AMP Innovation Festival – interview with organiser

In this current climate, companies that double down on innovation and invest in R&D can expect to do well when the cycle changes.  There’s plenty of literature around that supports this, and I’ve been interested to spot companies that are taking the message to heart.

In Australia, one of the largest financial services companies – AMP – is continuing to run it’s fantastic Innovation and Thought Leadership Festival called AMPLIFY.  Of course it’s not just fantastic because I was one of the headline speakers last time it ran in ’07  – if anything it was fantastic despite me being a headline speaker.

Catalyst for Magic

Annalie Killian is the organiser of the bi-annual event, and manages to pull in a mind-expanding array of speakers from around the world.  When you look at the festival website you have to keep reminding yourself that this is an internal event, aimed at inspiring and provoking employees from across the entire organisation.

If it was a public event it would easily justify having a few zeros tacked onto the end of the ticket price.

The event appears to be quite unique in the corporate world, and sends very clear signals about what AMP is about, and the core values that will underpin it’s growth. I was curious to know more about the event being staged in the middle of The Great Recession, and fired three questions at Annalie:

This is the third innovation festival you have organised – what have you learnt from the first two?

Be bold, trust your instincts but keep your nearest and dearest colleagues as a sounding board. We are a very collaborative and supportive team and I know that my team colleagues will support me when I want to push the envelope- but they will also not let me stray that far that I fall off the edge!

Being a bit of a maverick is a delicate balancing act and having supportive and trusted colleagues is key to surviving and thriving.

Create an event for both the Heart and the Mind! In corporations, there is an over-emphasis on the mind at the expense of the heart and aesthetics. When you touch people emotionally – be that by creating joy, humour, laughter, wonder….it goes a lot further than logic and deductive reasoning in terms of lasting cultural impact. (This is a tip I have learnt from the amazing Andrew Zolli- Curator and producer of Poptech)

The festival is interesting in many ways, not least of which is the fact that anyone in the organisation can attend, not just senior management. How does this benefit the organisation?

This is what sets AMPLIFY and AMP apart – it’s an inversion of the usual organisation development model where the more senior you are, the more exposure you get to the world’s leading thinkers by attending global events or expensive business school courses- and the less the lower you are in rank and seniority.

These learning exchanges are valuable for the personal development of those individuals, but they seldom come back able to transform the organisation they’ve returned to after a few days of a “Damascus experience”.

If you can give a substantial number of your employees exposure to the very same thought leaders and thinkers in a concentrated dosage, you create an organisational tipping point much quicker and  can actually accelerate the pace of cultural change, idea adoption and implementation. It also goes a lot further a lot quicker in creating a learning organisation.

As a consequence of past Festivals, I now have employees spontaneously sharing with me (and others) articles they have discovered, introductions to talent and or interesting thought leaders-  behaviour that I just didn’t experience before.  It may sound bizarre- but it’s as if the free access to any dimension of the Festival offerings gives people a permission to dare and to dream and to think big.

We also hear stories of the AMP Innovation Festival repeated to us in hiring interviews by candidates who have heard about it and liked what they heard. They cite the company’s investment in an innovation culture as one of the reasons why they want to work for AMP- so it clearly has a talent retention and attraction benefit for the organisation.

The same goes for employee engagement. We have steadily seen an improvement in our employee engagement score over the past 9 years- and whilst the Innovation Festivals are not singularly responsible for that- its the convergence of many leadership initiatives- it plays its part in what people believe is possible to achieve personally and collectively in the organisation.

You’ve made the event open to non-AMP staff also.  What was behind this gesture, and what sort of response have you had?

Because of the quality of the event we create and top notch speaker line-up, people outside AMP hear about it and request if they too can attend.  In the past, we have had a small number of guests at management discretion, but this demand has grown so much that we thought it best to manage it by way of offering a small number of Festival tickets at roughly the market rate of the average conference.  AMP makes no money from this it goes a small way to offsetting the cost of speaker expenses and production costs.

Some of the folks who have requested to buy a Festival pass say its like a TED Downunder. That’s a lovely compliment but its not far from the mark albeit on a much smaller scale. Conferences like TED, POPTECH and Business Innovation Factory are what we benchmark against, but we don’t have the venue overheads because everything is held on site by turning our corporate offices into a learning campus for the Festival.

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