When I gave my TedX talk about the Internet of Things last year, I kicked off with a simple message that “in a digital world, we can make everything talk to each other”. It’s actually a nice sentiment that easily crosses the divide from the digital to the human world of relationships and work.
But in the era of emerging tech and innovation that sentiment is failing us and the economy, and the deeply fracturing issue is this: Big Innovation is a handbrake on real innovation, and it’s going to hurt everyone if we don’t fix it.
Firstly, what the hell do I mean when I say “Big Innovation” and real innovation?
Big Innovation is the mindset of large consultancy firms that claim to be innovative but have no intention on delivering true innovation without exorbitant consulting fees and slow, unacceptable progress.
In contrast, real innovators strategically apply emerging technologies through methodically locating productivity opportunities, balancing risk and then rapidly experimenting. The focus then becomes proving core risks to ROI rather than expensively and slowly testing everything.
And when it comes to Big Innovation, the more-than-worrying result for businesses, economies and the average punter with a day job reaches further into our lives than you may think.
The Big Innovation problem
Think of Big Innovation firms as the zeppelins of business - they’re frustratingly slow to take off, creep at low speeds and, like the Hindenburg, fail to deliver what was promised despite a somewhat fiery, histrionic delivery. It wasn't always this way - failure for these large companies (think IBM) has only become public and common over the past few years - but it does show how out of touch they are.
They’re also eye-wateringly expensive - to the point where what they deliver can’t be considered innovative. In our experience, we’ve quoted on jobs for a prototype where our bid was $60k and the big firm's bid was $600k. The perception was the client would get a lesser result, which automatically affects any chance of them reaching an acceptable return on investment and, worse, pretty much wipes out the idea of creating a prototype without a big invoice before you even begin.
All in all, a handbrake on taking risks that can pay off and a paper shredder on ROI.
The kicker is this is a self-inflicted condition; the complexity, hierarchy and overhead of running such huge, multi-layered firms means time and costs are increased to the point of experimentation being unattainable. And the partnership model doesn’t help, with legacy partners unwilling to change and the firm unable to enforce a new way of business.
The grand opportunity lies in enterprise partnering with agile organisations that allow them to take risks fast. The caveat, however, is the small organisation can easily fall over due to the long lead times and lack of transparency from the big firm. And that has to change.
A handbrake for everyone, and Australia is not immune
Here’s where things get ugly. The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) predicts more than 5 million of the jobs that existed in 2015 will be lost between 2025 and 2030 to technological advancement. It says 40% of current jobs will be at risk by 2030.
Facebook is now 13 years old. There’s 13 years to go until 2030. Perspective’s a bitch.
If we can’t release the handbrake Big Innovation has put on real innovation and create the industries and occupations to fill the sizeable gaps that are about to be made in the job market, the effects will mercilessly and brutally hit home.
Australia is already behind. Small, sometimes even developing nations that struggle with social and economic problems every day are eclipsing innovators in this country because they can skip the work involved with maintaining and upgrading existing and legacy systems, and can use modern systems, identify issues and act on problems fast.
Estonia, in eastern Europe with a population of 1.3 million, is a shining beacon of what a robust and well-designed e-government service can deliver. The government is paperless and digital signatures have saved an estimated 2% of GDP compared with paper systems. Oh, by the way, 100% of doctors’ prescriptions are delivered to pharmacies digitally there. No paperwork, fast service, better health practice. Did you know Skype was invented there as well? The list goes on.
And take Myanmar, a country plagued by civil war and one dependent on agriculture. It has a crushing dry zone but farmers, working together using agile testing methods and fast adoption of tech, are strengthening their farming activities and benefiting financially.
I know what you’re thinking: “They’re small or they’re developing, there’s not much money involved.” To be honest, that just sounds like Big Innovation talking.
The issue here is perception. The game-changing companies in Australia that crave the benefits of innovation are so used to hearing big consulting firms say things will take six months that they don’t believe agile teams can deliver in six weeks.
It paints a false portrait that any rapid provider will deliver a lower quality result. We’ve built rapid prototypes with expansion at their core, worked for large Federal Government agencies through to the largest enterprises in the country, and yet people still don't believe the innovations that agile teams can deliver until it's in their hands.
And I can think of plenty of other agile teams worldwide that do the same.
This perception can change in one of two ways - Big Innovation partners with agile teams fast or we all deal with the economic fallout later.
The opposite of Big is not small, it’s agile
The structural issue is that Big Innovation tries to divide and conquer but ends up simply dividing. Their strategy teams and development teams aren’t just in different rooms, they’re on different planets.
Agile innovators are the development team and the strategy team - there is no divide and that’s because having that divide isn’t an option. This is a bilateral relationship in which strategy and experimentation work together harmoniously to accelerate the learning curve while delivering projects.
The answer is in collaboration - agile teams being the go-to levers to pull when Big Innovation know they can’t move fast or the risk profile is too high for a slow-moving organisation. Agile teams actually execute their strategies, leaving the Big Innovation excuse of “letting your employees innovate for you by changing your culture” in the wake of actual ROI for companies seeking a better way.
Besides, the C-suite needs to be the leader, demonstrating effective risk and innovation execution before the culture will follow. After all, they are the organisation's “leaders” for a reason.
And agile teams don’t think in monthly goals, they think in agile sprints. They deliver a set of outcomes in a small time span, working iteratively towards a bigger picture while allowing enough flexibility for experimentation in the sprint for new ways of doing something and debating best process for the betterment of the client’s system.
Oh, and the real winner for businesses and innovation - big bills don’t factor into agile teams’ thinking. They use small incremental billing that matches delivery in small steps to reduce risk and enable experimentation.
Big Innovation is putting billable hours ahead of city-changing, country-changing and world-changing innovation - and people, jobs, families and, ironically, Big Innovation themselves are the ones who will feel the full impact of that failure.
Agile teams and big consultancies shouldn’t just co-exist, they should be automatic collaborators. Wouldn’t it be nice if in the human world, “we can make everything talk to each other”.