Why you can reap rewards from going beyond your comfort zone: Marina Go

Last Thursday night I moderated a discussion on the subject of corporate innovation. It was part of the Meet The Entrepreneur series organised by The Australian School of Business, held at the Ernst and Young offices in Sydney.

I was invited to be moderator as an alumni of the AGSM. And even though I barely have time to scratch I agreed to do it. I have to admit that less than an hour later I was ruing that decision. There were four panelists to speak to in advance (where was I going to find the time for that?) and I had to construct a plan for the discussion.

In the fortnight before the event I interviewed four incredible innovation experts: Audra Eng, vice president product development, Atlassian Software Systems; Nick Aronson, general manager, Transaction Banking, Commonwealth Bank of Australia; Saul Brown, founder, Innovation Agency; and Dr Loretta O’Donnell, associate dean, Education, Australian School of Business.

The 30-minute discussion I had with each of them was a gift. They added to my knowledge of the unique balance that is achieved between culture, systems and people in successful, innovative organisations. Dr O’Donnell even tried to sign me up for a PhD.

The insights they shared helped inform the hypothetical that I led them through on the night. I created a scenario that was based on an organisation from my past. My team of experts assisted me in making decisions for the ASX200 company that would transform it from a former industry leader to a current industry innovator with share price growth.

As I listened to the responses of the enthusiastic panel with their case study examples that could transfer across industries, I was struck by how easy they made it sound. Clearly in practice it’s a lot more difficult to turn a company’s fortunes around, but the experts on the panel know it can be done and, more importantly, how it can be done. The audience at Ernst and Young last Thursday night now knows that too.

One of the most exciting pieces of advice actually came from the audience, from a shareholder of Ernst and Young, in response to the scenario of my large company buying a smaller, innovative business. Rather than just quarantining the innovative business for a couple of years so that the culture doesn’t get squashed, he suggested that we could take some of the leaders from the innovative business and give them the company’s declining cash cows to see what they could do with them. It was that comment that hit a nerve for me and reminded me of the disastrous purchase of EMAP Australia by ACP five years ago.

I was involved in the due diligence and ACP’s CEO at the time repeatedly told those of us in the EMAP executive team that he was most excited by our innovative people, culture and products. And yet within 12 months of the purchase, most of the innovators had left the building. What a terrible waste of money, products and careers. The experience of the panel across the technology, banking, education and consulting industries was relevant to key decisions that may have saved business disasters like that one.

As well as saving a large corporation in hindsight, the four people I met through the chance phone call to moderate an event also reminded me of the importance of taking time out of your crazy day, week, month to consider how others might take their businesses to that next stage. Not just competitor organisations but innovative companies in other industries. Without doubt, taking the time to moderate this event turned out to be one of the most constructive events that could have filled the gaps in my fortnight.

It’s tempting to turn down an opportunity like this because it isn’t core to what you do day-to-day. But my advice would be to get involved and see what you might learn along the way.

Have you ever thrown yourself into a non-endemic activity and discovered gold?

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