To really flourish Australia’s entrepreneurial garden needs more tall poppies

We all know that innovation is critical to economic growth. We also know that Australia has strengths, but also some challenges to face when it comes to building an innovation culture.

We’re not alone. It’s a global issue.

One of the key themes of this year’s Davos conference was “Navigating Industry 4.0” inspired by fundamental changes in the business environment with technologies blurring boundaries between people, the internet and the physical world.

The sound bites of Davos illustrate the change taking place:

“Speed is the new currency of business”

“The biggest impediment to companies’ future success is past success”

“There has never been a time of greater promise or greater peril”

“Diversity is the engine for innovation”

So at a time when rapid change across all sectors is becoming a fundamental reality of business – how can Australia take advantage of a new world order?

The first step is for all of to realise this is not just about organisational change: it’s also about personal change. I recently led some global research on organisation agility and personally met with over 100 CEOs and chairs of businesses across all major industry sectors in Europe and Asia Pacific. I was seeking to understand the sources of agility and what businesses were doing to respond to rapidly changing and challenging markets.

Two key findings emerged. First, agile organisations are simply best placed to fully capitalise on opportunities in the market and mitigate threats. Second, leadership is at the heart of achieving organisational agility. Without agile leadership it is not possible to be an agile organisation or country.

Amid structural changes to Australia’s economy and further digital disruption, it will be innovation-led growth, driven by entrepreneurial actions that will sustain Australia’s place as one of the world’s leading economies. Put simply, we need people to try out new business ideas, to take a chance and seize the opportunities open to those willing to think differently.

Yesterday I attended a CEDA #innovation event. Two thoughts in particular resonated with me.

The first came from Bill Ferris, Chair of Innovation and Science Australia, who pointed out that it is business model disruption and not technology disruption that will have the biggest impact on Australian business. While technology research and IP creation play a critical role in any innovation eco-system, it is the clever entrepreneurs with novel applications of technology to business that create economic value. We need to foster and encourage that mindset if we are to create the new companies of the future.

This involves a myriad of changes, both in Australia’s approach to funding innovation and our business culture. Per capita, venture capital in Australia is still a fraction of that in places like Singapore, Israel and New Zealand. Our risk appetite is low, and we have not embraced the “willingness to fail” culture of places like Silicon Valley.

However, we should not just put this down to Australia’s relationship with failure, and indeed success. We just don’t want to give people a second chance.

The second from Annie Parker, Co-founder of Telstra’s muru-D accelerator who moved to Australia two years ago. She was surprised by the constant talk of the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. She sees this an internal perception that shouldn’t hold people back. Internationally, Australians are seen as fun loving people, always willing to give it go, not people confined by the fear of over-reaching or being too clever. The perception of the low-key Aussie, afraid to overshare success or risk any failure is perhaps, thankfully, confined to our shores.

Given that in 2016 “speed”, “disruption” and “opportunity” have become the lingua franca of the business world, perhaps today is the time to overcome that fear of failure and of trumpeting our achievements. We need to celebrate our successes, and learn from our mistakes.

Most of all, we need to work together. Only by collaborating can Australia grasp the opportunities of change, create global businesses and ensure our economy continues to be a competitive one.


One thought on “To really flourish Australia’s entrepreneurial garden needs more tall poppies

  1. Thanks Martin, this is a good read. I totally agree with Annie Parker – after working and living in Australia for several years, I found that receptiveness was very high, as was a healthy appetite for risk and innovation. I’m not so sure about acceptance of failure – and that is critical element for an innovative culture. As you note, a “fail fast and learn” mantra would be a great element to cultivate. Hopefully that can replace the glee many express when failures befall the brave. Cheers!

    Mike Anders

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