Episode 34 – Innovation and the board: Reflections on ambition, culture, and the opportunity for Australia with David Thodey

May 16, 2024

In this special episode, I had the privilege of talking with David Thodey AO, whose experiences and roles have included board and chair roles in organisations such as Xero, CSIRO, Ramsay Health Care, Telstra, and Chancellor Elect at the University of Sydney. David is also a figurehead and thought leader within AICD, particularly around innovation and the role that it can play in Australian business and society.

In our conversation, David shares some of his journey into innovation, having started at IBM, and he shares his passion and ongoing fascination with how science and technology can shape society and business for good. We reflect on the importance of communication in technology transfer, both in terms of inspiring the public and private sectors, but also in articulating the problems that it can address, and the opportunities that can arise through the embracing of innovation and well-managed risk.

We touch on some of the broad enablers for business, such as finance and process, however, culture becomes the dominant theme through our discussion, and the challenge of disrupting the status quo alongside the need for competitive energy, both within organisations and in the markets that they serve. We then touch on the recent Australian tour by Marianna Mazzucato, and the notion of grand challenges for Australia to set and rise to. through better deployment of innovation and technology into the local ecosystem. David notes the need for defining organisational aspirations, purpose and through that, setting the culture for an organisation.

Some time was spent reflecting on Australian business outlooks, including a recent PwC survey which suggests that 85% of Australian CEOs believe their business would still be economically viable a decade from now, if it remained on its current path without major changes. This catalyses some discussion around the current malaise in private sector investment in innovation, competition, and the arising risk appetite from corporate Australia. David notes that every board should be looking for means to prosperity, and that innovation reflects the desire to improve. We reflect on how there are great sectoral examples of innovation, where organisations compete on the global stage for talent, resources and commercial success.

We also explore some of the cultural conundrums inherent in innovation, related to people (who ultimately are driving innovation), and the corporate governance settings around reporting, control, trust, and accountability. There is an equilibrium between these and also between the board and management that needs to be thoughtfully calibrated. We also reflect on local attitudes to risk management and the challenges associated with recognising and managing well-intended but erroneous outcomes arising from the pursuit of innovation. Accountability and consequence need to be built into a system that results in (failing and) learning fast, not failing fast (and not learning).

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