment, you have the best chance of success”.

Get ideas out into the open

For most of these theories to work, it requires a culture that accepts and even celebrates ideas. For an employee to pitch an idea or offer comment and vote on someone else’s, they have to feel safe from penalisation. There is no such thing as a bad idea and even the lesser ones could be moulded into something great.

But this openness also has to extend to the outside world. Several of the entrepreneurs talked about being iterative, and accepting solutions that aren’t perfect.

“We learnt early on that the solution or system doesn’t always have to be perfect. We believe in running before walking. The perfect solution is something that mature businesses have the luxury of trying to solve,” says Suppertime’s Nathan Besser.

“The sooner we put an actual solution in front of an actual customer, the sooner we discover a true value proposition. We get out of the lab within days and always discover that the business we thought was incredible might not be,” says Phil Morie, co-founder of Pollenizer.

“There are few business leaders that are comfortable with that.”

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