Can Innovation Exist Without Implementation? Turning Ideas Into Reality

Andrew Morgan and Adam Beaumont podcast

99 per cent perspiration

I’ve heard that to be an entrepreneur you need to be innovative, but I’m not sure that’s always true. A different view of an entrepreneur is someone who can make things happen; someone who can take innovative ideas, make them real and create value for their stakeholders. Thomas Edison is quoted as saying that successful innovation is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. I think successful entrepreneurs persist. They see challenges as part of the journey. They adapt and they’re agile. They solve problems as they go, and they have an unwavering view of their vision and what they want to achieve.

I wanted to explore entrepreneurship as the process of innovating and implementing, and ask the question: Can innovation exist without implementation?

Andrew Morgan believes an entrepreneur is someone who is able to pick up an idea and really run with it, not taking no for an answer, working out ways around barriers and ignoring the naysayers.

Andrew was dubbed ‘The Innovator’ in a 2019 Tasmanian Government sponsored ‘Brand Tasmania’ campaign for his work on reclaiming precious timbers from forests submerged in Tasmania’s hydroelectric dams. He is the co-founder of Hydrowood, a board member of Private Forests Tasmania, and the managing director of SFM Environmental Solutions.

‘My business partner hates the fact that I was called the innovator because I stole his idea and got all the glory”, Andrew confesses. ‘We literally came up with the idea of Hydrowood while having a beer in a pub. He said we should do this, because I’d just been to British Columbia and seen the reclaiming of logs from underwater. Something they’ve been doing for a long time. And the first thing I said is that you’re bloody mad. Like I was actually saying, no, we can’t do this.

‘But it left the seed of an idea that we went off to Google and went and had a look around. It was this seed of a concept that sort of slowly grew. We had people saying, you can’t do that, the wood won’t be sound, you won’t get the funding, you won’t be able to sell for the price point you want.

‘But we thought it was real and kept pushing. It is absolute persistence. And I think if you look back through time and look at entrepreneurs and what they’ve done, a lot of them were considered pretty mad. But if you don’t have a belief in something, there’s no point pushing it.’

Are all entrepreneurs innovative, or just persistent?

Andrew doesn’t think all entrepreneurs are innovative, because sometimes the entrepreneur is the person that picks up an innovative idea that someone else has had and implements it. And if you ask the question in reverse, are innovators entrepreneurial, while you can occasionally get a personal match, they do stand apart from each other.

‘I think there are people who have had innovations, who haven’t ever seen them come to reality because they don’t have the entrepreneurial spirit. They don’t know how to get funding; they don’t know how to persist.’

And that’s where a partnership can make all the difference. In Andrew’s case he says their roles switch at times. They both have the skill set to be innovator and entrepreneur, but they need to push each other to make it happen.

Most innovations arise out of problems requiring solutions. The problem Hydrowood wanted to solve was how to harvest trees when they are underwater? Due to the demand for hydroelectric power, valleys in Tasmania had been flooded to make dams, plunging countless trees below the water line. And as the decades passed people assumed the trees were rotted and therefore of no value.

But in British Columbia they use the river systems as transportation to move rafts of trees down river. Some of the trees sink to the bottom, and a movement grew to reclaim them. It turns out the trees are actually fine because the water is dark, cold and anaerobic.

So Andrew and his partner went to the government to get permission to do a feasibility study.

Andrew says, ‘When we first pitched the idea we’d finish our half-an-hour slot with the minister or bureaucrat, and it’d be like, “Yes, thanks for your time”. This is where that persistence came in. And I guess I really cut my teeth on this in terms of learning how to lobby. I describe getting a project like this up, sort of like picking a lock. You’ve got to get all the tumblers lined up to turn it on. And we needed to get to that corridor conversation.

‘What I mean is you have bureaucrats and politicians speaking to one another about this project in the corridors, not necessarily in the meeting rooms, but kind of, “You heard about this, this sounds really interesting”. And it was a really good timing for us because it was at the time when there was a lot of focus on the Tasmanian forest peace deal and restrictions of supply around those specialty species. And so there was a level of interest from a few champions that helped us continue through.

‘It ended up being a Liberal Party project, which is pretty unusual policy for them to be funding private enterprise in that way. But it already had the momentum. And again, that’s about having those champions and getting the tumblers of the lock lined up.

‘We got five million dollars, no small amount of money. And we got criticized quite a lot. There is a strong tall poppy syndrome. And I think there is a tall poppy syndrome in innovation, and perhaps in entrepreneurism as well. If you have big idea, people want to shut it down!

‘It was a four-year period. It was a two-year build from idea to feasibility, to getting the funding, to building the actual barge and the boats and actually finally getting on the water. We can’t have divers in the water because it’s dark and it’s really cold and very dangerous. So we needed a platform that can harvest a tree and put it on another little barge to be taken back to land. So what we ended up with was a 145 ton barge with three thrusters drop down in the water, and a 45 ton excavator with a forestry head on it, no different from what you’d see in a large pine forest. The excavator head grabs the tree and neatly cuts it off. So we’re not pulling the trees out of the riverbed, but cutting them.’

The Hydrowood origin story

‘But there were mistakes made along the way. We actually had to learn about sawmilling of boards, all the things that most sawmills would know, but we were going from scratch. And the number of people who can actually take a log and do something with it is very, very limited. So you’re immediately limiting your market. And I guess this is part of the innovation is that we’re selling a story. So we had a really clear idea around the brand and the fact that we wanted to market this differently to the way that forest products have been marketed before. Anyone we spoke to in the log business really didn’t get it. They said the process of harvesting from under water wouldn’t work.

‘And it happened that we had a client fall in love with the story: the trees being harvested, then having a build, having a project specify, having their architect specify, and then having a finished product.

‘So again it’s the story, it’s the provenance that ultimately draws back to the brand, which is where we wanted to end up. The brand is really important to driving the value.’

So how can organisations be more innovative and entrepreneurial?

‘I think it’s cultural’, Andrew answers. ‘You’ve got to culturally be out to promote that thinking. That doesn’t work for every organisation because some organisations need to do a job where they don’t think outside the box. If you look at an extreme example, like Apple or Google, they effectively got incubators that go and sit in that room with bean bags and come up with some crazy ideas and we’ll throw them around.

‘It’s also the process to add value to the customer. In this instance, by buying Hydrowood, customers aren’t just purchasing the wood, they are buying the narrative of the origin of their kitchen table.’

So it seems that if you want that sort of entrepreneurial culture in your organization it’s really the practical matters of implementation that make the difference. So, yeah, maybe Edison wasn’t that far off the case and maybe that ratio or perspiration to inspiration is right!

If you liked this article, you might be interested in the podcast and article I did with Simon Corden where he talks about the role of economic regulators and innovation.

Guest:Andrew Morgan
Role:Managing Director
Organisation:SFM Environmental Solutions
Best Quote:“I think there is a tall poppy syndrome in innovation, and perhaps in entrepreneurism as well. If you have a big idea, people want to shut it down”
More Info:Andrew on LinkedIn