What drives innovation?

Since the federal government has been bombarding us with political messages about innovation, I started to reflecting on what really drives innovation. I can’t speak for other industries but I would like to tell you my story. Everyone knows that the mining industry is tough right now. Back in 2012, MEC (my consulting company) collectively decided that we needed to be innovative to remain competitive as the mining boom slowed down.

So we held some “blue sky” sessions to come up with ideas and started working towards commercialisation. We put on more staff than we needed to make it run day to day, admin people to free up some time and managers to look after the day to day so that we could collectively invest time into developing innovations. We held innovation sessions where we asked the staff to share their ideas. We asked people to work on their ideas and present them as a pitch for funding (Shark Tank style). We worked on cultures and values putting extra weight on thought leadership.

Guess what, all of this stuff didn’t really produce any innovations that looked like being commercial any time soon. Don’t get me wrong, we had lots of good ideas, and many have added some value along the way, but it was slow.  The reason was because while we were doing this, the business was still making money, everyone was getting paid and the urgency to innovate was not real, it was confected.

Then came 2016, which has not been a great year as far as business conditions go in mining. Things got tight and we were forced to cut back in a few areas to ensure survival.  But what came with the poor business conditions was the hunger to lift ourselves out of the hard times by generating new ideas and products that have commercial value right now. We no longer had the luxury of having monthly meetings to track progress, we just had to get it done quickly through necessity. In the space of 7 months this year, we now have a suite of innovations that have already hit the market or are just about to.

So for us, it was the raw emotions of fear and pain crystallised into necessity that have driven innovation. The forces of competition did the trick where money, strategy and policy failed.