Defining Innovation Podcast | #005 Warwick Absolon

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A podcast for innovators, creatives and the madly curious—featuring Warwick Absolon.

Warwick Absolon is Innovation & Technology Manager at AECOM, a global provider of professional technical and management support services to a broad range of markets, including transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, water and government (follow him on Twitter via @warwickabsolon).

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Show notes / timestamps :
00:00 Intro / innovation in terms of Warwick’s role
04:42 what AECOM does
06:20 getting buy-in and creating a movement
10:50 gaining leadership support
12:26 innovation manifest
17:22 building of capability / culture / mindset
20:42 questions and collaboration
21:55 Inspiration: Seth Godin, Tim Kastelle, Thought Catalogue and Fast Company.
25:12 Thanks / outro

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Podcast Transcript

0:001 DK: Welcome to the fifth episode of the Defining Innovation podcast when I get to speak to amazing individuals doing wonderful things in the innovation space. This episode, I’m speaking to Warwick Absolon. He’s the manager at Innovation and Technology for a massive company called, AECOM. They’re a global provider of global professional, and technical, and management support services to a broad range of market including transportation, facilities, environment, energy, water, and government. As with all podcasts, I started by asking him to define and deconstruct innovation from his perspective.

0:36 Warwick: It’s a very broad topic. And whether it’s good or bad, we look at the most prominent type of innovation that’s out there, and we seem to think that’s the most shiniest, it’s the most biggest, it’s the most bangiest type of innovation there is. And for us at AECOM, that’s not what we do. What we do in terms of the type of work is anything that you can see out there in capital infrastructure world, we design it. so that includes roads, bridges, buildings, any sort of type of mining infrastructure, water infrastructure, etc. So we traditionally do very good engineering.

So for us and people in our industry, to deliver that big shiny bang of innovation doesn’t happen very often, if at all. So what we try and do at AECOM and certainly what I’ve been pushing at AECOM for the last four and half years is to really make it simple, and very broad so the people can understand what actually drives it rather than concentrating on what the outcome is. so for us, the innovation that we’re pushing at AECOM and have been on a sort of multiyear journey is concentrate on being able to come up with an idea, and we all have those. Be comfortable with talking to your colleague about that idea, and be happy, and satisfied that it may actually go in a direction that you hadn’t been thinking of. So it’s all about that having that idea, and it doesn’t have to be new. You do something with it, and you’re doing it because you think it’s actually going to be pretty good for the end client, the end user, for yourself, for the company. so have that as summarized is you have your innovation, it’s the idea plus the action that aims to add value. And that’s something that we have used very successfully. And people can get that.

and when I did a number of, about 153 small group discussions, we spoke about what innovation was at every one of these 153 small group discussions. And yes, they did speak about Apple, and Google, and what it actually means, and there was lots of terms, and lots of ambiguity. And then I told the group, I said to them, “What I think this innovation equals ideas plus action that aims to add value can describe the Googles, can describe the Apples, can describe Facebook, can describe all those big flashy things. but also can describe that incremental thing that you’re doing on a new bridge. That little incremental that you’re doing with a water treatment plant. Look, we may not win innovation award for it, we may not get the best innovation prize at the International Engineering Festival, if there is such a thing. but we always have to be aiming to try and do something better. so we came up wit the idea, do something about it, and that’s as simple as talking about it, and being comfortable that it’s ambiguous, and it could lead you in a direction that you hadn’t thought of. Because our work is not a manufacturing product related industry, we provide service, we provide time. so sometimes our clients come to us looking to do something different. Sometimes our clients come to us just because we can design a road very quickly and easily. So I think sometimes there’s a good connection that we had the opportunity to do different stuff, and sometimes we don’t. So we just need to make sure that we’re very comfortable, that it means many things to many different people. and with us, that doesn’t mean we’re going to be able to do it everyday of the week.

4:42 DK: I love the emphasis on process over outcome there at the innovation kind of, innovation deconstruction, that’s really cool. And I’d love to get you just to briefly give us a take on what AECOM does.

4:57 Warwick: Yeah, look, and if before I was working with AECOM, I was working as a consultant for them in a previous career. And I knew them as an engineering firm. Now what I like to refer to us now is we’re a professional services firm that concentrates on design, and planning, and engineering. So we don’t concentrate on just road, we don’t concentrate on just mining or just transport projects. We look at the whole gamut of infrastructure, and we design it. so we don’t construct it; although a small part of our firm in the American business is constructing it. Traditionally or in general, we are the designers that someone else will construct for us. So in terms of what we do, we design stuff, and it’s big chunky infrastructure, water treatment plants, mining, mining stuff, buildings, and that includes all the stuff that’s inside of it. so air conditioning, electrical work, big energy power stations. Virtually whether you can see it out in the, outside your window, that’s what you design.

6:20 DK: And then in terms of then you talked briefly about 153 small discussions. That was only an internal project you did. Was that to get started, and to get buy in from both bottom and also top down? Tell us how you created a movement, and turned the around innovations.

6:42 Warwick: Good question. And the one of the things that I thought would have been the easiest thing for me to do was to send out an email to our 4,500 people in Australia, New Zealand, and said, “Hey guess what, I’m the innovation person. just letting you know that I’m here if you want to have a chat.” That would have been easy for me to do that. I would have thought about 95% would have gone, “That’s great” and delete, and never had contacted me.

So traditionally what companies do is they hold what they like call brown bag town hall discussions or sessions where someone from the leadership team will come on in. And they’ll say, “Right, I’m coming in on to Brisbane, and I’m going to be talking 12-1 on Wednesday. Hopefully you can come and hear me talk about stuff.” Now again, that’s easy to do. But I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get a lot of buy in because funnily enough our staff are responding to clients. So I wanted to match the message that I was giving to what our, my customers, my clients, and how they worked. I think that’s really important.

Because I have 4,500, or at the moment is probably a little bit less than that, clients that I have to deal with. I not only have more important things to do than read another email. So what I did was I’m based in Brisbane. When I visited Sydney, I would hold 40 small group discussions starting from 8 o’clock on Monday morning and finishing at 5 o’clock on Friday afternoon. And this was in reflection of my clients actually having giving them flexibility. So I didn’t want them to RSVP, I didn’t want them to put their name down on a piece of paper and tell me when they’re going to turn up. They knew I was going to be there. So I wanted to make it as flexible as possible that if those people really wanted to come, there was 40 chances for them just to turn on up. So it allowed them to go, “You know what, 12 o’clock on a Monday doesn’t suit me because I’ve got a client meeting, I’ve got do lunch” whatever it is. “But you know what, geez at 3 o’clock Thursday afternoon that just fits, and I’ll just walk on up.” So that was a great way to build that movement in, build the moment from the ground up in terms of what was the message I was trying to get across. I wanted to get these people on board with what I was doing. And I wanted to get them excited by it.

I knew an email, while that would be easy, would have a very little effect to the people in each of those offices. And the good thing about those 150 odd small group discussions was exactly that, they were small group. so there wasn’t a presentation. It was a discussion from me without a PowerPoint. And even though I had some words, and I had a bit of a structure to it, I could almost guarantee that for every one of those 150 sessions, I said something different each time just due to the way that I was prompted, and the way that I was discussing things, and people were asking questions. So it was small group, you didn’t have to RSVP, you could just turn up, and there was no PowerPoint. So right from the get-go, when people walked into the room, they thought, wow, this is different.

Because usually what we’ve done at AECOM is there’s been a mass email, you’ve had to respond through your calendar entry to say yes you’re going or no, you’re not, and there would be someone there behind a white board in front of a white board with some sort of PowerPoint disaster, and not really engaging with the people in the audience. So when they saw me doing something that was totally opposite, you could get that they were actually excited about being there.

10:50 DK: Now what different, what things did you did, sorry, for the leadership or was the same thing as well?

10:56 Warwick: Yeah, I think from a leadership point of view, it was just getting them comfortable that staff members liked to do this type of stuff. and again, it’s not trying to reinvent the wheel or to go out and be risky because we’re a publicly listed company on the New York Stock Exchange, we aren’t like risk. So that was a bit of a disconnect I wanted to make sure with the leadership group that we’re going to try to do something different, but it’s still going to match our risk profile. So just encourage your staff to have those discussions with you.

And again, once they knew that where I was coming from was a very AECOM friendly way. See I hadn’t come from an Apple or a product service industry or a product related industry, they got more comfortable with what I was doing. So because I was not, I wasn’t pushing that far out of their comfort zone, I was pushing enough, they felt comfortable to support, and encourage their staff to attend or at least contact me. So I think that’s just very important just to make sure, that you know what, we’re not going to be the worlds most innovative company ever, but we just need to improve ourselves. And again, once you can tell that, you leadership group that, I think a big sigh of relief goes out.

12:27 DK: So what, how is that manifested now in AECOM after you did all those sessions, you built up a, I don’t know a movement, an understanding, deeper relationship both with leadership and your clients rather than your colleagues. I love how you’re thinking like that. How has that manifested over time now?

12:47 Warwick: Yeah, and this is where all the way along of a multiyear journey it was a thing that I wanted to talk about and think about to do it right, and to make sure that this wasn’t just going to be a six month corporate initiative because my god, we have enough of those, and every company has enough corporate initiatives to pave the streets of our towns. I wanted to make sure that it was sustainable. So the first part, and this would have been those 150 small group discussions was giving people comfortable with word is, getting comfortable that we’re all doing it, and getting people comfortable that we can all do it pretty well on a day to day basis, and become happy that it’s going to be different to different people. So that was the first part.

So the second part was, well we know it, we like it, how can we do more of it? And that was the next stage put into AECOM was to develop what I would like to refer as a train the trainer of course. But I put it together, there was a three-hour course on how you can be innovative or how you can inspire others to be innovative. And what I’m talking about innovation, it’s all about those ideas, and asking the right questions or the questions that will prompt thought. So the first part was getting people aware of this thing called innovation. The second part was how can you do it on purpose? And that was probably a 12-month sort of program that went all across Australia, and New Zealand, and got people enthusiastic about it. Because what I didn’t want to happen is I didn’t want to get hit by a bus, and the people at AECOM go, “Geez, Warwick, he was a great guy, but what did he leave us with? He had all this information, and all this knowledge, and he was the gatekeeper of it all.”

As you can probably imagine, most people in this space are more than happy to give their ideas, and all their resources up. So I wanted to make sure that when I get hit by a bus, not if, but when I get hit by a bus, there’s plenty of other people within AECOM across the A and Zed business, the Australia and New Zealand business who could just do this type of stuff. I didn’t want to be the only person who they had to call to say, “Hey Warwick, we’ve got this client, he’s, they’re trying to build a new road out of Wellington, and we want you to come across to our Auckland office to challenge us to how to think differently.” Hey I love travels as much as anyone, but that was not going to be sustainable for the company, and I think it’s fair for the company to only have the one person to do that.

So I trained up, and I use the words very loosely, trained, I trained up about 250 odd people across Australia and New Zealand from every office who could to do the stuff that I do. So that was all about people get excited, and if they’re in our Wellington office or our Christchurch office, we’re what three or four hours behind usually, and probably a couple of light years beyond sometimes. that they couldn’t go, “Oh geez, I’ve got to get a hold of Warwick now. Hang on, he’s not up yet. Well I’ll just twiddle my thumbs and wait.” Well he knows there’s a dozen people out of 60 in our Christchurch office that that person can just talk to, and say, “Guess what, I’ve got this idea running a session for the right authority (phonetic). Are you available, can you do it? Right, let’s do it.” So I didn’t want to be that stumbling block. So that process of spreading knowledge was really important to me because I didn’t want to be the gatekeeper of it all, and because I found what I’m finding now. So between probably 2009, and 2012, people would be calling me regularly. And when I say regularly, probably 20 phone calls each month to say, “Hey I’ve got this client, I’ve got this project. The client really wants to do something different. Can you come in and run a session?” And I was traveling all over the place. I said, I love travel as much as anyone. But probably in the last 18 months, those phone calls have dropped off. And that’s not because they’re not doing. but the offices or the offices realizing that they got as good as people as me if not better to do this type of stuff. So it’s certainly more sustainable.

17:21 DK: And that building of capability in an organization, that’s just great. And I love the quote that, “Innovation on purpose” that 12 month program, I love that. And that kind of leads onto my next question to you which is just about the culture. How important is culture in an organization, and how do you influence it or have you just by doing that to move into more of an innovation mindset?

17:45 Warwick: Culture is very, very important obviously. And yeah, everyone knows I think the Peter Drucker Quote that, “Culture eats up strategy for breakfast.” And I probably haven’t said it right, but we all know that. and this is where I think what was really good from my point of view was our CEO at the time in a financial, the “Australian Financial Review” in January 2013, so early January, it would have been, he classifies a light news day. He was on the front page of the “Finn Review” and he spoke about creativity in the engineering space.

Now for someone who had been within the business for multiple decades who had come up through the ranks, engineering, the blue shirt brigade, who don’t like risk, who very noncreative traditionally or what they classify themselves as noncreative to be on the front page of the “Finn Review” and talk about engineering, and the demand to being creative was a huge big sign of approval from Michael. And that I think was very, very powerful. Because within AECOM, I don’t have t-shirts, I don’t have posters, I don’t have any sort of paraphernalia like that so that says, “Hang on this is an innovative company. We just have people just talking and doing some really good work. And I think that was a very good example of Michael who had come I wouldn’t say the full circle. He’s always been pretty supportive of it. but to actually for him to come out and say that in the “Finn Review Report” or “Finn Review Interview” was fantastic in terms of what the culture was. And what I was trying to get across through all these small group discussions is that was one of the things that people kept on saying is, “Look this is great, but what can I do?” So I tried to come across a saying that would give them some comfort. And the saying was, “Guess what, I’ve got an idea that’s not perfect, but what do you think?” So it was almost that’s the giving the permission to go up to someone and say, “Hey Warwick, I’ve got an idea. It is absolutely stupid, it’s not going to work, but I want your input about it.” And that I think was a very telltale sign of me being able to get the leadership people on board. I didn’t want to start up an innovation fund, I didn’t want to start up an innovation program or an innovation competition. All I wanted our leadership group to do was being comfortable with that saying of, “I’ve got an idea that’s not perfect, but what do you think?”

20:42 DK: Its just asking questions isn’t it and inviting collaboration?

20:47 Warwick: Exactly. And this is where for the company that we’re in, it’s not rocket science. We do some really good stuff, but it’s — we’re designing rockets just yet even though we’re doing some work what space stations. It’s that type of just breaking it down, and making it very simple for these guys. I think it was in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, and yeah, they spoke about the, we want you to be healthy program. What the hell does being healthy mean? Does it mean eating less, eating different types of food? Does it mean exercising more? Does it mean do I have to go for a run at lunchtime? It’s all too hard. And in their book making it stick, they spoke about what, for you to be healthy just change your milk choice from you know the full fat to 2% milk. So that saying of, “I’ve got an idea that’s not perfect, but what do you think?” That’s my 2% milk story. So yes, you can cut through everything else, you can keep on doing exactly the same thing, do everything else, but I want you to become comfortable with that saying that you’ve got an idea and you want to just throw it out there, and you want some input into it.

21:55 DK: Very accessible definitely. Look, we need to wrap it up now. But I’d love to ask you before you leave just to give us an insight into who and what is impressing you out there in the innovation space.

22:07 Warwick: Look, I think there’s three things in innovation space. And they’re, and I’m going to say they’re, they provoke different emotions in me, and I always look forward to their emails, their twitter feeds, etc., etc. And this is in no order of importance. Seth Godin, he is a person who I have been following for a number of years now. And in the age of too long didn’t read, he is perfect. He has an email that comes out everyday, my morning, and it just provokes you to think about things differently. So that I think is really important. Great provoker. And it talks about everything. So it’s not just concentrating — I think this morning, it was all about that his focus is marketing. But he will challenge you just to think about things differently. That’s fantastic.

The second one is Tim Costello. Tim Costello I think is one of the best people on twitter in this space. Again because he doesn’t just concentration on innovation. He will throw stuff up on his twitter feed that again will just challenge you. If he thinks that it’s important, and he puts it on twitter, it is great. So you, I think that is really good. So you can — you follow no one else, just follow him, and he will get through all the weeds for you.

The third one is a little bit out there, it’s Thought Catalog. Now Thought Catalog is again, got nothing to do with innovation. But it provokes me to think about things differently. And if anyone out there who actually has followed their twitter feed, they’ll have stuff as broad as what do nice girls don’t do, and to the extent how you can change office environment to think about things differently, and everything in between.

If I had to pick a fourth one just because I have the microphone now, I would subscribe to Fast Company. Their daily or weekly email/newsletter I think again is very, very good, and it’s very broad. I think that’s one of the important things that I like to do is just think about things differently and broadly. If I’m only following the top 20 or the best of, well that’s great, I’m just doing what everyone else is doing. So do something that’s a little bit different. So if your expertise is innovation, well why don’t you tick the box that talks about management, tick the box that talks about culture, tick the box that talks about HR policies. Because one of those things will come through you, ahh, I didn’t know that, maybe I should adapt my communication message.

25:05 DK: Great. Thank you Warwick for all your time this morning. My morning, your evening, I don’t know where we are in the world. But thank you. I really appreciate it man.

25:15 Warwick: My pleasure.

25:17 DK: Thank you for listening to the Defining Innovation Podcast. I’m your host DK. You can find out more about me on my website. That’s just please follow up on justadandak.com, spelled out J-U-S-T-A-D-A-N-D-A-K.com, justadandak.com. If you know of anybody in the innovation space doing brilliant things that deserve a little bit more focus, and covering, and listen to me asking them weird questions, let us know in the contact form or hit us up on twitter @justadandak. Also don’t forget to subscribe either to iTunes or through the blog, and I’ll speak to you next time.

Music credit to TexasMusicForge

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