The Harvard Business Review (HBR) January – February 2019 Article The Hard Truth About Innovation Cultures is particularly insightful, when reflecting on nearly two decades of working within private and public innovation systems.

While ideation remains the starting point of any innovation, the question arises about the factors, which catalyse the break up silos and / or (ivory) towers and ultimately drive translation of innovation into new products and solutions. It appears that the consistent or persistent lack of executional business practices, which are widely applied in conventional industrial settings, are one of underlying causes for failure in innovation settings. Another notable factor presents as the application of rigid bureaucratic schemes for taking key decisions in a complex, ambiguous and rapidly changing innovation universe.  Arguably both these concepts nicely fall under the definition of Innovation Culture described in the article.

In light of the March 2019 Australian Agriculture Innovation System Report, it seems that the timing of the HBR article is especially timely in seeking a pathway to an effective innovation system. Whilst the Australian report rightly identified what needs to be addressed to reinvigorate innovation in the domestic agricultural space, it did not, on my reading, really open an insightful dialogue on how to make these changes. Most importantly, the innovation systems’ cultural settings, are critical to drive the change and this is where the HBR hard truths offer some guide as to cultural settings that are required to underpin future success.

Taking the five key themes raised by Gary Pisano in turn:

Tolerance for Failure but No Tolerance for Incompetence is arguably the most challenging piece of the puzzle to implement, with implications around how to judge competence and the externalities associated with results arising from innovation. However with the significant investments made by government (tax payer monies) and the complementary time and resource commitments of the private sector, strong efforts need to be made to address systemic incompetence. Naturally there are, if you like, transient competence gaps that arise through individuals and organisations as responding to changing circumstances. However extended tolerance or wilful ignorance of limited competence ultimately does a disservice to the individual, team and external partners when progress isn’t made and momentum is lost. In more extreme scenarios, tolerated incompetence corrodes culture, leading to the disengagement of the competent as poor practices (and in cases behaviours) become entrenched and possibly normalised.

Research funding bodies classically judge competence by (publication) track records of each research scientist. However this runs a high risk of ignoring innovative researchers without an established publication record, for example by way of being early in their careers or having substantially undertaken industrially orientated work that had patent and know-how outputs subsequently constraining publication opportunities.

‘Disciplined experimentation’ is arguably the willingness to say ‘no!’ Far too often, in my observations, have programs been allowed to continue unchecked under the guise of ongoing exploration. The discipline of closing projects releases not only resources but creative energies to locate new and relevant frontiers to address. In an Australian context, I partly reflected on this issue earlier in the year, noting ‘I have always sensed a need to hang on tightly, perhaps too tightly to resources (and even ideas) in Australia for fear that there are not those additional resources nearby’. It might follow that a basis for the reticence to say ‘no” is partly founded in an illiquid and/ or static investment in the domestic innovation system.

Psychological safety with brutal candour is a natural extension of a strong and robust innovation culture. Feedback loops mired in process in the absence of culture have arguably allowed for the rise of tolerance for incompetence and inability to say ‘no’. Some of this candour may be emerging with the rise of seed and venture capital in the local innovation system, however it may not carry with it the psychological safety needed to build on the ‘start-up experience’, exhilarating and challenging as those experiences may be. Furthermore, the timing of the recent agriculture innovation report and the reported emerging appetite for recalibrating of the system will create circumstances that require both safety and candour to move into a new system supported by enabling culture, norms and behaviours.

Individual accountability and the argument that consensus and collaboration get intermingled with the need for decision making responsibility and accountability is a widespread phenomenon. It perhaps meshes with a subconscious alignment with the often quoted phrase of C. Ciano ‘success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan’ – direct accountability where the risk of failure may lurk may be an uncomfortable prospect for some. Perhaps, in an environment where there is not the cultural tolerance to ‘failure’ or the need to adapt to change, there is more ‘safety in numbers’. Many a meeting has occurred in R&D innovation with a lack of clear accountability for decisions arising from the meeting. Even in strongly focussed industrial projects accountability can get lost, circumstantially or otherwise, as those more classically aligned to research activities seek to focus on the collaborative journey of increased understanding whilst shunning a more reductionist focus on answering technical questions on a commercially critical pathway.

Flat but strong leadership hinging on leadership by competence rather than hierarchy presents a particularly interesting challenge in organisations whose products are highly technically orientated, be it public or private sector. Many an organisation with this orientation takes its most technically competent people and ‘promotes’ them into management roles, with little to no training for the transition from specialist to generalist and discipline leadership to organisation wide responsibilities. Whilst deference to competence is commonplace towards technical leaders in technical environments, the associated competencies needed for a successful business, be they commercial, legal, human resource management, etc. can be found to be marginalised and not embraced for the competencies they bring to bear to an organisation.

The challenges of innovation culture were nicely captured in the concluding section, pointing to:

  • ‘The combination of seemingly contradictory behaviours’
  • ‘While certain behaviours required for innovative cultures are relatively easy to embrace, others will be less palatable for some’
  • ‘Innovative cultures are systems of interdependent behaviours, they cannot be implemented in a piecemeal fashion’.

Of the first two of these, I couldn’t help but reflect on a concept I came across many years ago, where Peters & Waterman spoke of ‘simultaneous loose – tight properties’ or more recently captured around concepts of sitting with discomfort or dissonance in an environment. In any organisation with accountabilities, budgets and management systems some tensions will arise in the pursuit of innovation and/or change. Certainly in companies with well-established products on the market, there are likely different competencies and norms required for innovation in contrast to the ‘steady state’ of day-to-day business operations. The interdependency of behaviour also suggests that there may be challenges in cross-sectoral innovation in established businesses where there can be a natural drift towards siloed internal structures.

With these reflections in mind, the emerging challenges on how to implement change within the Australian agricultural innovation system will likely include:

  • Building confidence within the innovation community around experimentation, success & failure, feedback and future opportunities.
  • Clarity in accountabilities and responsibilities for the investments and implementation of outcomes to generate sector wide impacts.
  • The silos that have emerged in technology capability and industry.
  • The inherent tensions between:

– short and long term returns building technology for longer term profitability; and

– the role of government and private sector investing in technologies to underpin a more resilient agricultural sector.

The resulting realignment and adoption of the aforementioned cultural setting should also strongly influence and inform the way that public and private organisations make decisions about R&D investment.

I would like to acknowledge the reflections and contributions of my colleagues Dr Bill Taylor and Dr Oleg Werbitzky.