It’s a modern day truism that in order to be successful, the IT department has to listen to the needs of stakeholders, whether it be employees or customers or the CEO.
But what about that old Henry Ford story, the one where he said if all he did was listen to customers he’d have built a faster horse? The famous anecdote reveals that true innovation relies on something other than what people want. To innovate, you have to understand people’s needs at a much more fundamental, visionary level, regardless of what they tell you.
In more ways than one, this was the key point of discussion during our recent IEF conference call: how do IT departments understand what is needed to be innovative? Bringing together tech leaders from Silicon Valley to St John’s, the web conference focused on two broad, insightful areas: What are the challenges slowing down innovation across businesses? And how can IT leaders step up and overcome those obstacles to build an innovation culture?
PART 1: What is killing innovation at your business?
Here is a snapshot of what IEF members said might be preventing other businesses from innovating.
Too much brainstorming: One IEF leader started the night with a discussion about how he regularly goes to his end-users to get their feedback on their current issues, as well as some “blue sky” brainstorming of what they wish was possible. While it is certainly a valuable way to get insight, his main focus is always what he can get done today. Another IEF member agreed, saying the approach really doesn’t help achieve innovation goals.
“Today, I am far less interested in the blue sky stuff, in brainstorming,” he said, arguing you can have a million great ideas, but without the proper foundation to innovate, you won’t get far. “What is actually needed is a process.”
Call it the blue sky effect, but there is a tendency for IT professionals to think big and dream, when in reality, innovation is much more of a process discussion, and not a big-ideas one.
Lack of execution: Similarly, another leader discussed a time he met one of the investors from the hit Canadian TV series Dragons Den [Shark Tank is the equivalent TV series in the United States]. The Dragon told him he gets thousands of pitches a year, but rarely sees someone who is actually executing. Sure, it’s fun to dream and come up with novel ways to fix your business and IT.
But if you aren’t executing, you aren’t fixing anything. IT pros know when to stop dreaming and finally start doing.
Scattered vision: So when you finally decide to act, what do you act on? “Companies that innovate well, don’t do it randomly,” said one IEF member. “They have a process.” He went on to discuss big players such as GE who have a proven methodology in place that helps them curate good ideas, focus on the ones that make the most impact, and move forward.
A company without a process or vision, has no focus, and therefore everything becomes fair play. And we all know what happens when you try to do everything: nothing. “In my last company, the CEO was visionary, so visionary we named him popcorn,” explained another. “He had one idea, then another, then another. There was no sustained effort to do anything.”
Constant crisis: another IEF member lamented his organization is in constant crisis mode, putting out one fire just to see the smoke build from another.
It’s not that all crises are bad. In fact, another IEF member on the call who works in the energy industry, said the oil crisis is what has given his IT department its most progressive mandate ever. (“We never waste a good crisis, he said.”)
It’s just that if you are constantly working on the immediate issues, you are never preparing your business for what comes next, or producing a competitive edge that will help your company differentiate.
Status quos: While our IT leaders in the education market always provide ample evidence of being cutting-edge, one CIO of a schoolboard said his industry is one of the most challenging to change. The reason is simple: status quo and the fear of change.
He says parents, teachers and students are all used to a model of education that is over a hundred years old. Try to change it, and the alarm bells start to ring. This engrained sense of “this is how we do things” is a sure killer of many innovation projects that never get past the politics and fears of the day.
PART 2: Want to really innovate? Here’s how
What the problems all seem to have in common should be clear to any IT leader with a business that truly innovates. They are all symptoms of a business that thinks of innovation purely in terms of “what” it is, versus “how” you accomplish it, and “why”. And that’s exactly why when the IEF leaders shared their strategies for how they push innovation forward, vision and culture were the two most common ideas.
Building a Culture:
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” These were the words that one CIO shared with the IEF. He was discussing how most companies who fail to innovate, simply do not have the right culture or processes in place. It has nothing to do with not being innovative at heart, but rather a lack of a company-wide focus on getting it right.
He pointed out that in his own company, a construction firm, individual projects are measured, step by step, by a project manager. This helps define goals, understand progress and measure success. “But if innovation is so important to us, why weren’t we bringing those same structures to it that we do for our projects?” And because of this lack of vision, employees started to feel like the company really wasn’t innovative, even though it had built its brand on a promise of being ahead of the curve. It was an eye opener.
That insight set the stage for the company to start building a culture of innovation, he said. This included creating a stand alone “innovation group,” given a mandate from the senior level to define a vision, prioritize projects and measure success. But, he warned, don’t expect an overnight success. “Building a culture is tough, and takes years.”
Start with Why:
Another leader quoted Simon Sinek when discussing how his organization has created its own culture of innovation. “Instead of focusing on what innovation is, we set out to define “why?” first,” he said.
Sinek is renowned for his work Start With Why, a primer on how successful brands and individuals inspire change. In it, he argues too many businesses are focused on the nuts and bolts of what they do, but few can explain how they do it, and even fewer know why. But, innovators such as Apple flip the script. They don’t start with “we are a computer company,” they start with “we are going to do things differently and make lives easier.” The result has been years of innovation that span devices and industries, all of which naturally fits into their vision, and purpose.
In terms of your organization, the IEF leader broke it down in this way. You ask yourself: “Why are we here, what are we trying to accomplish?” For his business, the education market, their Why is to transform the way people learn.
From there, it was easy to define the “How” – these are the strategies that get them closer to achieving that vision. “We focus on strategies, on improving access with better networks, on building better infrastructure, to help teachers do their job.” And lastly, the “What” – these are the actionable steps in a roadmap, the initiatives his team can plan and measure. While it seems simple, if you look at all the challenges outlined above in Part 1, you will notice many of them are directly related to leaders thinking in terms of “what they can do,” instead of “why” they do what they do, and then how.
If you have never seen Sinek’s Ted Talk, watch it now.
The Power of Focus
Once you have your vision, your processes, and your culture in place, the rest follows naturally, say the IEF members. One of the biggest benefits of these structures is that they give you a “lens,” a way to filter out the multitude of hot ideas and aspirations, and focus on the projects that will truly change your business for the best.
“When the organization isn’t clear about where we are going, anything is fair game,” said one IEF member, underlining the point. “When you know what you want, it’s a decision making tool that everyone understands and can respect.”
Aside from simply giving you the power to focus on the most innovative projects, it also helps getting the support and respect from the rest of the business. If the process and culture is clear to everyone, then the way big projects get prioritized, and others put on the back burner, will be less of a political fiasco.
As we said above, none of the leaders said that getting to this point will be easy. To close off the call, a few strategies were shared that might help struggling IT executives build up their innovation culture and vision. One was that you need senior leadership to back you 100%. The CIO who said he set up a dedicated “innovation team,”
implored that it was only possible with the complete buy in of top level executives.
Another suggestion was that you should start small. Instead of taking on the most ambitious projects first, innovators understand the power of small, incremental improvements. Once you have your filter to help guide your moves, you can start to pick off the easy wins first. One leader, the technology leader at a national airline, said his team made a tweak to an online interface, and created a market-first differentiator in the process. “It took almost no work, but the payoff was huge,” he said. Find these easy wins and use them to bolster your work as you strive to create a culture of innovation.
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