Leading through change, preparing for disruption – AGSM conference shines a light on innovation economy

Friday, 1 July 2016  @Business School

​​AGSM welcomed over 150 alumni and supporters to Leadership in the Age of Innovation, an exclusive half-day conference that brought together some of Australia’s top academics and industry experts to discuss strategies and trends for a rapidly evolving marketplace.

To help prepare executives for the volatile road ahead, AGSM assembled leading academics with expertise in change management, transformation, ethics and diversity, disruption, innovation, and technology. And to help translate the academic to the practical, the conference also featured an industry panel comprised of executives from the startup world, banking, and private investment.

Professor Julie Cogin, Director AGSM & Deputy Dean UNSW Business School, opened the conference.

“Together as a community of thought leaders, we’re here to pre-empt disruption, harness the opportunity that disruption is bringing, and define innovative paths to success, as we enter the age of innovation,” said Cogin.

AGSM Professor Bob Wood, UNSW Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla, and AGSM fellow Dr. Jeffery Tobias each gave a keynote address exploring different aspects of the innovation economy.

Professor Wood focused his talk on the ways in which unconscious bias can lead to the establishment of homogenous groups as people seek out information that confirms what they already believe or know.

“There are three different forms of bias,” said Wood. “The one people are most familiar with is confirmation bias – what I like to call the Trump phenomenon. The two lesser known forms of bias, the ones we need to be more conscious of, are affinity bias which means lack of diversity, and availability bias which means we seek answers or new ideas from a limited pool – we don’t cast our net far enough.”

Leaders need to be adaptive in their thinking and actions if they are to successfully overcome bias. Wood also touched upon the importance of creating inclusive teams. According to Wood, the key to inclusion is fostering a sense of belonging amongst the team while team members retain their uniqueness.

UNSW Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla, an expert in material science and engineering, spoke about taking the waste from our material lives (cars, electronics, etc.) and turning it into new resources to limit the negative impact on the environment. Doing this requires innovation, she said, as it demands the rethinking of waste, finding its intrinsic value or creating it.

“Simple use of the term 'waste' prevents us from thinking about the energy and resources waste products contain,” explained Sahajwalla. “We're all micro-mine owners of resources stored in waste.”

By focusing on sustainability, Sahajwalla said, companies can future-proof their businesses.

AGSM fellow Dr. Jeffery Tobias, building upon the innovation theme, discussed how businesses can change their operating paradigm to reflect a world of disruptive innovation. According to Tobias, companies need to “become comfortable with being uncomfortable”. They need to embrace a less predictable world, accept a higher level of instability, and in adopting this new outlook, identify the threats, opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

“Unbundle yourself before a startup does it for you,” noted Tobias. “Most companies have ‘antibodies’ fighting innovation and disruption. This needs to change. Companies need to realise what got you here won’t get you there. Stop saying ‘yes but’ and start saying ‘yes and’.”

With opportunities to build an entrepreneurial venture at an all-time high and entry costs low, the marketplace has never been so ripe for disruption Tobias explained.

The conference ended with an industry panel moderated by Samantha Loring, current AGSM MBA student and former CNBC correspondent. The panellists, all UNSW Business School graduates, included Tim Fung (BCom 2006), CEO and Co-founder of AirTasker, Melanie Evans (BCom 1998, MCom 2003, MAcc 2009), General Manager, Service Revolution & Transformation at Westpac, and Julien Playoust (MBA 1996), CEO & Managing Director of AEH Group.

The panel discussion focused on two themes: disruption and innovation. Panellists reflected on the different ways technology was upending their businesses and how, out of this disruption, innovation was possible.

“What we are seeing now is an innovation race between incumbent businesses and startups.” said Playoust. “It is harder to innovate if you are an established company. Startups have the luxury of newness; all the rules haven’t been written. They are still lean and their agility allows them to quickly pivot if the marketplace suddenly changes. An incumbent business has a totally different business model and modus operandi. It’s a real challenge but one that companies must confront.”

As companies face an accelerated change environment, the panellists explored the strategies they are employing to keep pace. Fostering a ‘culture of innovation’ amongst employees was one example of how businesses can respond to change and define it.

“At Westpac we have a staff ideas portal,” explained Evans. “The portal is properly resourced so ideas don’t disappear into the ether. Someone is actually reviewing the ideas that come in and following-up on the ones that have potential to transform a segment of the business.”

The panel ended their discussion by addressing what Australia needs to do to compete in a global innovation-centric economy.

“Australia’s innovation culture is missing the ‘gee-up’ factor,” noted Fung. “Silicon Valley thrives off of a ‘gee-up’ culture. When talent or good ideas are identified there is an energized support structure to help it grow and flourish. Australia lacks this.”

“We need to move beyond the fear of failure as a society,” said Fung, “Without that holding us back Australia’s entrepreneurial future is limitless.”

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