Star Trek inspired the first mobile phone by Motorola. Google, Apple and Microsoft have all used science fiction to stay ahead of the curve in the innovation game. So how do we go from imagination to innovation? We talk to Gaia Grant, a PhD candidate from the University of Sydney Business School, about imagining potential futures and other critical parts of the innovation process.

Show notes and links for this episode:

Gaia’s profile at Tirian

Media interviews with Gaia Grant

Newsroom articles

Who killed creativity

Introduction: Star Trek inspired the first mobile phone by Motorola. Google, Apple and Microsoft have all used science fiction to stay ahead of the curve in the innovation game. So how do we go from imagination to innovation?

From the University of Sydney Business School this is Sydney Business Insights. The podcast that explores the future of business.

Sandra Peter: Thirty years ago science fiction writer Isaac Asimov imagined what was to become Wikipedia.

Audio: Isaac Asimov: "Once we have outlets computer outlets in every home each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers be given reference material is something you are interested in knowing from an early age however silly it may seem to someone else that's what you're interested in and you ask and you can find out and you can follow it up and you can do it in your own home in your own time." 

Sandra: Steve Jobs imagined the world where people could be walking around anywhere and picking up their e-mail and gave us the iPhone. I'm Sandra Peter, and today we are talking to Gaia Grant about imagining potential futures and other critical parts of the innovation process. Gaia has over 20 years’ experience in organisational learning and development. And she has worked with and consulted to a large number of international Fortune 500 organisations. She has written a number of books on innovation and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney Business School researching how do executive teams work through paradoxical tensions in social responsible and sustainable innovation. 

Sandra: Welcome Gaia. So is there an example of a company that's employing innovation in the best possible way and what does that look like. 

Gaia: Well in our work we've travelled the world for the last 20 years looking at different cultures countries and different companies around the world that are innovating effectively and trying to find some common principles that we can bring back to businesses today. We found a lot of interesting thing. It's difficult to find one particular company that does everything right but there are some clear principles and if you look at the top most innovative companies in the world the top 10 five of them are actually innovating around real people's needs and they're serving some sort of purpose for communities for society. So I think that's a really important principle that the best innovating companies are doing they're innovating with purpose and they're also sustainable. So they're looking at sustainability environmental sustainability social sustainability and financial sustainability over the long term. So I think these are some principles that the best companies are doing well. But there's three other parts to innovation that also need to be considered. One of the first parts is ideation: coming up with those really novel unique ideas and companies like Apple have done that well in the past. They've come up with something that's really out of the box and different and they've got this real approach to ideation that is helping them stand out in the crowd. And then on the other side of that is the implementation. Companies that implement well also do well. Asian companies for example like Korean and Japanese companies Samsung Sony Toyota they're not necessarily coming out with the most unique ideas but they are incrementally innovating and they're following through very well through to commercialisation. So you put those two sides together and you're going to get a company that's doing very well. Novel ideas plus effective implementation and follow through. Now the third part is the culture or the foundation for innovation, where the culture is very strong then that supports that whole innovation process. And interestingly a lot of people assume that innovation is all about openness flexibility freedom which are certainly important qualities but there's more to it than that because openness flexibility freedom that's all good for the innovation, ideation part of it. But then when you come to the implementation side you also need some sort of control or discipline or guidance. You also need some sort of stability to support that follow through and you need some sort of focus so that it's not completely open so you don't just have great ideas but you also have the application of those ideas. So there's a lot of factors to consider in a good company. Some examples of companies that are doing that culture part well is Pixar Studios. Pixar actually had a philosophy where they provide some values and some vision and some guidance for how they believe things should run but then they provide a lot of freedom around how that is done. Netflix is also known for having very very strong values but they're also providing a lot of freedom around how to apply that. There's a lot of examples that you can look to AROUND THE WORLD. A lot of companies doing things well very very hard to get all of those elements right.

Sandra: What are some of the common mistakes that organisations are making when it comes to innovation? 

Gaia: Well I would say that a lot of the mistakes are not doing those things. So if we take the antithesis of that company that is not connecting with real needs and there's a lot of talk in innovation now with design thinking around the need for empathy and this is now seen as a very important first step. But you really need to understand what people need what the end user is looking for and you need to be able to connect with that effectively. So the companies that are making mistakes aren't looking at things from the end users perspective and they're not connecting with that. And that's a problem. There's also a problem with ideation because they're not necessarily really pushing themselves to come up with the best ideas and the most unique ideas that can often settle for mediocre ideas which might be fine in the short term but in the long term you're not going to really push the envelope and really innovate well. And then there's the implementation side. So a mistake is not following through effectively and there's a whole process around that of testing prototyping looking for the best solutions and then the actual commercialisation and implementation. So if you're not doing that well that's a big mistake. You have great ideas but they're going nowhere. And then finally that whole culture piece a lot of organisations focus on the product itself or the service itself and don't realise that the whole organisation needs to be a part of this process. They need to be on board. They need to have the right attitudes the right mindset. They need to be passionate about what the organisation is doing and where there's a really strong cultural foundation that balance I talked about before which is really a paradox between openness and focus between freedom and some sort of discipline or control and between flexibility and stability where there is that dynamic tension between those apparently opposing ideas. We call them paradox pairings. They're paradoxical. Then you get this great dynamic that fuels innovation. So good companies are doing that well. And the other thing is that they are constantly adjusting. We call this polar positioning. So there's no one right position you just sit in that position and then you do well over the long term. You have to keep adjusting to external conditions to internal needs. And it's a constant process of continuing to set the sails and navigate a course that's effective into the future.

Sandra: So let's go back to the beginning of the process and these wonderful ideas that some of the companies you've mentioned have. How are companies such as Pixar Google or Apple or even Microsoft using imagination to stay ahead of the curve in the innovation game?

Gaia: Well everybody knows about brainstorming. That's sort of the most commonly associated methodology for this part of the ideation process. Coming up with the novel ideas. But some companies are starting to push it even further and they're doing things such as going out into communities and going through the experience for themselves or even looking at comparable experiences. So there's an interesting story about a chicken fast food company that was looking at the idea of passion and they actually explored relationships and passion in relationships. So they were looking at the concept in a totally different context and then bringing those principles back to people feeling passionate about the chicken product. There's another methodology which is call this science fiction approach to innovation and that's helping people to ideate. Because some of the best ideas have come from science fiction. So the helicopter for example the submarine. These were all first thought of in science fiction books. These people have highly creative imaginations. They're able to think into the future beyond what we currently have and look at future possibilities. This process of using science fiction is now being used in a lot of the big companies and these companies are saying well let's stretch our imagination because otherwise we tend to stick with what we know and we don't tend to venture very far from what we know. So let's use science fiction to help us to think of the wild and the crazy and the out there ideas that we wouldn't otherwise think of. And I'll just give you an example of an organisation that's used this imagination process quite effectively. And that's Canadian Power Company. They had a situation where they had snow on power lines that was becoming a problem because it was weighing down the power lines and there are a lot of them were breaking and they sat down and they brainstormed they had a full brainstorming session for the morning but they just felt like they were going round in circles and sticking with similar ideas. Nothing new was coming up but when they went to the coffee machine over lunchtime, out of exasperation I think they started to really think imaginatively and really push and go crazy and wild and they started talking about, well, how about we got a grizzly bear to come and shake the power poles to get the snow off the lines. So that didn't stop the idea and said that’s crazy. Let's be realistic. They pushed it and they were imaginative and somebody else said Oh OK. Well how are we going to get the grizzly bears to get to the power poles? And somebody said well how about we put a honey pot on top of the power poles. They kept pushing. And somebody said well how are we going to get the honey pots on top of the power poles. Somebody else said well we could get helicopters to drop the honey pots onto the power poles to attract the grizzly bears. And they just kept going and having fun with it and imagining the potentials and the possibilities. And suddenly finally said hang on there's a great idea. Why don't we just get helicopters to come over the power poles and they can blow the snow off. And that was the idea that they actually used. They brought helicopters in to just blow the snow off the power lines so you can see how you really need to stretch your imagination to go beyond what is normal.

Sandra: Is this something all companies should be doing. And is there a systematic way to think about imagination?

Gaia: Yes there definitely is. And yes it is something that all companies should be doing because I don't think we understand that there is a great process and a great way that we can ideate better implement better innovate better. Definitely going through this process is very effective. So in this science fiction approach it's almost a narrative approach storytelling approach. And what you want to do is you want to get people thinking from different perspectives first of all. So something as simple as looking at an idea from different angles that's been shown that that will increase creative thinking and therefore innovation. So for example if you have a particular product that you're trying to develop or a particular service what you can do is you can say how about we look at this from an alien’s perspective. How would they feel about this? And then you can start to tell stories around that and start describing it and imagining it and that will stretch possibly to crazy ideas. But then it might bring you back to something that is apparently wild but then can be quite applicable and can be quite useful. Once you've stretched then you can bring it back in that process of divergent thinking. Now you must do that effectively first without judging without stopping people's ideas. Let them explore let them imagine them really go crazy with it. But then after that then you can assess the ideas and bring it back down to reality with that convergent thinking. That's just a simple example you could say. How would an alien feel about this? How would your mother feel about this? How would an elephant feel about this? And that's sort of starting that story telling process and then flesh it out. How would people feel about this in the next century? So that's that science fiction future perspective how would people have felt like this in the past. So you're stretching yourself in terms of time in terms of place you know how might an African tribal community feel about this. That's just sort of stretching your imagination. So the idea is you want to collect as many ideas as you can then you want to bring it back down. And there's a whole process around how do you cull those ideas. How do you choose the best ideas? How do you prioritise them and then how do you focus on the testing and prototyping and implementing phase. There's a lot of process around that as well. And as I said before the very first step should be looking at the culture and saying what is a culture that will support this sort of free imagination. And then this sort of focused implementation.

Sandra: Do you feel about the innovation centres or innovation hubs or innovation labs that large companies such as the Commonwealth Bank for instance are opening these these to try to address the challenge of coming up with innovative ideas. 

Gaia: I think it's really interesting and definitely there's a lot of value in having an environment that supports that sort of openness and connection. So there's a collision of ideas a natural collision of ideas but I'm not sure that many companies know how to do it well because once again you can provide the hardware but have you prepared people. Is there a culture that understands what needs to happen and how to use this space effectively for innovation? So for example we've worked with a client a large multinational insurance company in their new innovation lab in Singapore and they proudly showed us around the space it was brand spanking new and very efficient and effective looking. But then we sat down with the head of innovation afterwards and she said actually it's not really working as in people aren't connecting. She said people are still choosing one particular desk to sit at. And then they'll put up their photos and they'll be territorial about their space and they stick with what they know they're not actually sharing ideas effectively they're still protective over their own ideas and competitive. And we explained well yes providing a space is not enough. You really need people to understand the process that needs to be a whole education program about how to innovate effectively and why it's important what to do. So there's a lot more around that. And then you'll see companies like Google which were the innovators of this sort of space who do it very well and they really stretch it to having Canteen's that are attractive and then encourage people to mix and share and having leisure spaces and they do it throughout the whole organization. They do it very well but they are actually facing some issues too because they've become sort of insular. They're open in terms of talking about innovation but they've become quite insular in another sense. So they've come under fire recently and I was working with Google over in Mountain View in Silicon Valley last year and they were coming under fire for not connecting with the local community for not having enough diversity and they're currently facing challenges like this that it's not enough to have a great space. There's a lot of other factors to consider as well.

Sandra: So is innovation approach as an ecosystem now by some of these large organisations.

Gaia: Innovation needs to be approached as an ecosystem that needs to be holistic at every level. The people the environment the leadership at the top is to filter all the way through the organisation it needs to be bottom up approach to innovation. There needs to be external communication and external contact with other organisations to be sharing ideas needs to be at the micro level it is to be at the macro level. There's a lot more to innovation than simply coming up with ideas just as an example of how little it can be understood. We worked with a company in India and we were going through a simulation exercise where we were trying to identify what are the potential killers of creative thinking and what can stop or block creative thinking in an organisation. It's like a whodunit style exercise where people are saying well this is what can block it. This is how it happens. This is where it happens and everybody in the room at their table groups all identified that the biggest killer of innovation was pessimism and it was happening in the coffee shops and that was a really interesting result. We haven't seen that before and we talked about it with the groups and they said well you know everybody's bitching about the problems in the company and everybody is too scared to do anything and everybody is unhappy and it's coming out in a toxic culture it's coming out in the coffee shops. Now we actually had the CEO of the organisation in that room with us while everybody was doing the exercise and surprisingly he was proud of the result. He said I deliberately make the coffee shops in unpleasant places so people don't stay there so they get back to work and they're productive and I deliberately make the coffee bad and the food's bad because it's a waste of everyone's time. He didn't realise that if he wanted innovation and productivity it's not about just getting people into their desks and focusing on tasks. It's about creating a whole ecosystem a whole culture that supports that innovation process.

Sandra: What's the biggest thing blocking Australian innovation?

Gaia: That's a good question because we actually come number one worldwide on a global creativity measure so Australians are highly creative and there are two factors that contribute to that. And first of all we have a multicultural society. We have a lot of diversity and where there is tolerance and acceptance of different ideas then that helps to contribute to different perspectives and therefore more original ideas and better ideas. So we're very creative as a country. We also have a good education system so we're taught how to think freely we're taught how to think for ourselves and that translates into more exploration of new ideas and more courage to explore different ideas. So we do very well on that creativity measure and we're not doing so well on the innovation measure. So on the global innovation ratings we're coming number 19 and we're dropping. This is possibly because we have these great ideas but they're not necessarily converting to become innovations. We're not implementing very well and I think there could be a number of factors that are impacting the implementation of innovations and the commercialisation and the follow through. So I think it's helping that we've got this innovation push coming from the government. There is the recognition that we need to be focusing on innovation that there is a recognition that the ideas are really important and the connection between academia and research and companies and ensuring that there's better connections in order to come up with new products and ideas I think is really important. We need to be educating further. And the other thing I think is that we need to make sure there's the resources so there's practical support there's the funding available. There's not just talk about it but there's actual opportunities for people to move forward with their ideas and companies to move forward with their ideas. And once again there needs to be a whole culture supporting this process so it's not enough just to talk about improving science and technology. We also need to balance that with the arts. There's that balancing that paradox we need both and there needs to be a whole culture that is constantly adjusting and shifting to be able to weather the storms and move forward effectively into the future. And I think another big factor is that there's this whole concern about taking risk. We've been able to rest on our laurels a little bit in the past because we've just had minerals to be able to rely on. Now we have to move forward with different ideas and it's going to be based around ideas and knowledge not necessarily resources. We're not necessarily accustomed to taking risks and moving forward. And there's also a lot of governance around a lot of these implementation of innovations. So we need to start thinking well how can we provide some simple systems of governance for simple ideas to move forward quickly and effectively so there's more agility. While we still need to maintain higher levels of governance for the bigger ideas that are going to have more impact. I think there's a lot of things that we could be doing to start to move forward more effectively in Australia.

Sandra: So what's next for you?

Gaia: Next for me? I've loved exploring this whole process of creative thinking innovation. I'm currently researching how innovation can be supported or blocked at the executive level in organisations. So I feel that this is a critical area where there is support for innovation. It can move forward more effectively and there can be a real culture change throughout the organisation and where that doesn't happen where there's some sort of human dynamic that's stopping that process it can really impede innovation. I'm looking at a whole range of organisations looking at how the process might be blocked or supported at the executive level. And I’m in the process of doing an intensive case study into one particular organisation to understand how that looks over the long term. So I'm finding that whole research process really fascinating and already sort of uncovering a lot of interesting ideas. And I'll be writing it up and making some reports on it and moving forward with new ideas to clients in the work that we do.

Sandra: Thank you very much for talking to us today. 

Gaia:  Thank you very much for having me.

Outro: You've been listening to Sydney Business Insights. The University of Sydney Business School podcast about the future of business. You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud or wherever you get your podcasts and you can visit us at sbi.sydney.edu.au and hear our entire Podcast archives, read articles and watch video content that explore the future of business.