Betting the future on innovation

ARTICLE | April 12, 2023

Betting the future on innovation

Innovation expert Amantha Imber calls for Australian organisations to adopt new workstyles and AI to insulate against an uncertain year

Australian organisations are battening down the hatches as recessionary pressures bite, even though business leaders and economists generally predict Australia will avoid a major downturn. This uncertain environment has brought one priority to the fore in 2023: leaders must do more with less.

According to Dr. Amantha Imber, organisational psychologist and founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium, tough economic times typically force companies to follow one of two paths.

“Short-term thinking will see many businesses focusing every resource on core operations and killing their innovation budget,” she says. “But all financial cycles come to an end. Companies that thrive after recessions have a different mindset: they recognise that now is the time to think differently. Organisations that invest in innovation as well as protecting their core always come out on top.”


 Learning on the job

Imber believes the most successful firms will innovate and use AI to “offload shallow work” and boost productivity. For many, the last three years were a period of intense innovation driven by survival. Today, the challenge is showing immediate value. With increased scrutiny on spending, teams need to deliver returns in months not years.

A recent ServiceNow and ThoughtLab survey of 1,000 C-level executives around the world found that modernising IT platforms is the most important first step to promote innovation. Yet this year, digital transformation is the top priority for just 35% of executives from Australia and New Zealand. Other factors holding back innovation include skills shortages and inadequate training.

Facing uncertainty, how can businesses identify innovation and opportunities worth chasing? Imber identifies five approaches successful innovators will pursue in 2023.

“AI can free us up to explore the more complex problems that humans are best placed to solve,” says Imber. “Organisations should be investing to offload the repetitive, routine parts of our jobs. Consider any task you’d delegate to an intern – data entry, finding information, filling in forms or moving documents from one department to another – and give it to AI instead.”

Investing in the right technology will fuel exceptional employee experiences by automating routine tasks and predicting what people need, so teams can focus on high-impact work. But like an intern, AI tools will need early supervision, clear parameters, and an investment of time up-front to get it working most effectively.

Despite tighter budgets, many of Australia’s most innovative brands are doubling down on digital transformation efforts, experimenting with the latest AI advances in AI to help employees work smarter and ease pain points in the customer journey.

She believes a culture where it’s safe to fail is one of the biggest indicators of future innovation and success. In a difficult macro environment, the key is starting small and designing projects carefully to minimise risk and maximise learnings.

“A failed experiment isn’t a wasted investment.” says Imber. “Rewarding failures where there are rich and useful learnings is a valuable strategy. The companies that can learn quickest for the least investment are typically the most successful. There is always a way to run a quick and cheap experiment; it just requires a bit of creative thinking.”

She advises organisations to strengthen their innovation cultures by supporting key behaviours, including: do people feel safe to take risks? Do leaders really role-model what innovative thinking looks like? How fast do ideas move through the innovation pipeline?

Dr Imber’s work reveals these attributes as lead indicators in future bottom-line gains from innovation.

Increasing productivity is a significant focus for firms seeking to maximise limited resources. But Dr Imber believes it’s never been harder for knowledge workers to undertake focused work.

She says that the productivity programs she runs with large corporates, governments and non-profits all point to similar frustrations with digital distraction. “Focused work is the currency of knowledge workers; but we’re operating in an environment of distraction, contributing to more shallow, less cognitively demanding work. Employees are being pulled into their inbox or Slack, or social media, and get this false sense of productivity.”

“We need to get better at managing our attention and relearning how to do focused work. Leading companies recognise that undertaking deep work in the age of digital distraction is a valuable skill that can be taught—and they’re teaching it.”

The tough times ahead give leaders an opportunity to make work better. Investing in AI “machine mates” and automation will tick shallow work off employees’ to-do lists, freeing up time for deep work and innovation. This promises productivity gains that will keep firms competitive and insulate against other cost-cutting measures.

At a time when complaints are at an all-time high – 13.3 million Aussie customers filed complaints in 2022, up 1.6m from 2021, according to research by ServiceNow – organisations are testing their luck with slow service. In the fight for customers, organisations need the right processes and technology in place to help customer support teams get simple things done fast.

According to the ServiceNow/ThoughtLab study, maintaining customer loyalty is the biggest challenge Australian and New Zealand executives are facing this year: nearly half (48%) see it as their biggest area of concern. Leaders are betting on digital innovation to address this challenge, with 70% of leaders saying customer experience is their top investment prority over the next year.

Companies that deliver speedy, simple, personalised service will have happier employees and more satisfied customers. “Successful innovators realise benefits across the enterprise,” says Imber.

As consumers get more comfortable using digital tools and finding information for themselves, businesses should embrace chatbots and self-service to deal with high-volume, routine complaints. This creates benefits for both employees and customers, freeing up time for more complex work and innovation. Other benefits will follow: there is a clear link between employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and profit.


of leaders saying customer experience is their top investment prority over the next year

If you don’t understand your customers and employees experiences from their perspective, it’s far harder to know where to focus your efforts for the biggest impact and improvements.

“Fewer leadership teams are out there getting their hands dirty, speaking to employees, engaging with customers, and understanding how to run an experiment,” says Imber. “We continue to see leaders talking about innovation but staying at arms-length from the action.”

Relatively few organisations include customers or employees in decisions relating to innovation, according to the ServiceNow/ThoughtLab study. While 96% of global c-suite executives say their senior management and boards are involved key decisions, only 8% of leaders consult customers and just 1% talk to their own people—even though customers and employees are often the most affected by changes in products, services, or processes.

“That's a defining factor of organisations that are highly innovative” says Imber. “They've got leaders that roll up their sleeves, hit the front line, and role model behaviour.”


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Tahn Shannon is a Sydney-based communications strategist and writer. She’s spent nearly two decades working with business leaders at the intersection of industry disruption, innovation, and organisational change.