As a nation, we pride ourselves on our creativity, but when it comes to translating great ideas into successful businesses, New Zealand is still trailing behind. Colenso co-founder and serial entrepreneur Mike Hutcheson looks at what’s going wrong.
I believe innovation to be the realisation of creativity, but innovation is a two-sided coin: one side invention, the other implementation. It’s the implementation part where New Zealanders fail.
We are certainly a creative lot. Per head of population we are fifth in the world in the number of local patents we file, and we’re also fifth in the world for dollars per capita spent on Research and Development.
But we are only 23rd in global competitiveness and 22nd in filing US patents; we have only a 22% conversion rate in taking local patents international. By comparison, Finland has 100% conversion, Denmark and Singapore 80% and Ireland 50%.
We rank 6th in the world at publishing high-tech research reports, but only 63rd, behind Senegal and Bulgaria, at actual high-tech manufactured output.
There seems to be a huge disparity between what we New Zealanders conceive or recognise as good ideas and our ability to build scale and take them further afield. The question is, why?
Anecdotes about Kiwis’ ability to make something clever out of number eight wire abound. We grow up hearing stories about Rutherford splitting the atom, Hamilton’s jet boat, Murdoch’s disposable syringe, AJ Hackett’s bungy, Richard Pearse’s flying machine and Bert Munro’s World’s Fastest Indian. Then there are innovations like women’s suffrage, the 40-hour week and pavlova. Coupled with the invention of the eggbeater, the referee’s whistle, the Thermette and the electric fence, they have become part of Kiwi ingenuity mythology we are brought up with.
But assumptions based on historic cultural myths can be dangerous if the message they leave is no longer relevant. They can make us lazy, thinking we can fix anything. If we compare ourselves with other examples of national ingenuity, we get trumped. Take the Scots, for example: the television, the telephone, rubber tyres and Tarmac eclipse our inventive output, and you’d have to say the Americans putting a man on the moon somewhat overshadows the ingenuity of the Thermette.
As part of my thesis research, I recently made a video documentary on the alchemy of creativity in New Zealand business. I interviewed people who are well qualified to shed light on how Kiwi ingenuity finds its place in this world of rapid and disruptive change.
I started with Kevin Roberts, Global Chief Executive of advertising giant Saatchi and Saatchi, followed by George Hickton. He’s the director of the Hobbiton in Matamata, a former Chief Executive of Tourism New Zealand, and Chair of Weta Workshop. He’s also the architect of the iconic ‘100% Pure’ campaign and one of the country’s most successful patrons of commercial creativity. I interviewed Phillip Mills, CEO of Les Mills International, who has built a global fitness empire by combining his two passions, exercise and music. Now, with more than 100,000 trainers in 16 countries worldwide, he has developed some very clear ideas on how to encourage and foster creativity and how crucial creativity is to his business.
I also spoke with Louise Webster, CEO of the Innovation Council who has developed a unique overview of the myriad small to medium enterprises in New Zealand and has built her organisation around coaching, training and advising these businesses.
Throughout these interviews I explored three basic lines of enquiry: What is creativity in a business context, how is it fostered, and can a particular Kiwi approach be identified that can be translated into an ongoing competitive advantage.
So what did I take from all these interviews that will enable us to box above our weight on the international stage in future?
It seems that as generalists we’re good at ideas and invention, but not so good at innovation, implementing and building those ideas into scalable businesses that create jobs.
Even members of the Kiwi diaspora who come home do so because it’s such a nice place to live. The 3B cliché of the boat, bach and BMW reflects an ethos of moderate success. It’s as if, as a nation, we are happy getting out at the 10th floor of a 100 storey building. More New Zealand wealth is created by property speculation than by business building.
If this continues we will be inexorably eclipsed by more progressive economies. Expatriates returning and wealthy emigrants from other nations will come here because of our benign environment – and we may well become tenants in our own land. What can we do to ensure that doesn’t happen?
We don’t have a mortgage on intelligence or creativity, nor are we as rich in resources as many other countries, but what we do have is going for us is attitude.
We have a certain cultural fearlessness. This does not indicate an excess of courage or bravado but perhaps, because we live in a country with no natural predators, we approach things with an absence of fear.
We are not intimidated by power or position; we don’t self-select into failure by saying we can’t do it before we start. In our optimistic naivety we don’t seem to be afraid to ask questions that others wouldn’t. Whatever it is, we think we can do it, despite the odds.
But we need to back ourselves and teach Kiwis to embrace the implementation part of innovation.
It may seem counter to our visions of entrepreneurs and innovators, but my research shows that it’s good old fashioned discipline, process, and above all planning that will make the difference.
With this in mind, I’ve developed a periodic table of innovation – a model that steps innovators through the elements they need to consider and action to implement a great idea. [Click here for full size]
Ideas are cheap but taking concepts to commercialisation requires hard work, attention to detail and focus on areas such as HR, supply chain, marketing and finance.
With these scalable businesses and global competitiveness will increase and a greater number of Kiwi’s will become job makers rather than job takers.
For more information on Mike Hutcheson’s research on the alchemy of creativity, visit here.
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