Reality-checking the business of innovation

Brian Ruddle

Brian Ruddle has focused on innovation for over a decade. It’s that experience and a penchant for the practical that sets him apart writes Leon Gettler.

From raising cattle to raising capital, Brian Ruddle knows that a practical approach will get you closer to your goal, whether it’s a blue ribbon or a blue-chip client.

The boy from Beaudesert now leads one of Australia’s most successful innovation and commercialisation specialist consulting companies. And although he swapped the farm boots for suits more than two decades ago, that resourceful, problem-solving can-do attitude associated with growing up on the land has helped Brian ‘keep it real’ for his clients.

After 14 years working on international development projects funded by the Australian government, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and UN agencies, Brian’s six-year stint with UniQuest, The University of Queensland’s research commercialisation company, heralded his immersion in the start-up space. He saw a huge gap in service delivery for innovative companies and created Impact Innovation Group in 2006 to help them turn their ideas into significant income.

Brian built up his commercialisation cred raising multi-million dollar seed rounds and negotiating licensing and joint venture deals with some of the world’s largest multinationals. Now Impact Innovation is the go-to group not just for start-ups but also for SMEs, corporates, multinationals, government agencies, and not-for-profits wanting to transform their organisations.

Impact Innovation Group is a team of experienced innovation practitioners and technology commercialisation specialists. Its ‘runs on the board’ come from focusing on putting clever ideas to work. It’s this passion for the practical and a collective century of experience that sets Impact Innovation apart from other consultancies.

“We haven’t just done it once,” Brian says. “We haven’t just been involved in establishing one innovation system or getting one start-up off the ground – then claiming to be innovation experts. We’ve done this multiple times across multiple sectors and with multiple types of organisations.

“We understand what it takes to deliver measurable outcomes. We know how to manage the risk and deliver outcomes from ideas. When organisations work with us they know they will get a return on their investment.

“That’s the value we bring to the table.

“It might be forming a side-shoot or start-up company from scratch, or designing an end-to-end innovation system so established companies can decide what to do with the potential of their ideas.

“Sometimes that means setting up workable collaborations with university researchers to develop new products or processes, or licensing intellectual property to a bigger player in the industry. We know how to talk to innovation managers and different types of inventors to generate mutual benefits from collaborative R&D.”
Brian’s team is also just as comfortable pitching to C-suite executives and helping investors back the right technology for their portfolios.

The key, says Brian, is implementation. Many companies don’t get that. They think it’s just about the idea. Or lots of ideas.

“Too many people focus on generating or finding ideas, whether they’re large corporates or start-up founders. That’s why hackathons and idea competitions are so popular. But they forget about the execution and ROI. If you don’t focus on implementation and allocate resources to achieving those outcomes, you’ve wasted your money and time on brain gymnastics. That fun team building exercise will turn into a begrudging memory when your people realise their efforts were in vain.

“We see this already. We talk to prospective clients who say ‘Yes, well, this is our third attempt at setting up an innovation program.’ They’ve shut down previous efforts because they focused on coming up with new ideas. They haven’t focused on getting outcomes to align with what the corporate strategy is trying to achieve.”
Brian says he has met plenty of newly appointed innovation managers who have the technical specialisation but are still developing the skills to drive outcomes because they haven’t had practical, wide spectrum experience.

And no textbook covers everything for taking an innovative idea to market successfully, because every in-house innovation or start-up addresses a different problem for different consumers.

“Senior Executives and innovation managers are coming to us to help them develop the practical systems and processes to drive outcomes. We don’t provide ‘cookie-cutter’-type solutions because each system should meet the unique needs of the client. The purpose of innovation is to drive differentiation and growth – if your innovation system is the same as your competitor’s, then the chances of achieving these are slim.

“We’re being approached by ASX 20-, 50-, and 100-type companies that have been doing the ideation work, but are now suddenly realising that if they don’t get their execution side of things sorted, they’re going to run into problems down the track. We work with innovation managers and their teams to establish progressive, sustainable innovation systems that add real and practical value.”

This is why innovation is more than just about an idea or a technology.

While product, service and process improvement are generally the target of innovation programs, some of the most innovative companies in the world focus on their business model and come up with better ways of extracting or generating value from how they do business.

Digital disruption is a good example. A lot of people focus on the technology side rather than realising that digital disruption is actually about changing business models. Companies that innovate need to have systems in place to maximise the outcomes.

“We look at their systems,” Brian says. “If they can’t communicate their system for finding ideas, assessing ideas, developing those ideas and measuring impact, then it is not surprising that their innovation programs are not working – that’s where we come in.

“Some organisations do have some of those elements. But until they take a systems approach, it’s very hard to communicate the value of investing in innovation, to build an innovation culture or to secure internal support.”

A system to manage innovation helps to gauge when it’s time to step up. Impact Innovation uses various proprietary tools to help innovation managers understand where they’re up to with a technology or as an organisation. It’s also the Australasian premier partner for Brightidea, a platform designed to help companies harness the creative capacity of their employees to accelerate and scale innovation programs. It’s popular with companies like Cisco, Kraft, and Sony.

The most innovative companies have the C-suite totally behind innovation.
“Where we don’t see it going well is where boards don’t incorporate it as part of the business and they’re expecting the managers to go and do all the innovation,’’ Brian says.

“Innovation is seen as, ‘Well, we’re not really clear on what the defined outcome is, therefore should we spend much money on it?’ which is a valid reason for not jumping in. But until they do bring it into the overall way of how they do business, they can’t be surprised when they only get piecemeal results.”

So why do so many businesses fail to innovate?

He says there’s a couple of reasons.

The first is the fear of failure and a dislike for making mistakes. Unfortunately, when it comes to trying to implement new ideas, there’s a chance that they won’t work.

“Within Australia, the fear of failure and risk-aversion in some sectors is strong. What most organisations don’t realise, however, is that you can reduce the risk of failure by having effective systems. For example, if you have processes to test ideas to gather information on their viability before spending a lot of money, you can make an informed decision as to what your investment should be,” Brian says.

The second reason is that organisations aren’t serious about innovation.

“What I mean is, they’ve got strategies around all other parts of their operations but we go to talk to some of the largest corporates in Australia and we ask about their innovation strategy and they don’t have one. They don’t have innovation plans. They don’t have a properly thought-out innovation system. They approach it more from a ‘Well, we’ll give it a go and see how it works’ attitude,” says Brian.

“Where we see organisations being successful is when they treat innovation like any other part of their business. There’s a budget around innovation, it’s got really clear KPIs and the board also regularly reviews the progress. Innovation is discussed at the board level every month or however often the board meets.”

And while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has urged an ‘ideas boom’ in Australia, Brian says many organisations just equate this with start-up companies and commercialising university research, rather than establishing their own innovation program.

“Sure, some understand that they need to treat innovation like any other part of their business,’’ Brian says. “The larger banks, some of the telcos, they’re creating internal innovation departments and they’ve got sizeable budgets around innovation and they’re getting their systems and processes in place. I suppose that’s the top level. Under that, it’s a smattering, if you like. Plenty of organisations talking about innovation, putting in innovation managers, and running one-off activities but it’s very, very early days.”

He hopes there will be a shift.

“In terms of the future and where we see things going, we’re hoping that organisations will treat innovation as being part of their business and really start focusing on the implementation side of things. The senior executives who establish practical innovation systems and processes, who focus on measurable outcomes, have the ability to transform their organisations – and maybe even their entire industry.” BFM



An award winning author and journalist, commentator, lecturer, and speaker, Leon is a freelance business journalist who covers a range of areas including politics, strategy, globalization, leadership and all the big trends ahead. His main skill is summing up all the news that’s around. For the last 30 years, his main focus has been on management issues. He also produces two podcasts for RMIT University, Talking Business and Talking Technology. Leon has worked for Fairfax, News Limited, AAP and the Herald and Weekly Times.