Date posted: 20/12/2018 8 mins min read

Do the experiment before the business case

Pete Williams CA of Deloitte Australia’s Centre for the Edge says innovation works best when you start small and leave the business case at the door.

In Brief

  • Businesses should give their staff the freedom to innovate, as spontaneous collaboration can be the fastest route to a solution.
  • The smart way to innovate is to start with a small project and see what flows from it.
  • Don’t try to impose a business case on innovation before you start, as you can’t forecast the value of something yet to happen.

By Roger Balch

Pete Williams CA from Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge has a pet hate – his colleagues and clients constantly ask to see the business cases for experiments.

As CEO – that’s chief edge officer – of a group that translates digital innovations into business tools and insights, Williams says it’s important to lead with experiments rather than business cases to discover the value that’s still to be realised.

“I can make a business case for the next five years be 20 cents, or I can make you a spreadsheet billionaire – just change a couple of assumptions,” he points out.

“What I most often see is that the business case hurdle is put in place before the experiment, which means that people either attempt educated guesses or make up key assumptions. Alternatively, it all becomes too hard and the experiment never starts.”

Instead, he says, organisations should use what they learn from an experiment to build a business case if they want to scale up an innovation.

Williams, who delivered the keynote address at the Disrupt.Sydney conference at the University of Sydney Business School on 21 September, emphasises that it’s the benefits that flow from giving people the freedom to innovate that are the real returns on investment.

Rather than the big question being about the business case, organisations should ask: “Why don’t we have an open environment where people can improve our systems and interfaces?”

Williams says organisations should allow staff the freedom to innovate and encourage them to do so in a very open, transparent way. He points out that people at the Centre for the Edge know precisely what problems their colleagues are trying to solve and that the collaborative environment helps everyone “learn faster”.

"If you try to do a transformation that's going across the whole organisation, you are going to get blocked at every corner."
Pete Williams CA
Peter Williams 

A smarter innovation process

Williams trained as an accountant in the 1980s, but started working with internet technologies in the UK in 1993 and is now a respected global thought leader on innovation and using digital technologies.

In 2003, he founded Eclipse Group, the forerunner to Deloitte Digital, and led Deloitte Digital for five years from 2007. In 2012, he joined The Centre for the Edge, which explores what’s happening on the edges of business, technology and society, so Deloitte and its clients keep up with the big shifts.

Williams says he prefers to start an innovation process with small projects, rather than massive long-term ones “with a 10Gb Excel spreadsheet”.

“If you try to do a transformation that's going across the whole organisation, you are going to get blocked at every corner,” he says. “You therefore have to find that little opening where you can say, ‘Can we find an initiative that's not right in the core but could potentially transform it?’ If you can find it, you can actually start to move.”

The projects may be small, but Williams advises they should be open to input from as many people as possible.

“Let's do stuff in the open,” he says. “Let people see it; let's tap into the tacit knowledge.”

Spontaneous collaboration can be the fastest route to a solution, he explains.

“Let's do stuff in the open. Let people see it; let's tap into the tacit knowledge.”
Pete Williams CA

Deloitte innovation in the real world

To illustrate his point, Williams told the Disrupt.Sydney audience about Deloitte Digital Australia’s chief technical officer Ken McElhinney, who one day came into the offices with a piece of chipboard, a bundle of hoses and cables, and some silicone.

When asked what he was doing, McElhinney said he wanted to build an internet-of-things water network. He set to work and as people walked past and saw what he was doing, they offered suggestions from their areas of expertise.

McElhinney’s project ended up as a high-tech demonstration model on display in Deloitte’s Adelaide office, where a client saw it. That kicked off a collaboration to develop a context-specific model for the client and Deloitte is now in talks with a number of water utilities about the ways in which it could be used.

Since then, Deloitte has pitched the model to clients and is now developing a version for fuel-storage depots based on the prototype.

“We used it as a way of demonstrating the art of the possible,” Williams says.

His advice for other business leaders is to provide their passionate and creative people with an environment that lets them move ideas forward, and see what happens.