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The new mantra: agility, innovation and creativity

First published on LinkedIn, 18 Sept. 2015

We have a new prime minister, and yes, a new foundation for our future prosperity. In his victory speech, Malcolm Turnbull put it this way:

‘The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative.’

No one could argue with that. But we are not hearing this for the first time. Embracing change, being responsive in the marketplace and seizing opportunities have been on the agenda for some years. Mr Turnbull is simply bringing some old issues back into focus.

Shoulders to the wheel then. But wait, there are impediments to overcome:

‘We have to recognise that the disruption we see driven by technology, the volatility of change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.’

Could Mr Turnbull have some nagging doubts about this country’s capacity to deliver? Are we agile and smart enough? Will fear and anxiety hold us back?

If he does have doubts they are well grounded. Reputable industry surveys are telling us the same story. Australia is lagging comparable countries on all of the factors that impact Mr Turnbull’s vision.

Let’s start with innovation. Big money and resources are going in, but not nearly enough is coming out. To put some figures around it, the 2013 Global Innovation Index ranks Australia at 11th for innovative ideas but only 32nd for using them creatively. There were only 33 places up for grabs.

What is the problem? Apparently the various agencies across the production pipeline are simply not collaborating. To make things worse, Australian business focuses on short-term financial results above strategies that provide long term prosperity. Not a good recipe for success. Strike one.

Next, agility. Are Australian executives responding quickly and appropriately to a changing business landscape? Not according to their employees. Barely half report that senior managers are effective and on the ball. In rankings from the World Economics Forum our ability to be flexible and adaptable has slipped from 4th place in 2010 to 17th in 2014. Strike two.

Thirdly, creativity. Creativity is a greedy beast. It feeds on optimism and can-do attitudes, autonomy and elbow room, enriched job roles, a positive work environment and permission to explore and take risks. It is fed by leaders willing to cultivate talent, not regulate it. The feedlot for creativity is leadership and corporate culture.

How does Australia measure up? Not well, according to the Australian Industry Group. Creativity is stifled by traditional structures – the rigid hierarchies, old pecking orders and silos from the past. The thinking has not moved on either. Inadvertently, leaders discourage collaboration, experimentation and learning. Are culture and leadership starving creativity of oxygen? Strike 3.

Australia used to be at the forefront of industrial reform. I remember how it was in the 1980s when globalization was reshaping the business environment. Industry really was in the Dark Ages, and in no shape to compete without the protection of high tariffs. In an impressive display of political will from the Hawke government and the buy-in of industry and the unions, reform got underway.

Change was orchestrated from the top but delivery was bottom up. Jobs were redesigned and old occupational demarcations were swept away. Employees were encouraged to upskill. Competency and participation in decision making were lauded. People now had the tools to join with management in building a more agile, creative and innovative enterprise.

They still do. But people are only a part of the solution. In all of that reform, middle management went missing in action when their fear of change was too great. Change should have continued up to the top level, breathing fresh life into every aspect of leadership and management. But it went only so far.

This brings us back to the present and its challenges. Australia is no longer at the front of the pack. And we are slipping further behind. The surveys are saying so and my conversations with senior managers and colleagues confirm it.

Mr Turnbull’s vision of a prosperous future will remain hollow unless industry has the will and the capacity to follow through. Right now it doesn’t. Some vital pieces are missing.

The choice? Act now and make a conscious decision to finish the job that was started in 1983. Reform leadership thinking and culture from the top down, or risk having to pick up the scraps that other fast moving economies leave in their wake.