‘Smashing traditional thinking’ at YPO’s inaugural Australian event


The fourth industrial revolution, enabled by the extraordinary technological advances of our times, is fundamentally changing how organisations operate and people connect. To ensure its members develop the new skills needed to lead through the next wave of digital disruption, YPO (Young Presidents' Organization) partnered with AGSM @ UNSW Business School to host YPO’s first major workshop event outside its Harvard and London School of Business programs.


As the world’s largest network of business leaders, YPO members are dealing with the number one business challenge today: the pace of change. AGSM academics and industry leaders shared new thinking and frameworks with over 130 delegates during an intensive day of keynote presentations and workshops.

Opportunities for growth during ‘secular stagnation’

In the day’s first keynote, Professor Richard Holden clarified the big picture facing our global economies. “The GDP speed limit in advanced economies is going down: the new normal is now 2- or even 1-point-something.”

Monetary policy will continue to respond by cutting interest rates to almost zero, while aggressive fiscal policy will see further social and physical infrastructure spend. Holden believes the challenge is to get more capital flowing to start-ups and small business sectors. “We need to think about our financial infrastructure as well,” he said.

Disruption is at your doorstep: how will you transform?

An expert panel shared their own experiences of digital transformation. According to AGSM Executive-in-Residence and former Facebook Australia and New Zealand CEO Stephen Scheeler, “the most innovative companies in the world were never trying to build a company, they were trying to solve a problem. We need to smash the traditional thinking.”

WiseTech Global Chief Growth Officer, Gail Williamson, is working at the forefront of that problem-solving approach by reinventing the global supply chain. She says business leaders shouldn’t rely only on a separate innovation hub to disrupt. “Don’t hide technical and digital processes off in an innovation hub or BPO,” she said. “It has to be seeded across your organisation and aligned with culture to support the way you work and scale a business rapidly.”

Professor Jennie Granger described her experience of taking a true incumbent, HM Treasury in the UK, through the three stages of transformation, from automation efficiency through collaboration tools to data exploitation. “The combination of people and technology is the winner here,” she said, reflecting on the important insights only human expertise can bring.

Oliver Wyman partner and head of Digital, Philippe Konfino also focused on the role people play; “most of the time technology can already go further than we can imagine and is no longer the inhibitor for digital change. It’s the impact on people and people’s cognitive habits around process, risk and focus that holds it back – and that’s why digital transformations fail.”

That’s why successful leaders spend more time on people and culture than anything else. “Because when everyone has AI and cloud, everything else is commoditised,” noted Scheeler.

New ways of understanding our world

The advent of robotics, autonomous machines, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence is changing the way we do business – and these breakthroughs underpin the fourth industrial revolution.

During a fascinating discussion led by UNSW Chancellor David Gonski, delegates heard just how much faster technological change is about to become – and Australia is at the forefront of the quantum computing race.

According to Professor Michelle Simmons, “humanity has got to a point where it has made new tools with exquisite precision that allows us to see the world at a length scale that we have never seen before – we can now build electronic computing devices in the atomic or quantum realm.” She is pioneering atomic-scale devices and is working towards a massive transformation in computing power. And while Professor Toby Walsh urged some caution around the “hype of AI”, he said “even if we made no more technology progress, but implemented what we can do today more widely, we’d have so much economic advantage.”

“The biggest risk is not that machines will become so smart they’ll match or exceed humans. It’s that we’ll give machines responsibility for which they’re not ready,” he emphasised.

Attendees also heard from Dan Pronk, Former Special Operations Regimental Medical Officer, on how the SAS can respond in complex situations using adaptive leadership capabilities, and spent the afternoon debating strategic case studies with AGSM Fellow Patrick Sharry.

YPO Learning Officer and CEO of Plasson Australia, Joshua Kirton, says he values the support YPO provides for leaders. “It can be lonely at the top,” he said. “As well as events like this, we can share our problems in our forums’ non-judgemental, supportive environment. It’s like having your own personal board.”

Kirton brought three team members with him to expose them to new ways of thinking and says the importance of adaptive leadership and the complexity of the current environment really stood out.

James Stevens, a YPO Gold member and founder of Mr Roses, says he hopes this becomes a regular event that will also attract YPO’s ASEAN chapters to Sydney.

“You need to be more agile and adaptable today. I remember hearing at an event in 1998 that ‘if you’re not on the internet, you won’t have a business in the next decade’, and that stuck with me.

Now, if you’re not keeping up with or introducing new technology, your business will suffer.”

With so many thought-provoking, real-world insights from the event, there’s no doubt many more business leaders will be re-thinking their approach in the face of the fourth industrial revolution.

Stay one step ahead of the pace of change

YPO’s Australia and New Zealand chapter has over 1,000 members, and offers access to a powerful global executive network, unparalleled programs and peer support. To learn more, visit ypo.org.

AGSM @ UNSW Business School consistently ranks amongst the best in the world for executive education, and its short courses equip leaders to realise new opportunities in times of change and an interconnected world. Learn more at agsm.edu.au.