Failure is part of innovation

We all innovate all the time without even knowing it.

Who hasn’t grabbed a broom to get a ball that is stuck up a tree? The broom was not made for that purpose but we had a problem and needed a solution.

As Albert Einstein said ‘You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club’. Or a broom.

In my two years as Minister for Government Services, I have often spoken to senior leaders at Services Australia about how to serve our customers better and innovation is a recurring theme.

This is a priority for me because Services Australia’s customers are the Australian people. Like death and taxes, using Services Australia – Centrelink, Medicare and a range of other Government services – is inevitable for Aussies.

Whether the service is in-person or online, we need to make sure our offering keeps up with community expectations.

That is why, when speaking with agency executives, I ask them to make their workplaces a safe environment for staff to innovate.

That might sound a bit odd. Why would people be scared to innovate?

Well, it comes with uncertainty. There is a fairly high probability of product failure – somewhere around 50% if you take an average of academics’ estimations.

Rather than being risk averse, we should learn the art of identifying failure early.

In Services Australia we had a 300 kg gorilla of a project that was established under the previous government.

The Entitlement Calculator Engine was meant to determine eligibility for welfare recipients and how much they should be paid. There was a total of $191 million thrown at this project and nothing to show for it.

Services Australia made the tough decision to write the calculator off completely.

Compare that to an initiative by two APS officers to manage stat decs and deeds via our myGov account. No more searching for a JP, just a few clicks and your identity is verified and documents are signed.

The project had an initial outlay of just $2.5 million with a return, conservatively estimated, at around $150 million.

Services Australia will keep refining the process, building a foundation for more innovation.

The world is changing at such a pace that standing still is not an option. We have to work better and smarter. As a wise but unknown person once said ‘The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones.’

The copper age and the practice of metallurgy gave the ability to produce new, sturdier, more effective tools, weapons and fortification. Stones just didn’t cut it, figuratively or literally, anymore.

Innovation and invention across history fascinates me. Anthropologically speaking, how we have innovated and invented speaks to the marvel of being a human and how we have adapted and created over time to meet our needs.

Possibly the most innovative sector, in any country, is the military. It is just a reality that the race to have a competitive advantage over adversaries breeds a culture of constant innovation.

But broader society benefits, with many of the conveniences we enjoy today being adapted from the military’s mission-oriented research.

During the Cold War, a scientist who was working with a machine called a magnetron to increase the power of radar discovered that a peanut cluster candy bar in his pocket had melted when he was standing next to the machine.

Curiosity led him to concentrate the magnetron’s electromagnetic waves on a raw egg which promptly exploded in his face. Then he tried the same process with popping corn. Long story short, the microwave oven was born.

He didn’t set out to invent a microwave oven. Rather he discovered, by accident, that the magnetron technology could be repurposed to cook food fast.

The military has also given us GPS satellite navigation which was initially just for US military and selected allies. But in 1983, GPS was made freely available to the world when a commercial flight was shot down by a Soviet jet fighter after straying into prohibited airspace. It was a tragedy that could have been avoided by accurate navigation tools.

Next time you set your destination and arrive via the most direct route, give the US military a thought because they continue to maintain this important service and provide it for free.

Super glue, duct tape (which actually began its life known as duck tape because any moisture slid off it like ‘water off a duck’s back’), cargo pants!, tea bags, EpiPens, vegetarian sausages (yes, really), night vision and digital cameras are among a long list of products we use today that took an existing product that was invented to solve a wartime problem and adapted it for general use.

But the military is not the only innovator.

In the early 1950s, Bette Nesmith Graham was a single mum who worked hard to provide for her son (for any ‘mature’ readers, you may remember her son, Mike Nesmith, as a member of the 60s’ band, The Monkees).

Ms Nesmith Graham rose to Executive Secretary in a big organisation at the time the workplace was making the transition to electric typewriters.

She was highly skilled but, by her own admission, she was not a great typist and made a lot of errors. She modified white, water-based, tempura paint to cover up her typos.

It worked so well, her bosses seldom noticed and the demand for the product sky-rocketed. In 1980, Bette sold her Liquid Paper company for US$47.5 million.

And of course, one of the most transformative innovations in the world came from Australian know-how in the form of wi-fi.

In the 1980s, Dr John O’Sullivan was working in radio astronomy, looking for exploding black holes. The work was made difficult because radio waves reverberate and that results in a scrambling of the data.

O’Sullivan invented a technology called the fast fourier transform computer chip to stop the radio waves from bouncing. It was this technology that Dr O’Sullivan and his team at the CSIRO adapted in the 1990s to bring us wireless connectivity.

Now we carry the entire internet around in our pocket, because scientists took an invention and innovated on top of it.

We have to embrace the idea that innovation is not to be feared and failure is a part of that process.

The trick is to identify a failure early, not waste time and money on something that won’t work, take the lessons of failure and apply them to your next try. Because there will always be a next try.