By Dr Barry McGookin

There’s no doubt about it, innovation is the word of the moment. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has firmly put innovation on Australia’s agenda for future prosperity and has committed billions across all industries as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda. But if you’re one of the many business owners or company workers who thinks ‘innovation’ sounds great in theory, but you have no idea how to put it into practice, you’re not alone.

Many people think of innovation only as developing a new product, or inventing something new, which for the food industry takes time, considerable investment in research and testing, and is risky. After all, you could spend years developing a new product only to put it to market and no one buy it. It’s money and time down the drain.

But that is only one way of looking at innovation. Instead here are four things you can do to bring valuable innovative thought to your meeting table.

1. Stick to what you know

Don’t get bogged down in the idea that you have to think of the next big idea. It can limit the creative juices in your head and put undue pressure on your work performance.

Instead, look at the products your company currently produces and how they can be improved. Consumers can see the value in a product almost immediately and often make a snap judgment on whether or not they need it. Take that value and add to it. That could mean a different marketing strategy, product application or new packaging, each of which can be faster to market than a traditional product development approach.

For examples of Australian food manufacturers who have successfully innovated what they know, register now for my talk at the Asia Australia Food Innovations Conference in March 2016. 

2. Work with your competitors

Your competitors have more in common with you than any other business, so investigate ways you can work together to achieve common goals. See how they’re positioning products as an option to finding new approaches or areas for innovation investment.

In our increasingly competitive and connected industry, a company can no longer expect to succeed by only looking to its immediate partners in the value chain. Working collectively to achieve a common goal, whether that be a change in price point, or a new labeling or food standard, will get more done in a shorter space of time than you can hope to achieve on your own.

Our nation’s farmers are a good example of an industry able to come together to improve their buying position with examples of collaborative power in pineapples and cherries. While joining competitors can come with risks, for many small to medium companies the benefits can often outweigh the negatives.

3. Listen to the researchers

Australia has the lowest level of industry-research collaboration in the OECD. Far too often our researchers, who are some of the world’s best, discover something new and groundbreaking, or develop a new product or process but our companies don’t have a good history of commercialising them. 

Since the government’s push on innovation, this is starting to change. At Food Innovation Australia (FIAL), the Industry Growth Centre for the food and agribusiness industry, we have seen more and more companies willing to investigate different ways to innovate. Using the latest research, consumer insights and technology can help your company meaningfully innovate, but knowing these things exist and who to talk to about them is half the challenge. 

A little bit of research, and talking to the right people, can go a long way.

4. Take advantage of the industry

If you’re in the food industry, you have the luxury of countless industry organisations such as the Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology (AIFST) and CSIRO who provide opportunities for you to learn about the latest developments, insights, and technology in the industry.

The Asia Australia Food Innovations Conference being held from 17-18 March 2016, is a good example of the types of opportunities you should take to network, collaborate and learn.

With more than 30 years in the food manufacturing industry, I’ve worked on a really wide range of new products and new businesses (some successes and some not) and I’ll be presenting more on the approaches I’ve learnt to innovative thinking that could be options to support value through the supply chain.