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  • Writer's picturePete Cohen

Reflections from the Corporate Innovation in Action Event

Do you know that feeling when the stars align? When an event or a conversation that needs to happen somehow emerges through a course of happy coincidences? Well that is how the recent Corporate Innovation in Action event felt to me.

It is a conversation that we desperately need to be having in Australia, as we face an increasingly tough and complex economic environment, while having the responsibility to play a leading role in addressing the unfolding climate crisis. For too long Australia has been able to rely on pulling minerals out of the ground, and on the wealth generated through selling houses to each other at ever inflating prices. Our attention needs to turn to how we can create impactful and sustainable value, and we need the appropriate tools and the community of leaders and practitioners to be able to navigate these challenges and opportunities.

The event, which was held on March 23 & 24 2023 at the State Library of Victoria, germinated from a seed that had been planted long before. Fred Etiemble has been part of the Strategyzer network for many years and recently co-authored The Invincible Company – a book geared towards innovation leaders and executive decision makers. He meets annually with a core group of five fellow Strategyzer authors and senior advisors to share and stretch their latest thinking, and to both support and challenge each other. Having met up in this way many times now, they have developed a deep rapport and friendship. So the first happy coincidence that culminated in this event was that Fred’s turn to host the group in Australia came around in 2023. Having this particular group of thought leaders in one place at one time is something that would otherwise be nearly impossible to orchestrate, but given they were going to be here anyway for their annual retreat, it was a prime opportunity to find a way to share their thinking more broadly.

The second happy coincidence was that Vibrance Partners had formed 18 months prior, with the mission to inspire step change growth and innovation in Australian companies. Fred came on board as a partner in 2022, and organising a large-scale event felt like an ideal way to build on previous community building activities, and to put Vibrance Partners on the map as an organisation committed to supporting growth and innovation.

The third piece of the puzzle was that by drawing on Vibrance’s network of local peers and collaborators we were able to assemble a program of talks that featured not only the international guests, but also local Australian experts. These relationships ran deeper than just showing up on the day to talk. For example, Josie Gibson from The Catalyst Network provided access to the amazing venue. Naked Ambition helped out with providing volunteers to help run the day. And Mykel Dixon’s brother Dave was engaged to do his amazing work of filming the keynotes.

All of this culminated to create an atmosphere that didn’t feel like just any old conference. It felt like something closer to a celebration or a community gathering. While there was a lot of dense and stimulating content delivered by way of the presentations, there was also a lot of humour and stories interwoven, and during the meal breaks rich conversations were had and new friendships forged.

Based on the feedback received after the event, it feels like this is the start of something special. Several people made comments along the lines that they felt they had “found their tribe”, and ideas have been flowing thick and fast from participants about how we might co-design a community of innovation practitioners.

So against that backdrop of how the event came about, and where the community is going, let’s explore the actual ideas that were shared on the day.

Below are short summaries and reflections on each of the presentations. If I was to choose one word that encapsulates my overarching reflection of the key messages, it would be “elevate”. As innovation practitioners, we by necessity spend a lot of time working hands-on with canvases, frameworks, tools, roadmaps, workshops etc. That will never change. However, there is a higher level of activity that we need to undertake in order to unlock the real potential. We need to be able to communicate at a strategic level with company boards, and to help them design cohesive innovation strategies. We need to look beyond role titles and granular skill sets to recognise the attributes of talented innovators and leaders. And we need to think beyond business models to the ecosystem level. All of this needs us to elevate our thinking and our perspective, and each of the speakers contributed to this narrative in a powerful way.

Fred Etiemble – Why is innovation more important than ever? Proceedings were opened by Fred, who was the mastermind behind the event. He took a slightly unorthodox opening approach as an event MC, which was to describe various relationships with key individuals and communities, giving insight as to how they came about, and how those connections culminated in the event. The attention he placed on relationships underscored that we are a community of professionals, bonded by a common interest in innovation and a desire to create positive change. This set the tone for the whole day, and elevated it beyond mere information sharing, to something much more personal and special. (video)

Tendayi Viki – What does a good corporate innovator look like? Tendayi Viki delivered the first keynote of the day, drawing on his extensive experience in corporate innovation, and riffing on the central idea from his book Pirates in the Navy – that it is better for intrapreneurs to be seen as “privateers” than “pirates” so as to secure leadership support and have their successes celebrated.

Tendayi has a presence which is larger than life, perhaps owing in part to the time he spent performing as a rapper, but undoubtedly due to the energy and humour that he brings to the stage when presenting.

However what really made me lean in and listen is knowing the nature of his role at Strategyzer and the access to insights that it provides. As a Program Director of large innovation initiatives, for the type of global clients that Strategyzer serves, Tendayi has a unique perspective that is hard to match. (video)

Presenter at the Corporate Innovation Event

Josie Gibson – How to find the innovation catalysts in your organisation? Josie Gibson was the first of the invited local experts to take the stage, and her presentation built on themes related to the nature and mindset of innovators that Tendayi had introduced. The Catalyst Network, which Josie convenes, brings together professionals who in some way don’t fit the typical mould – she calls them catalysts. These are the kind of people who are geared to face into uncertainty and complexity, and are more inclined to make the plans rather than follow them – the kind of people that innovation initiatives need.

Josie shared research demonstrating that while people with these attributes (Individualists who can interweave competing personal and company action logics, Strategists who can generate organisational and personal transformations, and Alchemists who generate social transformations) are in the minority in organisations, they are present and hiding in plain sight. The job for leaders is to allow these people to emerge, and to foster the conditions where they can thrive. (video)

Lucy Luo – How to shape, test and adapt an idea with growth potential? Lucy Luo is the Head of Content at Strategyzer, and amazingly is based in Melbourne (given that it is a global company headquartered in Switzerland). At the heart of Strategyzer’s value proposition are powerful tools and canvases, and the books supporting them. It is easy to underestimate how rare and special it is for a toolkit to be so simple yet clear, and where the discrete modules are able to both stand alone and work together as a cohesive and integrated suite.

Lucy understands the tools and how they work together better than anyone, given that it is her role to oversee Strategyzer’s content and marketing efforts. So it was a treat for the audience to be guided by her through the Design-Test-Repeat loop and to have it brought to life with a case study. (video)

Michael Wilkens – Innovation in the boardroom to support the business strategy Michael Wilkens was the wild card of the event for me. While the other international speakers have co-authored Strategyzer books and are quite visible in their ecosystem, I only knew of Michael being curiously referred to as “The Chairman”. I didn’t really know what to expect.

Well, I can safely say that his contribution was hugely insightful and impactful. We learnt that his moniker stems from the fact that he has developed a professional portfolio that sees him chairing and participating in multiple company boards in Denmark. In addition, he runs a highly successful consulting practice focussed on business model innovation.

Michael was literally the first known practitioner in the world to use the business model canvas in the wild. The combination of his mastery of practice, as well the gravitas that comes with his level of experience, is a very inspiring combination.

Michael’s focus on working with boards and CEOs in the context of innovation, and his willingness to share the ins and outs of those relationships, elevated the level of the whole event by giving us insight to a unique perspective which is rare to access. He brought it to life with a powerful case study of an organisation that had the potential to be mortally disrupted by the pandemic, but rather performed the equivalent of business model judo moves to emerge stronger than they were before. (video)

Olga Cuesta – Stop designing products & start building systems There is a saying… “the first rule of systems thinking is to never mention systems thinking”. And I’m glad that Olga chose to break it.

Olga Cuesta is the Chief Innovation Officer at Naked Ambition, so plays a central role in designing and facilitating their client engagements. She illuminated the fact that people bring different perspectives to any challenge or opportunity, and that the right tools and approaches can tap into that diversity and unleash impactful outcomes by embracing complexity and interconnectedness, rather than sticking to the linear path.

I felt her message was very important in the context of the event, as there is a real risk when using tools and frameworks that they are treated as checklists, and used in a linear and cookie cutter type fashion. When I introduce people to the business model canvas, I always emphasise that it is in fact a systems map, and that each of the segments unavoidably interrelates with the others. So it was wonderful to see Olga do such an exquisite job of introducing the audience to the concepts and vocabulary of systems thinking, and I hope that it is something that people introduce to their practice. (video)

Presenter at the Corporate Innovation Event

Christian Doll – You want to innovate but what’s your innovation strategy? If you asked me who is the most active corporate innovation practitioner I am aware of globally, it would have to be Christian Doll. Specialising in B2B businesses models, helping organisations actually design and manage innovation ecosystems is something that Christian does, day in and day out. This hands-on experience shone through in his presentation on how to actually formulate an innovation strategy.

Christian bridged an important gap – which is the space between the big ideas, and the explicit methods to actually bring them to life. This is especially challenging when it comes to something as amorphous as innovation strategy. At some point in an organisation’s journey, someone needs to stand at the whiteboard in front of the leadership team and sketch the framework that will be used to guide the teams and the investment. (video)

Paris Thomas – A prototype walks into a bar… The after lunch spot at any conference is always a tough one, and Paris Thomas rose to the challenge with a super high energy and entertaining talk that would hold its own on any comedy circuit.

Paris had fun with a topic which is one of my personal pet peeves – the misuse and abuse of the term MVP (i.e. Minimum Viable Product). Being one of the world’s leading experts when it comes to designing and running business experiments, Paris was well placed to call out the anti-patterns he has observed, and to illustrate better ways of de-risking business ideas. As an interesting aside, Paris leveraged ChatGPT heavily to come up with the content for his talk. This is no great surprise to me, as I saw Paris seize on the possibilities when the world of workshop facilitation pivoted to virtual delivery during the pandemic, to create an amazing studio and unsurpassed participant experience. He embodies the very definition of an innovator and an early adopter! (video)

Fiona Triaca – Can AI be your innovation co-pilot? Speaking of ChatGPT, local expert and CEO of Naked Ambition Fiona Triaca gave us some interesting insights as to how their organisation has been experimenting with the new technology. It was an important, and almost ironic, point of reflection for the innovation professionals and enthusiasts in the room – that no role or function is immune from innovation, for better or worse.

Fiona gave detailed examples of how Naked Ambition have used ChatGPT to undertake activities that the team would typically do manually, and shared the amount of time saved and an assessment on the relative quality of the outcome.

It sounds like we all still have jobs for now (phew!), and it was both exciting and daunting to see the technology put through its paces in a domain which is so close to home. (video)

Sahil Merchant – What will it take for you personally to be an effective innovation leader? A real strength of the event was the diversity of perspectives around the topic of innovation, and indeed the diversity of styles of communication and presentation.

Sahil Merchant, founder of Vibrance Partners, bucked the trend by basically doing away with slides and presentation format. Rather, he delivered a thoughtfully crafted speech with a direct and thought provoking message about the personal behaviours that leaders need to examine in themselves in order to be able to support innovation. He underscored that leaders have to question some of their core beliefs in order to enable innovation, particularly when it comes to mindsets, ego and the struggle many people face around traditional notions of how we have been socialised to view success.

Interweaved with anecdotes from his extensive experience working with the most senior people in several of Australia’s largest companies, Sahil challenged the audience to not lose sight of the all important personal development journey, even as they brush up on the latest innovation tools, frameworks and methodology. (video)

Presenter at the Corporate Innovation Event

Mykel Dixon – Don’t forget creativity – liberating the heartbeat of innovation You never quite know what Mykel Dixon is going to pull out of the hat, and this event was no exception. I’m more accustomed to seeing Myke singing behind a piano, but this time he selected a short film to drive home the message about the importance of creativity. It resonated with me both professionally and personally. At Vibrance, we describe our purpose in the context of the impact that we have on the people working in organisations by way of the type of work that they do. My interpretation of that is that we want to empower them to use their respective gifts creatively to create novel value for the communities that they serve.

On a personal level the film struck a chord as it was about a father and child, and the effect that an uncreative school environment can have. I, along with many parents no doubt, am thinking about how to best prepare my children for the world they will inherit and need to steward. Without creativity there is no innovation, and no solutions to the mounting challenges our planet is facing – which suddenly makes what might otherwise be a fuzzy, feelgood topic into one of existential survival. (video)

Greg Bernarda – Beyond business model innovation: how to engage your ecosystem and unlock “upruption”? Greg Bernarda was the ideal person, with the ideal topic, to round out the day. He explored the premise that in order to address the scale of challenges and opportunities that we collectively face, we need to be thinking bigger. And to do that we need a vocabulary and toolkit that will enable us to operate at the ecosystem level – which is beyond just business models or specific products and services.

Greg is a special character, and I know through my personal dealings with him that he approaches things with an incredible depth and breadth. While he remains an expert in the field of corporate innovation, he also taps into a deeper well of insights from a range of fields which enables him to bring collective attention to much bigger questions about how value is created and managed in the world. This excites me no end, as it is this kind of thinking and ways of being that we will need to sustain our planet and to create the kind of future we want to see. Judging by the response from the audience in the room, and how prominently Greg’s talk featured in the social media posts people shared about the event, it clearly resonated with everyone present, and was the perfect way to wrap up the day – turning our minds to the bigger picture, and the possibilities of how we can play a part in designing the future. (video)

End note Despite innovation being an essential part of the human condition, and solution oriented research and development being a well trodden path within organisations, we should keep in mind that business model innovation in the sense that we are talking about here is a relatively new and emerging discipline. We are fortunate to have people such as those who presented at this conference who are willing to share their experience and insights, and it is exciting to see the enthusiasm people are expressing around the idea of forming a community of innovators. Let’s collectively be sure to keep the sharing and the learning happening.


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