Australia New Zealand, Impact, Innovation

If you type the word “innovation” into Google, you will get more than 407 million Web page results. Fortunately, if you type “definition of innovation,” your results are much less — only 235 million results. With these two search terms alone generating such a variety of views and definitions, is it any wonder most people are confused by the concept of innovation, and unclear on how to “do” more of it?

As someone who has driven the innovation portfolio for AECOM’s Australia and New Zealand businesses since 2009, the main challenge I have encountered — and that stops people from being innovative — is agreeing on a common definition. It seems people cannot progress to trying to be innovative if there isn’t a broad agreement on what the term means. Some believe, for example, that innovation is only valid when it is in the context of something large, complex and brand new. These same people write off anything small, simple and an application from somewhere else as not worthy of being labelled “innovative.”

These types of arguments are, in my opinion, unrealistic and not actually needed. It also wastes energy — energy that can be used in better ways.  As a company that doesn’t have a production line of widgets, it is even more important for AECOM to provide people with the freedom to innovate in any way they feel comfortable with.

When I started talking to people about what innovation means, the terms and phrases used were polarising. Some people believed that to be labelled “innovative,” something needed to be invented, while others said an innovation could be a slight tweak. Others still saw change of any magnitude as potentially being “innovative.” And there was always someone who spoke about risk and failure. So who is right? Everyone!

In my experience, innovation is one of the most ambiguous words there is. Instead of chasing the allusive “everyone is in agreement” definition, we should instead embrace and be comfortable with the ambiguity. I challenge any definition to be perfect — so why bother trying to find it? And if you only look at the outputs or end products of what GE, 3M, Apple, Google, or any other innovative company has achieved, you will instantly set yourself up to fail. Concentrate on those things that you can do, not necessarily what others have done.

Instead of trying to compare yourself (or your company) to an unrealistic goal, concentrate on the key common elements that are integral for any “innovative” outcome — no matter how incremental or ground-breaking it is. If you concentrate on the inputs (those that you can actually control) and not the outputs, you will have a much higher chance of success.

The key elements of any type of innovation (large or small) are as follows:

  • There is a spark that has prompted something inside you to start wondering, “What if?”
  • Even though your idea or your spark may not be perfect (and don’t worry, it never is), you are of the view that you and others will see some value in it.
  • You then do something about it. It could be just a discussion with a colleague or a quick Internet search. All you are looking for is some encouragement that your idea has some merit.

These common elements (you have an idea and you do something to progress it because the outcome will be good for someone) are consistent with any big inventions that you can think of — both in historical and in more modern times — as well as those small incremental changes or combinations that have made someone’s life that much easier. Now, does that mean each type will win some innovation award? No, but does it really matter if it doesn’t?

Companies have a responsibility and a desire to allow all of our team members to voice their ideas, regardless of whether they’re perfect or not. Why? Because you just never know; that original spark of an idea may be able to be modified, be combined, or be improved and the outcome could make you proud. That is when the magic happens.

Next time you are in a meeting with a colleague, why not try to see what others are not seeing (and deliberately find that spark) by asking these simple questions:

  • What assumptions are we making about this project? Are these assumptions fact or fiction? Then, challenge them. Do these open up a line of thinking that you previously thought was not available?
  • What is the real problem (and not just the scope) that you are trying to solve? Don’t be afraid of providing the solution and not just a solution.
  • How will the end user (sometimes the client and the end user are very different) interact with the final design? Have you thought about them?

These are very simple ways to generate a spark. And if you involve more people, you will have more sparks. And with more sparks, there will be a higher chance of a better outcome. We’re all in a position to generate better outcomes.


Warwick_89x100_BWAlthough Warwick Absolon ( spent seven years working in a maximum security prison, he quickly realized there were more satisfying ways to have a career. And despite another seven years in a place that had six-minute timesheets, he has been encouraging and supporting people who want to think differently across AECOM in Australia and New Zealand since 2009. In this role, he has also spent recent time in Canada and in the Middle East driving a culture of innovation.
Twitter: @warwickabsolon
LinkedIn: Warwick Absolon

Originally published Feb 23, 2015

Author: Warwick Absolon