Meet our new leaders: Danny De Schutter, GM Innovation
Danny De Schutter understands that true innovation is not just about shiny new methods or technologies. Like the sourdough bread he turns out in his spare time it’s about getting the right ingredients and the right conditions - an organic process that, if you get it right, provides plenty of lift.
We sat down with ThinkPlace’s new GM of Innovation to get a feel for his new role, the team he leads and the challenges they are rising to meet.
Hear from the rest of our leadership team: Sarah Patterson; Sarah Martin; Dane Galpin and Sky May.
TP: You are one of five newly appointed GMs at ThinkPlace. What does that mean for the company and its trusted allies?
DD: I've worked for various sized companies, from multinational to boutique. There is a threshold size they all get to where continued growth requires new governance structures. We’ve created the General Manager functions to make sure ThinkPlace has the right structure in place for its next phase. It injects a burst of new energy and ideas into the day-to-day running of our core services while allowing the partners to focus on new ventures and high-level consulting, as well as their Australian and international board roles.
The core DNA of ThinkPlace, our ability to collaborate, to design with and for people, to unlock creativity and innovation within organisations, will not change. But we are moving into a new phase now and it’s right that we form teams and leadership around some of our most compelling capabilities and services (while still preserving our ability to work across different areas and to create new products and services that meet clients’ changing needs).
TP: What is the team you’ll be leading?
DD: I’m heading up our Innovation team. It’s a word you hear thrown around a lot: Innovation. For us it’s all about value creation. When we talk about innovation we talk about positive change at meaningful scale in areas that really matter. We connect people and organisations to design and amplify systemic change for a fairer, better, more sustainable world.
TP: Those are some big goals but how do you pursue them? What kind of services or approaches are being bundled together here?
DD: This team is centred around our Innovation Amplify methodology, which is an innovation system that combines methods, tools and mindsets in a facilitated approach that you can’t get anywhere else. That core service is complemented by deep research, agile change implementation and impact evaluation, and clever visualisation of information. When you add all those things up, it’s a pretty powerful and versatile offering.
TP: How is it different to what is available elsewhere in the market?
DD: The combination of skills we bring is unique. Others tend to focus on a specific element of what is needed. For example networks that connect and share info, or ideation labs, or those who write reports. Innovation Amplified begins with convening power -- we understand how to identify and assemble the people and organisations you’ll need to gather around you if you want to drive system-level change. And once we get everybody together, we know how to establish shared intent and equip you with the tools to make something new together.
TP: What do you bring to this position?
DD: I am a bit of a masochist in that I’m attracted by big complex problems and wanting to tackle them. These include transforming our energy and water systems, becoming more resilient against the disasters caused by climate change.
Convening people and organisations, connecting them and amplifying the good work that flows from that is what makes me happy. I got a really good taste of this during my time at ARENA where I was lucky enough to play a pivotal role in helping advance the adoption of renewable energy technology in Australia.
TP: How are you reaching out to clients at this time? What do you want them to know?
DD: Clients are everything in this business and we have some great ones. But I want to expand that even further, of course. Why? Because new clients, in new sectors and organisations means we can have more positive impact (for us, for them and and most importantly, for the world).
I’ve learned through the years that the most interesting work comes through your networks, not via open tenders. Even with the current restrictions, I’ve found that many people are even more open to have a chat about what is going on in their world. If you are reading this and you are facing a challenge you don’t quite know how to address, then let’s talk!
When I think about the big issues that face us as humans, virtually none of them can be solved by one leader or one organisation -- the real challenge is to build coalitions for change and equip them to succeed - Danny De Schutter, GM of Innovation
TP: What are the big challenges when it comes to leading structured innovation processes right now?
DD: The main challenge is to find the right partners to work with. It’s great if there is some budget on the table of course, but more importantly they have to be aligned in the vision that we can have far larger impact together than alone.
There is no shortage of goodwill on most of the challenges that matter. And often no shortage of resources. But we see different organisations working on the same issues, while knowing very little about each other. Not only are they not incentivised to collaborate they may even be competing (for resources, reputation or something else). A lot of upfront work is needed to get the right people at the table before you can even have a conversation about amplifying the impact of what they are doing.
We’d love to work some more with organisations who can help cut through and sponsor high-level collaboration, like many of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) or industry membership organisations, as well as government agencies such as the various disaster resilience and recovery agencies.
TP: What are the big challenges of this moment for public, private and NGO sector leaders in Australia?
DD: We’ve had quite a year, being battered by bushfires, droughts, floods, and a global pandemic. It leads to many policies being announced and perhaps started. The stakes are high and failure can be catastrophic. Timelines are crunched, changemakers are expected to come up with interventions and implement them at warp speed.
That makes it really hard for leaders to rise to the moment and drive impact. Innovation Amplified provides a roadmap for how to get cut-through change on the challenges that matter. How to do it relatively quickly but in such a way that you bring the right people along for the ride and reduce the risk of a poor design that fails when dropped into the ‘real world’. When I think about the big issues that face us as humans, virtually none of them can be solved by one leader or one organisation -- the real challenge is to build coalitions for change and equip them to succeed.
TP: What are the particular strengths of your team? What’s a project you’re proud of where they showed these strengths?
DD: There’s a huge diversity of skills and experience. For example, in our work in W-Lab, an innovation lab for water utilities in Australia and New Zealand: we’ve combined our research skills to find out what really mattered to utilities and what drives change in their sector; we used our design skills to craft an innovation lab that got all the members excited, and when Covid struck we used our digital savvy to convert the various events into an online experience that all participants raved about.
TP: Complete this sentence: Collaborating with ThinkPlace designers is different because…
DD: We all have a can-do attitude. There is such a great belief in the team that we can make positive change in the world.
TP: Tell us three surprising things about yourself.
DD: Hailing from Belgium I’ve worked in many European countries of course, but also worked in Canada, Bangladesh, Thailand, Singapore and Qatar for extended periods of time.
While I’m known as a keen advocate for renewables, since the ACT has 100% renewables I haven’t felt the need yet to install solar on my roof. Instead, one of our cars is electric to further lower our carbon footprint.
I love trying out new things, and got into making sourdough bread and kombucha well before the recent pandemic (before everybody else got into it - I am an innovation specialist after all!)
TP: If you weren’t a ThinkPlace GM what would you love to be doing?
DD: I’ve always enjoyed running my own business and have a few start-ups under my belt. I once had a furniture business, and if I really had to choose something different I’d probably go back to that again.
TP: Tell us about a moment when you saw first-hand the impact that great design can make.
DD: The energy market commission is about to release a rule change allowing companies to adjust their electricity demand to the available supply, and be compensated for that. It’s been something that’s been requested for nearly a decade now, but it was hard to convince all stakeholders of the benefits of this.
Through A-Lab, an innovation lab I designed with ThinkPlace while I worked at ARENA, we’ve been able to run experiments and trials to demonstrate the value of this scheme. Something that seemed intractable finally became possible. It’s a small example, but it means that our electricity system will be able to take more and more renewable energy. Renewable energy can be variable, but if large consumers can adjust their electricity use it means we have to install less storage, or greenhouse gas emitting power plants.