Innovate or die

Michael Valos

  • Senior Lecturer, Department of Marketing, Deakin University
A Deakin University ‘boundary spanning academic’, Michael facilitates engagement between marketers and rigorous and robust peer-reviewed academic research. Michael is the winner of a number of academic publication awards, numerous industry articles and author of two marketing communications textbooks. For over 15 years he has facilitating approximately 12 CMO focus groups per annum comprising the cream of Melbourne’s marketers discussing key issues.

It’s hard to know if famed management and marketing guru, Peter Drucker, coined this phrase for dramatic effect. My belief is he was emphasising the notion that few products and markets are static and few organisations can survive without innovation.

However, while Bill Gates predicted the 2020 pandemic in 2016, I don’t think Drucker envisaged one. One outcome of this COVID-19 crisis appears to be that innovation doesn’t need as much selling compared to stable times when it was viewed as expensive and high-risk. We have so much evidence customers and employees are enjoying certain aspects of changed behaviours, it’s the ideal time to encourage innovation.

But what is innovation? The Oslo OECD Manual identifies four types of organisational innovation:

  • Product innovation: Significant functional improvement in product or service
  • Process innovation: Improved production or delivery method
  • Marketing innovation: Changed 7Ps
  • Organisational innovation: Internal process structure and culture. 

During a recent breakfast focus group I facilitated, we debated this very question. And according to Lucio.AI chief strategy officer and director, Lucio Ribeiro, there is a difference between invention and innovation.

“Invention is hard to develop within everyone’s DNA but everyone has the ability to be more innovative. Innovation is the application of better solutions,” he says.

Leaders with this mindset can match innovation expectations with people’s ability, as most have latent innovation skills that can be drawn out.

But there’s a clear need for clarifying the meaning of innovation. It’s something XPotential director, Mike Harley, has seen first-hand with background as a CMO and current work with leading organisations. He says it’s important for leaders to define what innovation is in their businesses as they need to be able to support it.

“The problem is if you say the word innovation to 100 people, they will each have their own version of what innovation is,” Harley comments. “Is innovation about transforming the business? Or is innovation about doing the little things in a continuous improvement day-to-day way?”

This clarity then needs to be translated into both job KPIs and an overarching organisational mission. Deakin University Freelance Hub project manager, Skev Seremetis, who previously held senior marketing positions with IBM and ANZ, is another who sees innovation as a broad organisational focus and not limited to the ‘next big thing’.

“While I love innovation thinktanks and design thinking, we should focus more on the work we do and we should be innovating in our jobs all the time,” she says. “We should be thinking about getting better in what we do. Innovation needs to be in our KPIs but also instilled from the top down.”

If we know what innovation is, the next question must be: What are some of the key drivers?


Frontier Advisors director of marketing and business development, Wayne Sullivan, identifies recruitment and diversity as vital in encouraging innovation. “There can be an unconscious bias in terms of recruiting people similar to you that might have gone to the same school, for example. This means you never get a breakout idea, you view problems through the same lens and your thinking isn’t challenged,” he says.  

It is often argued this sort of ‘groupthink’ culture can occur where people are too homogenous based on experience, age, gender and culture. However, Telstra ex-customer operations executive, Sarah McGeehan, highlights the potential challenge in managing diversity. 

“The research I have seen shows diverse teams are much harder to lead and to get into ‘flow’. Thus, leaders need to find a balance between pacifying staff and instigating change,” she says.

Communication and Culture

Further support for the role of employees comes from LifeStyles VP of marketing, Matthew Groskorth. “Inevitably, ‘innovation success’ is predicated on ‘people success’, starting from seemingly simple things like clear and frequent communication and aligning KPIs,” he says.

“But highly successful innovation projects also address more complex issues such as eliminating ‘emotional barriers’ to the innovation.”

Emotional Intelligence

McGeehan also believes innovation comes from an agile working environment. “This requires a maturity and an emotional intelligence and a ‘speak up culture’,” she says. “This is because ideas proposed by a person lower in the hierarchy may be worthwhile but a leader may resent it as a perceived threat.”

Like many of the innovation drivers identified by this group, these executives see interdependencies everywhere. The value of a ‘speak up culture’ has implications for leadership, for instance. What’s more, in successfully innovative organisations, leaders need to create a ‘safety net’ where people learn from failure rather than the outcome being a binary pass or fail, Harley says.

Mastering virtual teams

While the pandemic is making innovation both more necessary and more acceptable, it has implications for the use of virtual teams. Post-pandemic, it’s likely virtual teams will take a bigger role, firstly in helping organisations succeed in the ‘war on talent’ by recruiting the best person regardless of geography; and secondly, by offering employees a mix of home and office work.

Creating functional teams can be challenging in a virtual or remote environment with less face-to-face interaction and bonding. Sullivan, for one, says it’s harder to pick up body-language cues and to read the mood of the room and tough for some people to have their voice and ideas heard.

Yet as one of Groskorth’s favourite innovation quotes points out, innovation is almost inevitable thanks to the year we’ve experienced: “Change may not always bring innovation, but innovation will almost always bring change”.

Tags: marketing strategy, marketing leadership

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