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Vox Pop: IT for the People, by the People in Montreal

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on September 15, 2016

Part 1: Bottoms Up: Driving change with grassroots strategies

Fruitful relationships at the C-Level are crucial for IT leaders to drive change and innovation across the business. But there is often push back from the powers that be, who don’t see your technology vision in the same light as you. Sometimes you can address these issues head on – other times you need to take a less direct route.

As you will see, occasionally all it takes is a little pressure from below – a bottom-up approach – for CIO’s to create a more successful, fruitful working bond with the CEO’s, CFO’s and other C-Level executives in your business.

Not only will following these approaches get your credibility up across the boardroom, but it also makes sure you are pushing forward the most exciting, high-impact innovations to the business.

Below are three stories of this “bottom up” pressure in action.

Behind the Scenes: Embed your tech team with end-users

One Montreal-based entertainment giant, which puts on live shows for spectators across the planet, was eager to innovate. Fortunately, they had a CEO who was a visionary, says the global director of IT operations, who attended a past IEF meeting. He said the CEO firmly believed that innovation was needed to put on shows better, quicker and more efficiently.

Unfortunately, the same CEO was also regularly opposed to what he termed “IT projects.” For one reason or another, there was very little appetite to invest in large-scale technological solutions upfront, even if the IT leader argued they would bring value.

The solution was simple: he realized he was starting on the wrong side of things. Instead of starting at the top, the IT Director would send his own team out into the “field,” to learn first hand what the issues and obstacles facing real employees were.  He enlisted an architect and had him travel the world, learning from end-users, understanding the business pains and friction points intimately.

Only then did he go back to the C-Level with his plans. This time, though, armed with something far more valuable: validation. He tells them: “Look, this is what the business wants. This is where they want to go, this is their problems. What can we do about it?”

The results? So far, so good he said. The new approach has led to several small victories. “You don’t need to win everything at once,” he reminds us. What was once deemed an IT project, is now seen as a key priority for the business.

Healing Together: Medical clinics create cross-business initiatives

When the Senior IT leader of a network of healthcare clinics joined his company, he inherited a very old infrastructure. The portal running on it was essential for clinicians and staff members to get their jobs done – but replacing it was a daunting task.

In fact, previously, many IT initiatives were put in place to modernize the platform, but they all failed. One reason why, said the IT leader, is the way it was defined. Like the example above, the business saw this as an “IT project,” and therefore, didn’t give it any priority.

That’s the key way of thinking he knew he had to flip around.

“I said, ‘No, this isn’t an IT project. This is an organizational project.’”

With that, he set off to foster a cross-business committee, staffed with representatives from all parts of the organization, including business leadership, end-users (medical staff) and IT.

“We are half done already and doing great!” he said.

On top of this, the new direction has led to plans for IT to help roll out new, truly competitive initiatives, such as a patient-facing portal.

Shadow Innovation: Moving IT forward, invisibly

Insurance is one of the most risk-averse industries, especially when it comes to green-lighting “revolutionary” IT projects. Not only is leadership often timid to change, but the actual workers, the employees working day-to-day on selling the product, are seemingly allergic to it.

Which is why the IT Director at an international insurance firm decided to go with a new direction when it came time to modernizing the workforce and building a digital, mobile workforce. He did it without the users ever knowing.

Well, to be fair, it wasn’t invisible to all users. His strategy was to select a small group of advanced users, the ones who would already know about mobile access, and desktop anywhere solutions, the ones who wanted it the most. From there, he found the solution spread out organically.

It even came to a point where one or two users approached IT and asked to be able to access their work files at home. “You already have that,” was his clever response.

He says not only is this a great way to build grassroots support, but it also helps circumvent a budget-focused leadership.

“When you start top-down, they just want to see how much it costs,” he said. “But when you start from the bottom up, the value is obvious. At the end, we’re all satisfied.”

Part 2: Making mistakes like a pro

You might not think twice if the founder of a scrappy Silicon Valley start-up told you he or she embraces making mistakes and failing regularly.

But when the IT leader at a national bank says it, that’s news.

This was the case at the Montreal IEF, as IT peers around the table discussed recent mistakes they had learned from. When the banking executive had his turn, he said that not only is his organization open to making mistakes and failing when it comes to innovative projects – they actually celebrate them. Indeed, despite operating in one of the most risk-averse industries, the IT leader says his team warmly embraces failures, especially since they are valuable learning opportunities to improve.

They’ve even created a program, called the Mistake of the Month, where failures are memorialized, and the team members get together to discuss what went wrong and what could have been done better. It’s a cross-team learning experience he said has been

key in driving innovation throughout the company. It does, of course, have its limits:

“Well, if they make the same mistake two or three times, we might not celebrate it as much,” he dead-panned.

Aside from the Mistake of the Month, he later discussed a points system the team uses to give team members the freedom to make mistakes, think on their own, and work more independently. Each member starts with a certain number of points. However, if they make an error, such as when checking in code, a point is subtracted. The more points you have, the more “exciting,” and innovative projects you get to work on. The leader says it’s a way to keep employees in check and in control of their own destiny.

The payoff has been tremendous for the mistake-friendly organization. Not only have they cracked a self-regulating, safe way to let developers be more agile and innovative in the stuffy financial industry, but he says it has also been a huge attraction to young, fresh talent. Candidates who might not have thought banking was an innovative industry are now looking at this organization with excitement, knowing it’s a place where they can grow.

Part 3: Working Smarter: 7 Tips for IT Leaders

There’s no insight too small when it comes to finding more powerful ways to get your job done.

Whether you are aiming to generate buy-in at the top, attract new talent or boost adoption of a new solution across the business, you’ll find value in the advice shared by top IT leaders at the IEF in Montreal. In no particular order, here are seven ways IT leaders are working smarter, and operating at the highest levels of expertise in their trade.

1. Automate and conquer:

Automation is often talked about but rarely implemented to the full extent. Why this is the case is confounding, especially considering how easy it is to enact, and how effective it is as a strategy.

The IT leader of a business with locations across North America knows exactly what it feels like to be spread to thin. An organization with over 110 branch offices, he uses automation to allow his 35 person team to operate at exponential levels. Using automated admin and maintenance tasks, he says he saves well over 4,000 hours a year – the equivalent of more than three full-time employees. That gives him more time to focus on innovation, he says.

2. Educate and dominate

The same IT leader has another arrow in his quill: a big budget for employee education. His organization offers a “substantial” amount of support for workers wanting to grow their skill sets and learn new approaches to their trade.

Not only does it back up what he calls a culture of innovation, but it has been a useful tool in attracting next generation talent. He says when candidates see the size of the education budget at their disposal, they are always impressed.

3. The Blank Check experiment

What would you do if you had unlimited resources and absolute freedom to invest in a business project? Where would you place your bet if you had a blank check to finance the whole thing?

These are the questions another IT leader asks his team in order to stimulate a conversation around innovations and generate new ideas. The result has elicited a number of big and bold ideas – many of which his team has started to pursue.

4. Measure first, cutting-edge second

The old adage to measure twice, cut once means a great deal to one IEF member. He said there is something all IT leaders need to do before setting off on a path of innovation: you need to assemble cold hard facts.

“The first thing you need to do is measure how ready your company is to innovate,” he says. “We can do a lot of things, but if the company can’t absorb what we’re pushing, you won’t accomplish anything.” Similarly, setting KPI’s and understanding your objective goals are crucial to monitor and optimize any IT initiative.

5. Forget infrastructure, fast:

Speed is of the utmost importance, especially when you’re in a competitive industry such as media and entertainment. That’s why one IT leader in that field says he wholly embraces the cloud for its infrastructure and platform provisioning powers.

“In the past, operations folks would have to build it and it would take forever. Not anymore. The cloud has been a huge enabler for us,” he says. Another leader agreed, with the statement: “Hey let’s Amazon it!” which he uses when launching a new project.

6. Do your own thing (and nothing else)

In a similar vein, leveraging partners and third-party providers is just like using the cloud. It helps you ditch the repetitive, low-value tasks, as well as the time-consuming complex management and develop duties and lets you focus on what you know best: your business.

Another leader said he employed this philosophy when his team was planning to build a first-ever mobile application to serve their customers. They didn’t pour resources into upping the skills of their internal team. Instead, they moved quickly and efficiently by tapping outside experts, allowing them to focus on the business, and end-user needs, from start-to-finish.

7. Understand your limits:

We may want to solve all the problems, all the time. But this level of perfectionism is actually quite counter-productive, suggested two IT leaders.

The first explained that you need to learn to prioritize what you seek to solve, and accept the parts that will be less than perfect. If you can only achieve 80% of what is needed, make sure that the 20% of what you can’t solve is the lowest level priority, in other words. The second IT leader echoed this statement, saying his organization operates on a “good to go” basis. The sentiment reflects what is commonly seen as the agile, incremental approach of today’s fastest moving startups – and it’s just as powerful for today’s enterprise IT.

Conclusion

For today’s IT leaders, it takes smarts and tactics to push your initiatives through and drive innovation.

When the leadership won’t approve your projects, you can often find a way around by building support from the ground up. That helps turn the conversation away from a cost-control to business value.

You can also learn to embrace mistakes. Not just because they are the building blocks of innovation, but because it makes your business a more attractive stomping ground for today’s best and brightest young minds.

Finally, you must start to work smarter, and sharpen your tactics. You can automate, educate, prioritize, go to the cloud, or delegate. Or all of the above. Whatever combination of approaches you take, you’ll be getting closer to achieving your goals as a modern IT innovator.

Download the full report here.

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