Feed unconscious minds, embrace good failure: Dr Amantha Imber talks innovation strategies

Dr Amantha Imber

Dr Amantha Imber, founder and CEO of Inventium

Businesses risk being disrupted if they don’t create environments where people can sit in their ‘challenge sweet spot’, have freedom to express crazy ideas and feel safe to fail meaningfully, according to Dr Amantha Imber, the CEO of innovation consultancy Inventium.

Prior to founding Inventium a decade ago, Imber – a 2016 inductee into the Australian Business Women’s Hall of Fameearned a PhD in organisational psychology and spent five years working as a consumer psychologist in advertising agencies including, most notably, Leo Burnett.

Although she loved the intellectual challenge of her work, Imber admitted to Dynamic Business: “Ethically, I felt a bit empty using my knowledge of psychology to convince people to buy things they didn’t necessarily need”.

“Going with Plan B was one of my best decisions”

Determined to carve a new path for herself, Imber gave her boss three months’ notice of her resignation, using that time to look for her next job. Fortunately, things didn’t quite go to plan for Imber, who had pictured herself working for an employer whose culture and IP she could really get behind.

“Starting my own business wasn’t Plan A,” she explained. “I had no desire to go it on my own but I couldn’t find a place where I wanted to work so I decided to create one that combines two of my great passions –  science and innovation. Going with Plan B and starting Inventium has been one of the best decisions I have made in my life.

“Sure, changing industries involved a learning curve but my work in consumer psychology, which involved dissecting research and figuring out how to make it practical for clients, has been very similar to our approach at Inventium – everything we do is based on research and science.”

“My team and I get an amazing buzz from our work”

By Imber’s count, Inventium has helped over 100,000 people – from CEOs of large companies and innovation directors through to employees across all roles and high school students – become better innovators. It has done so, she explained, through skills-building workshops, keynotes and assessment underpinned by a science-based methodology that is “a lot like design thinking but with less art and a truckload more science”.

She added, “My team and I get an amazing buzz from giving someone the insight, skills and confidence necessary to become a better innovator. We’ve helped businesses from all over the globe create a culture where innovation thrives in circumstances where they’re been worried about being disrupted or, on the flipside, want to achieve aggressive growth targets.”

Asked to qualify Inventium’s success, Imber said it has been ‘very rewarding’ helping large organisations such as VicRoads, the Commonwealth Bank and property giants Mirvac and Lendlease to ensure the customer is at the heart of their business and proactively find and execute innovation opportunities.

“Some of my personal highlights include getting a call from Google, a few years ago, to help teach their clients to be more innovative and – more recently – collaborating with the team at Apple responsible for working with educators,” she said. “Others include our Hack in a Box program, which teaches school students practical creative and critical thinking skills, and spearheading the AFR Most Innovative Companies since its conception six years ago.”

“The retail sector needs to be prioritising innovation”

Inventium partnered with Fairfax on the list, Imber explained, due to their joint recognition of “a huge gap in the market for a national, industry-agnostic list that recognised highly innovative companies.”

“Former BRW editor Kate Mills was fundamental in shaping the list, which first ran in BRW before shifting to the AFR, and my team at Inventium designed the methodology from the ground up,” she said.  “Recognition programs like the Most Innovative Companies list play an important role in inspiring and fuelling innovation and I know many companies around Australia that now aspire to be part of our list.”

“Through our work on it, we’ve uncovered some truly amazing innovations. For example, M&C Saatchi is working on ground-breaking bushfire detection technology for their client NRMA. In fact, the ad agency topped this year’s Most Innovative Companies list precisely because they have a very effective and sustainable innovation program, which is producing some amazing outputs.”

Imber said that while “a lot of great innovation is happening, right now, in Australia”, with advertising and media featuring strong on this year’s AFR Most innovative companies list, the retail sector has its work cut out.

“Retail players were notably missing from this year’s list, which is pretty concerning given the threat Amazon now poses,” she said. “Out of all industries, retail is one that absolutely needs to be prioritising innovation.

“While innovation output obviously varies amongst the different companies in the retail space, there’s definitely been an element of complacency. The biggest disruption that many will players have seen in their lifetime has literally just soft-launched in Australia. Retailers are leaving things very, very late if they haven’t already developed a sustainable approach to how they innovate.”

“You don’t have to be born an innovator to innovate”

Fortunately, Imber explained, anyone – and any organisation – can learn to be more innovative.

“Many believe you have to be born an innovator but from decades of scientific research, we know this is simply not true,” she said. “By giving people scientifically-proven tools, you can increase their ability to be effective innovators. By measuring the behaviour changes that flow our programs, we know that people can be trained to be innovators.

“For instance, we ran a training program with one of the Big Four Banks and three months on, we found that amongst their people, behaviour that was conducive to and driving innovation had risen by 50%, which is a huge uplift. And that’s a large reason why we have so much repeat business at Inventium – because we know how to transform individuals into being amazing innovators.”

“It’s okay to fail so long as rich insights are gained”

Imber said it pays for businesses to understand the science behind innovation, which is something she explores in her book The Innovation Formula.

“There are 14 key drivers that lead to an innovation culture, such as creating a safe-to-fail environment, ensuring people feel challenged by their role, and creating an environment where people feel safe to express their craziest ideas,” she said.

“In terms of what is important for a safe-to-fail environment, businesses need to communicate that it’s okay to fail so long as it’s ‘good failure’, where rich insights are gained, as opposed to bad failure, where nothing is learned.

“Regarding the importance of challenging roles, businesses need to ne designing jobs, tasks and projects to allow people to spend a majority of their time in what we call the ‘challenge sweet spot’. In other words, they feel challenged by their work as opposed to being able to do it in their sleep or, on the flip side, feeling overwhelmed because they don’t have the necessary skills and resources.”

“SMEs must take a disciplined approach to testing ideas”

Commenting on what commonly holds back SMEs from realising their innovation potential, Imber said complacency and being naïve to the ways their business will probably be disrupted in the next few years. Alternatively, she said SMEs recognise the importance of innovation and have big growth targets but “don’t then invest the time and money into actually building capability in their company and people to drive brilliant, disruptive innovation”.

Part of the problem, she explained, is that many businesses don’t test their ideas with customers in a meaningful way and then later wonder what went wrong – “it’s important to take a disciplined approach to testing ideas by which I mean applying scientific approach to learning and iterating ideas based on how customers interact with them.”

A further problem is that businesses often overlook great innovators within their ranks due to the fact that they are ‘low in the pecking order’.

“It happens all the time,” she explained. “Something we help our clients do is implement formal innovation programs to ensure the best ideas rise to the top. We have had a tonne of SMEs go through our Customer-Driven Innovation program to teach them the key skills of how to drive growth through innovation. Also, we have a complimentary assessment that helps businesses understand the innovation capability level of their team.”

“It’s important to tap into the unconscious minds of employees”

Speaking to how she nurtures innovation within her own consultancy, Imber said she and her team practice what they preach.

“We always apply our own tools,” she said. “One of the things we teach our clients is the power of the unconscious mind when it comes to creative thinking and solving problems. For instance, about a week before any kind of meeting or workshop, where people will be asked to address a problem, we encourage businesses to share the problem with the attendees and ask them to note down thoughts as they pop into their heads.

“This is a great way for businesses to utilise the unconscious minds of their people and it means that by the time of the meeting or workshop, everyone’s already generated a bunch of ideas and you don’t have to start from scratch. Likewise, whenever we’re trying to solve a meaty challenge at Inventium, we’ll flag the challenge about a week before any sort of meeting so people can tap into their unconscious mind.”

Dr Amantha Imber has previously shared her insights and philosophies with Dynamic Business. To learn more, click here.