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Innovation: Some Practical Advice for Boards

Innovation - Practical Advice for BoardsI recently spent three days with community sector leaders from across Australasia, and innovation was the hot topic. With transformational change in government policy and funding, rapid technological advances and seismic demographic and social shifts, community organisations need an adaptable game plan. The Better Boards conference brought together hundreds of board directors and executives and challenged us to think about how our governance and leadership can enable innovation. Here are some of the things that I took out of the great line up of speakers and discussion with other community sector directors.

Not taking risks is risky

Often, organisational governance focuses on control and compliance, on minimising risk. But not taking any risks can be, well, risky. Boards need to steer the organisation for long term success. To survive over time, organisations need to innovate. To innovate, we need to try new ideas and take some risks. So, boards and leaders who try to button everything down and avoid risk put long term success in jeopardy.

Often boards are risk averse because they believe that the law requires them to be. While director duties do mean there are legal obligations that require prudence and diligence, as lawyer Vera Visevic pointed out, the courts may in fact expect directors to take (calculated) risks. She pointed to the 2015 case ASIC v Mariner, where Justice Beach said
“After all, one expects management including the directors to take calculated risks.”

Safe to fail

Leaders need to create an environment where it’s safe to fail. It has to be okay to admit you got it wrong, and learn from that. Innovation psychologist Amantha Imber pointed to some interesting practical examples of this, such as the Admitting Failure website, where things that haven’t worked can be shared and learned from across the for-purpose sector.

Try new things

With a line up of conference speakers who were innovation experts, and presentations on mind-bending technological advances, it could be easy to be overwhelmed. We know we need to innovate….but where to start? Pete Williams, Chief Edge Officer from Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge, cut through with a great perspective. His advice was, innovation is not complicated – you just need to try new things. It’s that simple.

Looking at the community-led rebuilding of Flowerdale in the wake of Black Saturday, Pete showed that if you’re in a complex or uncertain environment, where you aren’t sure what the next move should be … then just try something and see if it works.

Focus on culture

We often think about innovation as a technology question. But as Andrew Walduck from Australia Post put it – innovation starts with culture. It’s people who innovate. A similar point is made by business leader Margaret Heffernan in this TED Talk “Companies don’t have ideas. Only people do.”

Make it happen

Lastly, innovation needs implementers. As Paul Steele, CEO of Donkey Wheel noted, there will be lots of ideas, but somebody needs to put them into action. One of my favourite quotes resonates here: “Ideas are easy, implementation is hard” – Guy Kawasaki.

The conference provided great perspectives, ideas and advice. It incited us to innovate. I’m looking forward to seeing what changes, big and small, that will lead to across the community sector organisations involved.

Brodie has a focus on developing governance standards and practices to promote organisational performance. Her interest is in assisting boards and leadership teams to develop and improve frameworks that allow the collective experience of the governance group to be harnessed to achieve better outcomes for the organisation.