conventions and innovation

Living in Melbourne it can be too easy to take for granted the volume of world class sport that happens in our city. Every January, the city is energised by Grand Prix Tennis; the Australian Open. The whole town gets buzzed by the season … Christmas, Boxing Day Test cricket, New Year, then the tennis. I was fortunate to witness one of the many gripping matches this year as Baghdatis and Safin clashed.

One of the things I enjoy about sport is the ritual that accompanies it. Every sport gathers around it a set of peculiar practices that up and coming players and local clubs adopt without question. I sat in Rod Laver Arena and wondered:

1. What a curious idea that in tennis you help your opponent warm-up. Imagine Carlton and Collingwood playing kick to kick before the first bounce at the MCG. Or imagine Harbhajan bowling to Simons in the nets before the start of play. Hmmmm.

2. What about this idea that the fans watch in absolute silence during play? How about the crowd at a Melbourne Victory soccer match being politely asked to be quiet ahead of a penalty shoot-out?

3. I wonder why Tennis Players bounce the ball before serving?

4. Have you noticed the routine after matches? After post match pleasantries between players and umpired, the winning player walks back onto the court on the other side to where they finished playing and acknowledges the crowd. Hmmm.

Of course there is nothing wrong with convention. Familiar patterns of behaviour develop for good reason and give a sense of security and predictability. The same is true in business. Familiar cultural patterns of behaving help people navigate the unfamiliar territory of a new environment or read proposals from new potential suppliers.

Conventions can be a problem however. When cultural habits lose connection with their intended positive outcomes, yet the expectation to adhere remains, they take the form of repressive law. To question them is to be recalcitrant.

We live in an age where radical innovation is not a nice-to-have, it is a survival imperative. One many levels … the market is changing so rapidly that products and services are in constant flux. Today’s loyal customers can so easily more to competitors. Today’s strangers can be tomorrows customers. The current labour market means that being an employer of choice will become, if not already, an imperative. We need new ideas about how to engage each other commercially. More globally, tinkering at the margins of our energy consumption will not be enough to make the reductions in green house gas emissions that our planet needs for a healthy future.

So, while past and current business habits can serve us well, we need always to be asking why? Why do we do things that way? Why do we use this? What value to does that add? Innovation, the capacity to invent new and better ways of solving (familiar) problems happens when we move from asking why? to why not?

As we move further into 2008, lets open our eyes to the conventions we participate in and ask why? Why? Why? Then lets expand our world by thinking of new ways of being. Why not? Perhaps one day I will be shouting encouragement on Rod Laver Arena during a rally.