How Australia stifles innovation by its desire for consensus

| December 2, 2015

With a culture that values consensus above all else Australia is a cosy place to live, but it can be toxic for creativity, a close cousin of innovation. Join Graham Thorburn on the search for clues to what is needed to make Australia a truly innovative society.

Following the ascendancy of Malcolm Turnbull to the PM’s office, innovation is the word du jour. Apparently it’s time again. Time for Australia to move on to a brave new world of invention – exploiting our intelligence, training and inventiveness rather than getting wealthy on the back of digging stuff up and shipping it out.

Like the tiny mammals that scurried around the feet of the dinosaurs and eventually outlived them, Australia is to become a lean mean innovation economy of value-adding creativity so we can sustain our enviable standard of living. But is this just a matter of adjusting a few settings and fixing an input or two, or is the change required deeper than that?

Fifteen years ago I wrote a widely quoted article for The Australian media section that argued that successful Australian TV drama was always about the group rather than the individual – and that, if I was right, it probably said something substantial about who we are. It’s still basically true. We still don’t make successful shows about individuals. We don’t even give shows the name of the central character. The central journey of every successful Australian drama is still the return to consensus, where individuality must be either absorbed into the group or rejected.

Unlike surveys and opinion pieces as a measure of who we really are, the ratings don’t lie.

We might like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, but shaped by a landscape that required stoic endurance rather than exuberant exploration; that demanded co-dependence for survival; and that punished its explorers and outliers; we actually live in a culture that values consensus above all else. No rocking the boat in Australia! Other nations celebrate their explorer’s triumphant discoveries; we morbidly wallow in the lessons of our fatal failures.

This desire for consensus makes Australia a very cosy place to live, but it can be toxic for creativity. At its core, every piece of true creativity is ultimately an act of defiant rebellion. What’s worse, it’s wrong at least as often as it’s right, but can’t be evaluated until after it has been born. In a conformist society, despite the personal joy of creation, true creativity is often intensely lonely. You need a skin as thick as a rhinoceros.

‘Officially endorsed creativity’ is a contradiction in terms, like trying to manage your teenager’s necessary and inevitable rebellion against you by being their best friend. Innovation and creativity are not exactly the same, but they are close cousins (as I will argue in my next blog). And though both depend on ploughing the ground and planting the seed, neither can be rushed. ‘What we need to do is work harder and longer’ doesn’t cut it.

It’s often said that in Israel, one of the most successfully innovative countries in the world, any discussion contains twice as many opinions as there are participants. And this is not just standing on opposite sides of a fence shouting slogans at each other, but full-blooded face-to-face engagement. After which you’re still friends. Conversely, the ubiquitous Australian upward inflection at the end of any sentence that might stray too far from the group’s views tells us that we can barely manage a creatively useful discourse with more than one and a half different opinions.

Fortunately, in my experience, almost every large institution is full of subterranean innovation – by workers and lower middle managers subverting and by-passing what they see as inefficient and unnecessary strictures from above. Maybe this is where we can find the clues to what is needed to make Australia a truly innovative society?



  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    December 4, 2015 at 12:53 am

    Disagreeing to disagree

    Thank you Graham. I rise to 'debait' because it's a rare thing to so completely agree. There'll be plenty of reads but I expect few comments on your blog, perhaps for reasons you have so eloquently exposed. We do elevate our sports heroes to individual glory but then we expect them to deflect this to the team or at least somebody else. Woe-betide anyone who attempts to rise above this pretence at mediocrity. After more than 4 decades at the coalface, it became clear to to me that excellence must wear a disguise so as not to outshine the (insecure) exalted ones. I think the brilliant achievements of extraordinary Australians are due greater credit for having done so much against the drag of the cringe. As you say, innovation and creativity are certainly close relatives but to flourish, both require fertile ground. To successfully prepare that ground and plant the right seed, certain prerequisites have to be present. Compared to more self-reliant cousins, the Australian habit of bemoaning government, yet demanding ever more of it, surely reveals a child too much blessed. I'm looking forward to your next blog.

    • Graham Thorburn

      Graham Thorburn

      December 9, 2015 at 5:11 am

      Next blog is up – one more to come

      And thanks for your comments. I had (perhaps foolishly) hoped to spark a conversation, if not a debate. As you pointed out, the lack of response perhaps proves my point. However, I am glad to see that there are some posts and some discussion that goes beyond the purely bureaucratic towards psychology and power relationships – otherwise the whole innovation thrust becomes another exercise setting up a bunch of rules and processes, so that people can validly claim that, having followed all the rules, no-one can be held responsible for lack of outcomes. As the script to Dangerous Liaisons put it – 'It is beyond my control.' Just before the tumbrels gathered up all the nobility.