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Interview with Susie Jones, SA Water

Posted 2 years ago

This month we spoke to Susie Jones, Innovation Manager at SA Water. Susie shared her unconventional way into innovation through change management, unpacked how she makes the most of every day to set herself up for success and explained some of the key attributes to being an effective leader of innovation.

Can you tell us a little about your current role, and what you do?

As the Innovation Manager for SA Water, my team and I develop and deliver a range of integrated processes and tools that enable and grow our organisation’s innovation capabilities. This includes driving innovation activity, as well as supporting leaders to create a culture that fosters innovation.

What’s your background, and how has innovation featured throughout your career?

I didn’t consider myself “innovative” until a few years ago when a colleague pointed out to me that the way I approach things and how I collaborate, are at the core of innovation. I started my career at British Telecom as an operational manager then transitioned into change management by chance when a colleague went on maternity leave, and I was asked to take on her role. So, I guess I ‘fell into’ change management! I hit my groove when I understood what change management was and found I loved enabling others to be successful in what they were trying to achieve.

I came to Australia 11 years ago and joined SA Heath managing GIS, reporting, database, and hospital collection teams (change management wasn’t on the immigration skills list at the time!). I then joined SA Water six and a half years ago to lead operational change management to transition our field teams from paper-based work orders to digital mobile solutions. During this time, I also set up my executive coaching side hustle ‘the coaching magpie’. It was two years ago, after taking a leap of faith to cover the role of an Innovation Manager, I realised that innovation management is 80 per cent change management. I also realised that in the same way change management is all about people, so is fostering and growing a culture of innovation. I love what I do and know that change, coaching, improvement, and innovation will always be part of what I do.

What time do you get up in the morning? Do you have a regular morning routine? How does that set you up for success each day?

I am an early bird. My alarm goes off at six o’clock every morning (weekdays, and weekends). I’m up and out of bed pretty quick as I like to make the most of every day. The first thing I do is make my bed and then some sort of stretching, either a 30-minute YouTube yoga or a quick five minutes of basic stretching before heading out with my kelpie Millie for a hike. Success is about consistency, and resilience is built when you are feeling good, not drained, so I think getting up early consistently and being active every day is part of that for me.

Success is about consistency, and resilience is built when you are feeling good, not drained, so I think getting up early consistently and being active every day is part of that for me.


What is your approach when a creative project gets stuck or delayed? How do you get back on track?

I realised early into my leadership career that if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. For me, it’s the same with creativity. If I am getting stuck, I know I need to bounce thoughts and ideas with others and riff off the interaction. I’m fortunate to have four close colleagues in the SA Water innovation team and we have a great tribe vibe! I know at any point I can reach out to any or all of them, start sharing, and as they engage and throw in their thoughts and concepts, new ideas spark for me and I can move forward – it’s great. Five heads are better than one!

In your opinion, what leadership traits or skills best enable innovation to flourish?

Innovation can’t thrive unless leaders create an environment that supports and encourages innovative thinking and actions. I believe there are 12 key attributes to being an effective leader of innovation, including:

  1. Recognise formally and informally when your team try new things and are innovative. Recognise and celebrate both effort and achievement.
  2. Collaborate, debate and encourage a wide range of views to look for better ways. Make it clear it’s okay to challenge your ideas, that it’s not your way or the highway.
  3. Have a growth mindset and enjoy learning new things. Be curious, explore multiple possibilities. Know and believe you always have more to learn, and that we are all learners for life.

Be curious, explore multiple possibilities. Know and believe you always have more to learn, and that we are all learners for life.

Have you read any great books lately? If so, what was the book, and what was your main takeaway?
I love books and I’m always keen to hear recommendations. I recently inhaled ‘Getting to Yes’ by Roger Fisher and William Ury. I’d heard it mentioned on Simon Sinek’s podcast ‘A bit of optimism’ and I’m so glad I did. My main takeaway was that good negotiation, where both parties walk away feeling they got a fair deal with most of their interests met, happens when discussions are based on principled negation, not positional. The insights and techniques offered around how to know what your interests are, how to articulate what your value is, and also knowing what your BATNA is (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) were an eye-opener. I’d recommend it to anyone, especially if you are going for a new job. It will give you the tools you need to negotiate a fair salary and conditions, rather than just accepting what the company offer you.

Tell us about a project you were involved in that ‘failed’. What did you learn?
I’m going to go full Brené Brown and be vulnerable and say my marriage. It was a ‘project’ we worked on for 17 years, but in hindsight we didn’t do very many progress check-ins, agile stand-ups or regular project update or stakeholder meetings. I learnt a lot about feeling like a failure and feeling like I “should have done better”, considering I do change management, coaching and engaging communication as a career. I also learnt that when you ask for a little help, you get a whole lot of empathy and authentic support in return. It’s okay to get things wrong, and it’s much better to be open and ask for support, rather than try and go it alone.
Innovation is all about trying, failing, learning, and trying again. I’m pleased to say that two years on, my ex-husband and I are now good friends because we innovated and saw we could do things differently. Out of something that could be considered a ‘failed marriage’, I have become a more authentic and empathic leader and all-round better, and happier human for it. We are all lifelong learners, in all spheres of our lives, and now I embrace that.

What start-up, research or new technology are you excited about right now?
I am excited about the start-up landscape here in South Australia and how we can harness these to improve services for customers, particularly with the development of Lot Fourteen. At SA Water, we want to further increase proactive avoidance or mitigation of known and unknown faults using things like IoT monitoring and sophisticated analytics. As part of our smart networks program, new acoustic sensors (e.g., hydrophones) have been deployed on previously unmonitored infrastructure such as trunk and rising mains. The expertise in acoustic feature science and machine learning by some start-ups represents an opportunity for collaboration with our asset management innovation specialists to identify the features in our new data streams and develop new analytics solutions. Proactive monitoring leads to planned proactive repairs which will reduce costs and reduce customer service interruptions. That’s exciting!

What is your biggest challenge currently? 
My biggest challenge is continuing to uplift the innovation capability at SA Water while still focusing on time management. I’d love to have everything done now, so our people and our leaders and our customers can benefit immediately. We have some awesome activities in the pipeline that will get done, but it takes time. Everyone is excited about innovation and wants to be involved, so it can be tricky at times to meet everyone’s needs and wants swiftly. It’s a great challenge to have!

What behaviour or habit has most improved your life?
Not looking at work emails on my phone after hours. I have learnt how important it is to put your ‘real life’ first, not work. Work is important, but there is no value in stressing about spending three extra hours trying to get that report done on Saturday that landed in your inbox on Friday. I remind myself and my team regularly that we’ll never finish that to-do list. You should make time to get your surfboard out, head to that winery with your friends, or get that board game out and play with your kids. There will always be more work, so prioritise your real life.

There will always be more work, so prioritise your real life.


How do you stay up to date on industry trends and news?
I am signed up for a few newsletters that I find useful – Invenitum’s is great, also Northumbrian Water’s newsletter plus various podcasts and LinkedIn articles. In working at SA Water, I am fortunate to be part of the Water Services Association of Australia, so get great access to what’s happening in the water sector in innovation through their W-Lab program.

What two things do you hope to accomplish over the next twelve months?
Personally, I want to improve my ‘pop up’ so I don’t drag my knee on my surfboard as I catch a wave (I took up surfing two years ago, I’m not great at it, and love it).

Professionally, I want to implement an innovation management training academy. I want to normalise spending on innovation as part of business-as-usual business activity, so it is not considered an extra and that our people know there is time and resources to try new ways to make things better. Innovation is all about people, so if I can support more people to see that they are innovative and can make a difference, then I’m happy with that.

Where can we find you on social media?