MELBOURNE -- Back in 2008, the Australian arm of a global packaging manufacturer was faced with a dilemma: their U.S.-led products were not addressing Australian consumer insights, subsequently affecting their profit margin. The Australian team decided they needed to come up with new products relevant to the local market, but soon realized that no one in the company had received any formal training in generating and implementing ideas. To address this skills gap, the consultancy Inventium was brought in to build a culture of innovation.
Within the first year, the global brand reported a profit of AUD$5 (USD$5.1) million as a result of ideas taken to market, and a cost savings of AUD$1 (USD$1.1) million from process improvement and supply chain innovations.
Among several Inventium techniques executed was the "Assumption Crushing" tool, based on a Psychology Learning and Teaching paper titled "Exploring the conceptual space of LEGO." This research revealed that whenever we try to solve a problem, there are a series of rules that govern our thinking, essentially putting up a fence in our brain that says "your thinking cannot venture beyond this point."
According to Dr. Amantha Imber, Inventium CEO, assumption is one of the biggest killers of innovation.
"We taught the organization a process to identify these assumptions and deliberately crush them by asking what if the opposite was true? This technique gives people's brains permission to go in all sorts of different places that it previously wasn't allowed to go," Imber said.
Imber is a self-titled "inventiologist" (a portmanteau of inventor and psychologist) who defines innovation as "change that adds value," be it monetary, efficiency or improved engagement. Her consultancy converts the latest scientific findings, from the areas of psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience, into practical tools and strategies for business.
Since May 2007, the Melbourne firm has worked with more than 300 different businesses -- both locally and abroad -- to deliver similar results, assisting clients with a range of specialist services, from implementing innovation strategies to designing new products and services.
The team's CV is an impressive roll sheet of high profile clients including Coca-Cola Amatil (a Coca-Cola bottler and distributor), LEGO, American Express, Deloitte and Kimberly-Clark. Inventium's success in the innovation consulting market is reflected in its revenue growth, which has increased by around 50 percent every year.
Imber, who has a PhD in organizational psychology and experience working in management consultancy and advertising, started Inventium because she had grown increasingly frustrated with what she saw as conjecture surrounding innovation. “I saw a big gap between what scientists know, what academics have been researching around innovation and creativity, and what businesses do," she said.
Dr. Jason Fox, a motivational scientist who also works with the same clients as Inventium, says that Imber's evidence-based approach sets her apart from other innovation consultants.
"The business world is rife with charismatic and persuasive folk that are very good at using emotive language to win business and create change. But the change they create isn't always effective, sustainable or aligned to business strategy –- particularly when it's based on opinion and belief, rather than science and facts," he said. "Imber's approach mitigates risk for businesses. It is deeply thorough -- no magic wand solutions, but a sequenced method that works."
Imber, who is currently working with BRW (Business Review Weekly) to develop Australia's BRW 2013 Most Innovative Companies list, claims Inventium is the only company in the world doing science-based innovation consulting, and in the process, helping businesses look beyond the buzzword of innovation.
Imber says that though innovation plays a key role in achieving growth targets across all areas of business, it is too often seen as synonymous with sleek new products, a belief that she says is counterproductive to its aims. "I think that’s really dangerous because that means the only department that can be innovating is your product development department, your marketing team or your R&D people. But really, anyone in an organization should be seen as having the ability and power to innovate and improve things,” she said.
Early this year, Imber and her consultants translated this thinking into practice and assisted Coca-Cola Amatil, named Australia’s fourth most innovative company by BRW magazine in 2012, to set up FutureWorks, an internal R&D division focused on driving innovative solutions. "As part of this new division, they launched a program called INNOV8, which encourages employees to create innovation around new products, packaging and processes.
According to Imber, Coca-Cola Amatil is a good example of the efficacy of a top-down approach to innovation. "Bottom-up can get you to a certain point, but unless leaders are resourcing innovation, setting the behaviour, the culture and environment for innovation, it will be hard to make significant progress,” she said. "And if an organization is serious about innovation but isn't putting up any money, and is not allowing people even time to innovate, then I think that’s a massive contradiction."
The inventiologist recognizes that small businesses may not have the cash flow to invest big in innovation programs, but they have a key advantage on their side -- agility. "In a small business, generally the founder or business owner is the ultimate decision maker and works closely with the team and therefore, decisions can be made really quickly, which is often the key to getting out to market first, and pivoting your strategy if you need to," she said.
Regardless of size, Imber recommends organizations treat innovation like a diversified investment portfolio. The Inventium CEO said that on average there’s about a one in 10 success rate for innovations.
A proponent of the Eric Ries Lean Start-up methodology, Imber believes that all businesses can benefit by taking a bootstrapping approach to innovation -- namely, how you can prototype and experiment each idea in the most economic and efficient way possible.
"You can get much better results investing smaller amounts in a diverse range of ideas, compared to pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into one business case that is probably full of assumptions that will never ever be correct," she said.