Innovation is something new for many Australian companies reared on a diet of ‘build to print’ and tiny portions of genuine opportunity. The word itself engenders suspicion: is it a ‘buzz word’? A fashionable pre-occupation? It’s certainly not widely understood.
Regardless, Australia’s defence industry needs to understand and master the process of innovation. In a previous post I looked at innovation from the point of view of the defence customer; this post addresses innovation from industry’s point of view.
If the customer is being truly innovative this has significant implications for his industry and supply base: defence companies will be exposed to the operational and technological needs of defence forces and the global prime contractors in a way they’ve never experienced before. To survive, to flourish, they must become innovators too.
For anybody who thinks the defence industry is special, by the way, I have news: it’s not. The defence market is special and unique, but the defence industry is like any other high-tech industrial market for capital goods and services. The good news is that that factors that make a non-defence company a successful innovator apply also to defence companies, so there’s plenty of supporting literature and no black magic involved. Of course, every project is different, some subtly, some quite significantly, but for the majority it emerges that there are common pre-conditions for innovation success. They’re quite independent of a specific project – they’re more generic and they go to the intrinsic attributes and routine behaviours of the organisations involved.
Boiled down to their essentials, this is what I believe they are - and none of them are surprising or counter-intuitive:
- Appoint a company leader who’s open to constructive change and keen to innovate
- Organise yourself to innovate: an organic (as opposed to a mechanistic) structure enables and encourages cross-functional communications as well as creating conditions for lateral thinking and idea generation (if necessary, create such a group within your organisation)
- Work towards technical mastery of the domain in which you’re operating: the products, the technology they embody and the technology and expertise required to build them
- Be pro-active in dealing with your customer – both determining his needs and sensitivities, and testing ideas and hypotheses on him (In Australia this means the ADF, DST and the bureaucracy)
- Invest in your R&D and prototyping capabilities
- Conduct R&D systematically, guided by your market knowledge (see 8, 9 and 10 below)
- Be open to external partnerships and sources of technology and IP
- Understand the market in which you’re operating: who the players are (customers as well as rivals, and even suppliers and sub-contractors); why they’re in the market; what’s happening with technology; what else is going to shape the size and behaviour of the market in the future?
- Understand your market position and what (if anything) you need, or intend, to do about it
- Be systematic in your marketing activities (which includes encouraging lateral thinkers and good ideas!)
- Create a cross-functional team to integrate market and technical knowledge and then develop and deliver the project
- Appoint a leader of this team who has REAL authority to drive the project along
Once defence companies understand that their industry sector isn’t that different, they can then look at their structures, intrinsic attributes and behaviours, and then start to apply some of the lessons you’ll find in books by a swag of authors who’ve studied innovation success in depth: people like Amantha Imber, Roy Rothwell, Jeff Dyer, Nathan Furr, Clayton Christensen and Steven Johnson (Google them); and there are others.
Defence companies can learn a lot that’ll help them on their journey, and it’s now a journey with a better-defined destination. The Defence Industry Capability Plan and Defence Exports Strategy may provide better directions, but from where I'm standing, close to the start line, you will still only get there by embracing the challenges of the innovation process.