Friday, 29 May 2015


At the 2015 LGPro Annual Conference Dr Amantha Imber, world class thinker and researcher on the topic of Innovation, gave a keynote address on the topic Innovation Survivor: How to Outthink, Outsmart and Outlast [your competition, I presume]. Dr Imber is an innovation psychologist and consultant. She was recently awarded the BRW Client Choice Award for Best Management Consultancy in Australia, she has a PhD in organisational psychology, and she works with major corporates like Coca-Cola, Commonwealth Bank, McDonalds and LEGO to facilitate innovation.

The session was a mix of theory and practice.The theory concerns what we are trying to do when we innovate. The practice recognises that we're human, and suggests ways that we can use the model to create great, new ideas. 

Ideally, the process of innovation has the following elements:
  • Someone submits an idea; 
  • The idea is assessed;
  • If successful, the idea progresses to a prototype.
However, in reality, is this process clear to anyone in your organisation who has a great idea? What is the climate for risk taking in your organisation; how comfortable are people with risk? Even if you have people generating great ideas, does the organisation have the skills to develop breakthrough ideas through to prototype? 

To embrace innovation, Dr Imber recommends that we analyse where our organisation sits in terms of the Innovation Framework (below) and assess the level of commitment that we are willing to make to nurture innovation. 

Which brings us to the key question - what prevents us from innovating? 
I wasn't surprised to hear that the main barrier is our assumptions. If we configure every problem with all the same variables as we have now, often this will prevent a new solution from being found.

Dr Imber recommends that we identify our assumptions and crush them - this might be to give our selves permission to imagine another outcome and ask 'What if the opposite was true?' We should consider all kinds of assumptions, too:
  • Neutral assumptions - in other words, describe things as they are;
  • Negative assumptions - try not to rule out options in your brainstorming;
  • Positive assumptions - recognise that some assumptions may be contingent on factors that may not apply.
For example, how did Apple come up with the iphone, what must be the most commercially successful mobile telephone design to date? They clearly didn't assume that a phone had to have more than one button and their enquiries into touchscreen technology must have followed on from there...

A clever strategy she recommends is to consider how someone else might solve a problem; we could try thinking "like Apple", "like an airline", or "like a gamer".

She also warns against decision fatigue - apparently the research shows that the quality of our decision declines throughout the day, so important decisions are best made first thing. As we get tired, we become more likely to take the easy way out instead of thinking things through.

These days the pressure to keep up and pull ahead is on as never before, yet I always think that being over-busy is the arch enemy of great ideas. Being able to play is key to innovative thinking. Children know it. As adults it's time we gave ourselves permission to think outside the box and play with our ideas, too.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


Out of adversity and challenge, innovation. At the recent LGPro conference in Melbourne I had the pleasure of speaking with the graduates of the Brimbank Community Leadership Program. 

Here was a Council that had failed its residents to the extent that the Council was placed into administration and the relationship with residents and ratepayers had to be rebuilt. There were no elected Councillors. The challenge was how could Council earn the trust of its people, identify community leaders, and facilitate their input into Council's activities at all levels. What they did was quite interesting, and I believe quite successful...

Admitting the problem was clearly a start. Council decided to put together a training program to impart leadership skills to potential community leaders and provide in-depth knowledge of Council systems and people. The program has been through a few years now. The first graduates were more drawn from recognised organisations, but the current crop of graduates speaking at the session were interested individuals. People who saw the ad, and wanted to make a difference. They were from a variety of cultural backgrounds and ages.

But how does an individual become a leader? Answers to this varied.
  • Some wore badges so that people could start a conversation out in the community about things that worried them;
  • Some started a small group using rooms provided by Council and leveraging off events Council might be holding that had some traction for them;
  • Some were contacted directly by people needing help (perhaps because there were no Councillors);
  • Some became involved with other groups over time even though they put their hand up to serve as an individual in the first case;  and
  • Some weighed in on issues that came up that interested them simply because they knew how things worked, who to contact, what might be done to help.
Council, for its part, kept in touch. Alumni received regular notifications from Council about upcoming speaker events, quarterly meetings, programs and issues. These community leaders knew Council staff, they were invited to forums and events with special speakers. Many commented on how the program had helped them in their life and career - the program seems to have been a classic win-win.

While the role of these community leaders was a bit like that of a Councillor, there was an important shift. Here Council was trying to help the community solve its own problems. It was not just inviting complaint, it was inviting engagement. This is actually a much better use of scarce public resources, if you think about it. There was even one case where Council staff took an idea developed with the community and fashioned it into a submission for State Government for funding, something that the community alone probably could not have done.

Now Brimbank is an outer metro Council. I live in a regional area myself (City of Shoalhaven) where people have a real sense of community and communities. I had to ask - would this model translate to urban high rise communities? The panel had no hesitation in answering YES. Community gardens, community focus - here's an idea that travels. How's that for DIY innovation? I was utterly impressed.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015


At the recent LGPro Social Media Conference in Melbourne we received a mind-boggling overview of Telstra's social media marketing paradigm from their Executive Director Communications and Chief Social Officer, Jason Laird. (All credit to Jennifer Bartlett at Red Rebel Communications for organising this.) This presentation became the back drop to all discussion that followed on the theme 'Transforming the way we do business.'

In recent years apparently Telstra decided to use its very scale to its advantage in social media, encouraging all 32,000 staff to use their networks to put out the word across an array of the company's brands. The reward for doing this might be a donation to their local preschool, for instance. Each store now also has its own facebook page. Some use this well, some don't. Telstra is running a numbers game and fielding enough horses in the race is part of the strategy. Most of us would worry about the risk management this approach involves, but Laird described mis-use of social media as a performance management issue like many others. Of those 32,000 only one person has been dismissed following misconduct, and in their view this particular incident could easily have happened on other channels instead. Tellingly, half of Telstra's customer interactions are digital and the rate of increase shows no sign of decline.

Various sessions at the conference looked at uses of social media in local government to meet key objectives - support disaster coordination, provide responsive customer service, promote events and services, engage people in decisions about their communities, give a human face to organisations and promote community spirit in local areas. Generally the people responsible for social media in local government juggled multiple roles and responsibilities and either monitored their channels on an unpaid volunteer basis after hours or not at all.

In some ways the concluding panel session was the most interesting. We considered the known facts, trends and threats:
  • Volumes of social media interactions will increase dramatically as more of the general public (and particularly young people) elect and expect to interact online with organisations; 
  • Social media is an opportunity for a conversation without media intermediaries; many Councils are releasing information on their facebook pages rather than via traditional media releases for this reason;
  • Posting information online is cheaper than newspaper advertisements or home letter drops and is a viable alternative in many instances;
  • We may need to rethink business processes as well as people go mobile - links to submit online are more user friendly than paper forms;
  • Social media engagement can be immediate and measurable;
  • Social media can allow extended conversations around complex issues and help Councils make better informed decisions;
  • Social media can be more effective in engaging particular audience segments (e.g. the young) than traditional channels
  • Social media communication is best harnessed with a whole of organisation approach, a diversity of voices and open two-way communication with audiences; 
  • To do nothing leaves us at risk of irrelevance and mediocrity.
It was a classic innovation dilemma. In this room full of social media practitioners, who was really prepared to let go of control and invite others, perhaps many others, in their organisation into the inner sanctum to post, tweet and respond to the general public? Best thinking indicates that we need to encourage everyone in our organisations to be leaders and nurture innovation. But at the top, we are risk averse and hesitate to let go.

It's a massive cultural shift to be willing to open the agenda to new possibilities, try new approaches, admit the possibility of failure, develop what works, and move on. Some of the younger people attending were quite pragmatic about this, advising that it's OK to make a mistake because it's ephemeral - the discussion moves on in a day or so - just don't 'hurt the brand'. For the older and more risk averse this is a new frontier with new rules, but even most savvy social media practitioners attending were reluctant to release control (even with appropriate user guidelines). We were all put on the spot and left to wonder if, how and why we could open these channels more to others, given the signposts we'd seen in the course of the day.