Vamos II: looking at the Big Picture

James Riley
Editorial Director

Telstra board member Steve Vamos has a theory about automation and the rise of technology. The more technology prevails across our workplace and society, he says, the more the human side matters.

“If you think a computer can do everything that a human can do, then you don’t know what humans can do.”

Mr Vamos has a fascinating and refined pitch about successful innovation systems. It’s not about technology, it’s about people and their ability to connect and relate and emote. That is how problems get identified, and ultimately it is how they get solved.

Smarter thinking: Better innovation systems need a change in our collective mindset

We must become obsessive about developing a new leadership capability, and building the human dimension of organisations, he says.

To do this, we must change the way we think. Organisations don’t change, people do.

In this part two of an extended interview with Mr Vamos [which had been delayed for two weeks as we turned our attentions to the Leadership changes in Canberra], there are some very common themes. You can read Part One here.

For Australian there are great challenges to improving the efficiency of our innovation eco-system. Chief among these it’s the fragmentation of its moving parts. This fragmentation is not a small issue.

“We act like we are big, when actually we are small. And we have fragmentation in our system that small countries can’t afford, Mr Vamos said.

“So we have to connect up ourselves better around a common view that we says we want to produce great Australian technology companies, and we want to take Australian IP and commercialise it more effectively.”

In addition to the Telstra board, Mr Vamos is chairman of a couple of startups – the Sydney-based JobVibe and New York-based The Reading Room – and is on Roy Green’s UTS Business School Advisory Board.

He says there is a growing appetite in Australia for the messages about innovation, and the creation of more efficient innovation systems. Mr Vamos has been speaking at corporate events on the subject for several year – and says he has done more in the last several months that in the previous two years.

I started by asking about collaborations between Australia’s biggest companies and its researchers and its startup innovators.

Collaboration between the different parts of the eco-systems have not been Australia’s strong suit … so how do we encourage that behaviour?

Steve Vamos: There are some big companies in Australia that are doing some great things, reaching out [to different communities]. Telstra has been doing it with Muru-D, the Venture Fund. Westpac has its Reinventure fund. There has been a fair bit of activity [in recent times].

David Thodey is someone who explored these areas a lot. In terms of the role at the CSIRO, I think David is certainly someone who knows how to connect different parts of a system to a common purpose, and that’s got to help.

Now, he has a lot of different stakeholder groupings, so I wouldn’t underestimate the challenge. But what you see is encouraging … I think he will do very well over there [at CSIRO]. He has got good commercial talent in the CEO [Larry Marshall] and now also in Adrian Turner [at the newly named Data61].

So we all have to be connected. No islands … getting the whole country pulling in the same direction. That’s a big ask …

Steve Vamos: In a connected, fast-changing world, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you need to see the bigger picture. You have also got to know why you do what you are doing. If you can’t see how what you’re doing is going to ultimately have a connection with that bigger picture, then you could be in trouble.

It will take a while yet, but much of Australia has not caught sight of the bigger picture.

I like this idea that we can find a way to energise people for change without using fear. I get pretty sick of the standard messaging through fear and advocacy through fear that comes out of Silicon Valley. Uber talks through fear, for example …

Steve Vamos: There’s a guy named Peter Fuda, an Australian who’s written a very good book on transformational leadership based on years of research. He says that the ‘Burning Platform’ is not enough. You need ‘Burning Ambition’. And I agree with that. Fear won’t get us there.

There are five things that an organisation needs if it is going to be transformed or survive a changing environment, and ambition is one. At the end of the day, the burning platform works for short bursts, and for a crisis, but it doesn’t work on a sustained base. People need to be motivated and inspired. And that takes ambition.

So where does the ambition come from … the leaders?

Steve Vamos: With every day that goes by, it’s the crowd that’s going to have more. I do believe that we need to work on our ambition around technology, and to put technology-based businesses into our national psyche and our national dialogue.

There’s no reason why we can’t and you shouldn’t have technology issues at the centre of our conversations. We need to attract more kids into the sector. And we need to connect up the fragmentation across our venture community, across our universities, and our businesses.

The reason why Silicon Valley is so powerful is because of connections between people. And we simply aren’t as connected here. So we are small and less connected, while they are big and they’re well connected. So how are you going to compete with that?

You can only beat that by being smart and focused, and by being connected in the areas where there is a real opportunity – where you think there’s a competitive advantage or where you think you have something to offer.

So the role that leaders can play in creating ambition around technology is important. So, yes, I would like to see that in the national discourse. But at the end of the day, the older people who lead our economy [right now] … I think if we’ll be relying less on those people at the top. Because people throughout an organisation have the potential to do more, to be [more innovative.]

I’m very optimistic about bottom-up innovation, and not so optimistic about the top-down stuff at the moment.

So given the challenges [Australia faces], what is it that you are optimistic about?

Steve Vamos: Right now I’m optimistic about everything. I think it’s fantastic. I just wish I was 28 [years old] instead of 57. I just think the world is only getting better, regardless what the media wants you to believe. It’s only getting better.

It doesn’t mean that every day was better than the day before. But I’m excited about what technology is going to do. Sure, there is a lot of fear about jobs being lost through automation [but overall there is reason to be positive about automation.] Our health system has a tremendous potential to be better. Our education system will get better. Our lives will get better. The media will get better. So I’m not really one to sit around and worry about this.

I’ve been through a lot fear cycles. Even little things like getting told ‘your eyes will go square watching too much TV”. Or about computer games’ ruining your life. It’s funny how people look at change. At the turn of the [19th] century in London, the biggest social issue was people worried about “where we are going to keep the horses?”

There were so many people moving to the city at that time, that the concern was about where all the horses would be kept and looked after. Well, that concern just disappeared, completely blown away by the car. So I am a real believer that – just like the last 100 years – technology will continue to bring positive change, and that humanity will figure out how to deal with social issues.

And it will be easier. The more technology prevails, the more the human side matters. And worrying about computers doing what humans can do?

I know we talk about artificial intelligence and machine learning and things like that. But if you think a computer can do what a human can do, then you don’t know what humans can do.

(Having said that, I’ve got to be careful with what I’m saying, because ultimately probably everything can be mapped.)

Look at belief. The currency of business is belief. And that’s why the national dialogue matters, because what you believe is so important. It’s what startups talk about. The only currency a startup has is belief.
Without belief, there is no money. The money you can attract is proportional to the collective belief in your business. Now that’s the same to every facet in our economy.

The trouble is when you become established, your beliefs become unconscious. And that’s why you need leaders who make you think, who say unpopular things and who shake us out of our malaise.

That’s my biggest learning over the last two years, that belief is everything.

So where do you start in an established company? Are you believing what you’ve got, or challenging the thinking of what you’ve got …?

Steve Vamos: I gave a talk to a very successful company recently. My topic was about ‘overcoming success’ to survive in a disruptive age. How are you going to overcome success? This is important. Look at Microsoft. The success of Windows is what stopped Microsoft from becoming a powerhouse Internet company it could have been.

Because the culture was one that believed it could out-code Google. It believed it could change the name of Hotmail to Windows Live Mail to protect the Windows franchise. And had too much of a know-it-all, controlling mindset, just when everyone else out there was thinking differently.

So success is a killer. Digital Equipment Corporation is dead because of their success. Wang Computer is dead because of its success. Microsoft is a success … and seems to be grappling with that success. Satya Nadella is a CEO who listens and who is able to connect. They can do some good things, I’m a big believer in Microsoft.

It seems to be on a different trajectory now, but that has taken some doing …

Steve Vamos: They are still a force, and they can still do some things. They’re a great company, and like great companies they have changed, but they’re fighting their success every day.

And Australia is the same. It will have to fight its success. That’s our problem, we are fighting our success. The Iron ore price drops. Shit. What do we do now? Or the currency goes up and tourism goes down, what do you do now?

So we need to, you know the old Andy Groves [former Intel CEO] saying “that only the paranoid survive” is a good one for Australia. And there’s not enough burning ambition and paranoia about our future.

It’s hard, because you can’t manufacture a crisis. You can’t manufacture it. People have to believe [the need for change.] And that’s all this discussion All this discussion about innovation is really about – it’s about mindset.

This the second part of a two-part interview with Steve Vamos. You can read part one here.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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