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Bright Sparks

Boss Magazine | 8 March 2002

The Australian Financial Review

We asked some of the best and brightest from various backgrounds to explain their best ideas - and how they find them. After all, winning in business is all about winning with ideas. Shona Martyn, Ken McBryde, Wilson da Silva, Nick Gruen and Gail Burke met for a debate at BOSS headquarters. Kim Williams and Terry Cutler brainstormed.

By Fiona Buffini

What was the best idea you ever had?

Gail Burke
Gail Burke

Gail Burke: I used to be the CIO of Macquarie Bank and for a long time, even when I was in that role, I had a passion that we take a major initiative in retail. I continued to lobby for that and got the opportunity to be involved in a strategic repositioning in retail. That took place two years ago, but I had been talking about it for 10 years.

Ken McBryde: The significant issues in architecture relate to climate. One idea Stephanie Smith (the other innovarchi director) and I developed is about a habitable membrane structure that serves to regenerate arid lands by affecting the microclimate. The membrane structure is made up of interlocking capillaries - a bit like the structure of bird feathers - that become inflated by expanding air pressure as the sun heats them up. The expansion causes an unfurling wing that creates large shade areas. By night the wing furls to insulate the habitation from the cold night air. Of course, one of the important things about ideas is whether you can deliver them, and we are yet to do that. But it's interesting how those things can happen. Working with other industries is a key.

Shona Martyn: My best idea was probably HQ magazine. The opportunity was given to me in 1989 to start a magazine and my only brief was to fill a gap in the market for women 28 and older who didn't buy other magazines. Luckily, I fell into the category of reader. Why it was a good idea (and it wasn't realised by me alone) was we weren't reacting to market research, the attitudes of the advertising department; we went on our gut reaction and we put into the magazine what we felt people actually wanted to read. That's why the magazine was successful. We also took the idea further and we wanted men to read it. We got rid of fashion and beauty. We also assumed the readers were much more intelligent and broad-minded than other publishers generally did.

Gail Burke: That's a great idea, ignoring market research, because it often tends to "genericise" people. Nick Gruen: I'm best known for showing how something that looked crazy – export subsidies for the car industry which was already heavily protected - actually made sense. The trick was to show there were really two questions: the rate of assistance and the form of assistance.

Is there a trick to coming up with good ideas?

Shona Martyn
Shona Martyn

Shona Martyn: The structure of most people's working lives, if you're moving from one meeting to the other, doesn't tend to allow time to sit down and, oh, schedule an idea from 2pm to 2.45pm. It just doesn't work like that. A lot of people have good ideas in the shower. I don't because I am the mother of a small child. But I find if you get out of the office, you have time to think about things. You need to free yourself, and a lot of it is in the nitty-gritty. A lot of good ideas aren't big crucial things, they're about making a difference to tiny projects. A lot of the best ideas people have, those little ideas, happen when you remove yourself from the situation - walk around the block or go home. Gail Burke: You get more ideas in an environment when you have people around you who are used to being taken out of their comfort zone. With a group who have been doing the same thing, who are very well paid and very comfortable, it doesn't tend to ferment. Going against that, in a corporate environment you tend to recruit people who are the most experienced and most familiar with the job when often, but not always, you get good results from people who come from a different background and have a different conceptual framework. And that's most often what we don't do in a corporate world.

Nick Gruen: It's really important to take that next step where people's different frameworks are slightly altered by others.

Wilson da Silva: I like the story of Kary Mullis (the American scientist who shared the 1993 Nobel Prize for inventing the polymerase chain reaction method of amplifying DNA). The genetic revolution was down to this one guy. His third marriage had just collapsed and he was driving on a holiday with his girlfriend, saw some fences going past and was thinking about his problems with replicating DNA, and the whole thing came to him.

Ken McBryde
Ken McBryde

Ken McBryde: This new ideas thing is probably more about new connections and associations. I don't think any of us would be courageous enough to say our ideas are completely new. Invariably, I find good ideas arise when I'm travelling, moving. A great lunch can do wonders for the creative spirit - it takes you to that realm between play and work.

Gail Burke: It's when I'm out of the office. I'm a recovering workaholic, and I force myself not to work on Saturday through to Sunday evening. I've taken up the piano again. I get more ideas now because I've forced myself to get off the treadmill.

How do you pitch an idea, so it gets attention?

Shona Martyn: I use personal enthusiasm and energy a lot. But I try to develop such a good case for an idea that there really is no good reason why we can't proceed. In fact, it would be foolish to turn down such a wonderful opportunity. The key to that is making the people who have to approve it or work on it with you feel comfortable. One of the greatest barriers to ideas is that you have to get it approved by a CEO who is concerned it will backfire on him or her. You have to get people excited.

Gail Burke: In a corporate environment, people who want to do things differently are generally swimming against the tide. What you need - and you may be uncomfortable doing it - is the passion about your idea to articulate it and the diligence and perseverance to continue. And then to bring people along on the journey. Paint the picture of what it will be like, of the benefits, to draw people along with you because they are typically a long, long way behind your thinking.

Nick Gruen: And they hunt in packs! Putting the new idea in the old language is very important. You might be a fair way ahead of other people because you've been thinking about it longer. Language is terribly important.

Ken McBryde: You need to assume some intelligence of the people knocking the idea. Otherwise it just goes nowhere. Take the objections to your great idea positively.

Wilson da Silva: Try to tear it down yourself before you show it to someone.

What are the big ideas and trends of the future?

Wilson da Silva
Wilson da Silva

Wilson da Silva: Science is the wellspring of ideas. There are some really strong and powerful ideas coming out of science. Biomimetics is one, where you are replicating nature. And nanotechnology - self-assembling cars out of tonnes of carbon. Proteomics is another - making the proteins that make up the human genome. And photonics, using light instead of wires inside a computer. The whole thing is light. These are three big ideas that are going to go somewhere in the next 10 years. Biotechnology is already here. Stem cell research is amazing, but that's already here.

Shona Martyn: Books are part of a very people-friendly industry. While we are still producing electronic books, perhaps we need to be a little bit more aware

of what people want. Sometimes consumers actually don't want the benefit that you can give them. As for what we produce, the trends reflect where the population is at the moment. The biggest growth is in mind, body, spirit books - about yoga, personal growth - it's 20 per cent a year. There's huge enthusiasm out there for that area. Also, food books; there's incredible growth in food. The other trend is personal wealth generation - people wanting to make their lives more comfortable.

Gail Burke: In retail financial services over the past 20 years, the whole technology industry and the key players have been spending vast amounts of money putting in technology to stop them talking to their customers. The trend we are following is we want to take all calls, even from the little old ladies who want to know their account balance, because we want to put the human interface back. We want to reverse the trend. We want to talk to people. I think there is a dawning recognition about the cost of downsizing. A lot of organisational knowledge and loyalty is booted out at short notice (when you downsize). Those firms will suffer in the long term because they are losing culture. That's not to say there aren't times when you need to cut organisations but there are times when I think it goes too far. Ultimately there needs to be more of a recognition of sharing the good times with the bad with employees. In the long term, people will recognise they are just diluting the organisation.

Nick Gruen
Nick Gruen

Nick Gruen: In the 1950s an American, W. Edwards Deming, was preaching a creed which was optimistic, but which might have seemed naive to the time-and-motion analysts of American production. Deming saw management as facilitating people's

natural creativity, their desire to do their jobs well and to co-operate. There's much more to it, and you can make a huge mess if you introduce his ideas in a sloppy way. But implemented well, they made an extraordinary contribution to manufacturing productivity initially in Japan, and now around the world. But the revolution is still immature in services where global competition is weaker than manufacturing. It's still almost non-existent in banks. It's just starting to take off in health care, where they're discovering, as Japanese carmakers did in the 1970s, that attention to quality and excellence doesn't cost extra. It can massively lower costs. This isn't some small optimisation of productivity. This is a big idea.

BRAINSTORM: Terry Cutler, Chair of the Australia Council and MD, Cutler & Company

Terry Cutler
Terry Cutler

I'm really excited about arts-science collectives as a way of creating a new platform for innovation. I'm trying to promote the establishment of a digital arts laboratory in Australia to develop areas of next- generation digital interfaces.

I'm interested in the way we can develop new audience interactions with digital technology. In the 21st century, a lot of innovation will come from interesting, left-field, cross-disciplinary groups, which have the perspectives of different people. Constantly moving between markets is a fabulous way of getting out of the rut of your assumptions.

If I sit in Malaysia thinking about e-commerce, it means you have to think very differently than if you were in Sydney or Melbourne. It's looking at the same world but at a totally different angle. Being part of global networks of really interesting people is also critically important for Australians, to be part of networks of key people, global thinkers in different

areas. We don't do enough of that in Australia. We're not connected enough into those networks. It's so easy to keep doing more of the same. That's why so many companies are knocked for six when some disruptive technology hits.

The internet was a prime example. In 1995, major companies were saying the internet is a blind alley. By the end, they were all saying this is mainstream, we've got to get into it. That's a lovely case study of how difficult it can be to see the next wave of major disruptive technologies from within a corporate environment. It's just so hard to develop the mentality within a large corporation to be open to something different. There is too much focus on short-term performance measures. One idea I think will be really big is real speech recognition and automatic language translation, which will change the whole man-machine interface. The current human interface with computers - the keyboard - is so clunky.

With online interaction becoming all pervasive in domestic and business life, simplifying and making that interface really transparent will be a pivotal breakthrough. Another idea I think will totally transform business is the application of online processing to customer relationship management and business processes. We talk about that a lot now but what we're seeing is so clumsy and first-generation.

We haven't seen anything like the full potential in breaking down the brick walls that exist between outward-facing marketing efforts and internal production processes. It's a movement towards customised product in response to ever-changing consumer demand. The potential in that area is going to be huge. There's a lot of hype about innovation. You can get an awful heap of bad ideas.

Good ideas are few and far between. Part of the trick is making sure you have continual ideas about what is new and different - that's a mindset issue. Then to develop the skill to work out what's a good idea and what's a load of rubbish is where the smarts come in. Breakthrough technologies don't happen every day and most people miss them. The opposite of what happened with the internet is all the hype about third- generation wireless, where everyone just went berserk. They took an evolution of technology and were talking it into something it wasn't.

Good ideas don't always work. A lot of bad ideas get a life of their own. They get a certain critical mass and it's too hard to shift to a better idea. The best example is the QWERTY keyboard. If you were thinking about keyboards today, you'd never design the one we have. My current hobby-horse is the role of arts in education. There's a huge amount of research that shows students do better in every way when there is a strong arts component in the curriculum. We need to get away from our very 20th century, false notion of specialisation - the institutionalisation, almost – of the left and right brain. We need to reconnect different sides of what have become silo-like disciplines. It's all about cultural change. It's about a culture of real risk taking, not foolhardiness; a culture that says it is fine to experiment and push yourself even if occasionally you don't make it.

BRAINSTORM: Kim Williams, Chief executive, Foxtel

Kim Williams
Kim Williams

We need to create a culture that is performance-driven and devoted to outcomes and their assessment rather than devoted to processes. Australians desperately need to engage with the world - really go out and engage with it. There's been a tendency in Australia to try to deal with problems through regulating performance rather than through performing better. People don't realise how over-regulated this country is. And that stifles innovation, that stifles creativity, that stifles the whole notion of having a devotion to things that are fresh and new. You don't get new, dynamic outcomes in heavily regulated environments.

Australians are Inventive people. Ideas are wonderful things, but they can be very dangerous things and many people can find them quite threatening. They're not inherently threatening, of course. You just need to get a culture that is hungry for ideas and has a real appetite for regularity of fresh ideas and learns how to digest them and process them in a way where you can sort them. We need to change the general focus of education, our political culture, to one that focuses on the best ideas and not wanting it to be a breakdown between them and us. Most idea consideration is not about them and us. It's actually about learning to sift good ideas from less good ones. We are early adopters of technology. I'm not sure we are early adaptors. Change is a fairly difficult process in Australia.

The best ideas people are scientists. They are the most constantly interested in ideas because they've done the hard yards in respecting ideas and bringing discipline to the interrogation of ideas. Many ideas can be superficially attractive but when you bring discipline to their examination and to how they might be applied, it can be a different thing.

A lot of our processing of ideas in Australia is very superficial. Whereas in science there is this marvellous vigour. It is a very important thing for our future to have much greater enthusiasm and respect and public commitment to scientific endeavour. We have a

long history of pretty good scientists.

I read a lot - a lot of literature, a lot of journals. I use the net a lot. I maintain a lot of contacts here and elsewhere. I listen a lot. I bump into so many things that are fantastic ideas. What is the killer idea of the moment? I have no idea. (But) a pretty cool thing, in terms of consumer products, is the personal video player. It enables people not to be a slave to a television set.

You can load up whatever you want onto a hard disk and view it whenever it is convenient. In 15 years, it will be so pervasive as to be like a mobile phone. That's a pretty simple example of a good idea that liberates time and puts you in charge of something that you really enjoy in life.

There's huge growth in services. That growth will be inexorable. Anything that lets you focus on what you have to do and need to do and liberates you from chores has a big future. One of the trends of the future, as much as any of us can see the future, is that home will become a sanctuary and you will want much comfort and convenience there. A lot of technology in the home will change. People want to have more choice. Supermarkets today are quintuple the size they were when I was a kid and no doubt, we are fundamentally all eating the same stuff. The intersection of publishing and broadcasting, computers and communications, motion pictures and other forms of moving imagery is something that will never end. It is delivering a seamless environment. These things are already inextricably allied now - except in Australia because we have defective regulation and public policy.

Australians are obsessively secretive about information. Information is not the

confidential game. It's what you do with it that's the territory of proprietary knowledge.

Information should be freely available and people should share it much more because it's what you do with it that creates the value. We need a world that is much more actively engaged with sharing ideas and swapping ideas, throwing them around. Because the application of ideas is the touchstone. That's the really hard stuff. And the more ideas are out there and mixed around, you create a better ideas culture. People get more used to dealing with them. They start to develop the tools they need.

The lovely thing about ideas is that they're infinitely replenishable. There will be as many new ideas tomorrow as there were today. That can be quite exhausting if you just think about it. But somehow, we're never satiated and that's great.

Ideas are the cheapest things in life. But it's what you do with them - and how

you do it - that really matters. There's that old saying, ideas are a dime a dozen. I think that's pretty true and it's why you can't copyright an idea - nor should you be able to. There are probably five people at this very moment having that idea. But only one person will have the imagination and technical skill or discipline to give the idea a real shot at becoming a product or service.

There has always been a tension in Australia between government and commercial forces. I don't think there has ever been enough crossover. Too few people in our government have ever had a real, sustained experience of commercial life, and on the other side, too few people in commercial life have ever experienced public institutions, processes and policy.


  • Kim Williams is CEO of Foxtel

  • Terry Cutler is chair of the Australia Council and managing director of consulting specialists Cutler and Company

  • Gail Burke is executive director, financial services, at Macquarie Bank

  • Ken McBryde is one of two directors in architectural firm, innovarchi

  • Wilson da Silva is a science journalist who most recently edited Newton magazine

  • Nick Gruen is a former member of the Productivity Commission, former assistant director of the Business Council of Australia and is now a principal of economic policy consultancy Lateral Economics. He is also a keen part-time cartoonist.

  • Shona Martyn is a former editor of HQ magazine and is publishing director at HarperCollins


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