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Getting your innovation priorities straight

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on August 9, 2017 by Erika Van Noort


IT leaders are positioned to transform their business and with that, create a ripple effect, that can change the world — but they can’t do it all on their own. Knowing when to focus, and on what, is crucial for any business hoping to succeed in its digital transformation. What follows are five big lessons gleaned from the executives and IT leaders who joined us in Vancouver, showing us how to prepare, prioritize and profit from the decisions we make in innovation, change management, security and diversity.

1. Three strategies to foster innovation

You can’t predict the future of your industry. But you can control how you will prepare and react when the tide of change arrives. IEF members shared three strategies to help businesses survive the churn of innovation.

Develop a sense of urgency.

Consider the executives at Blockbuster, sitting around a conference table ten years ago discussing Netflix. Who knows what they were thinking, but it certainly doesn’t seem they took the threat of streaming services seriously.

“Blockbuster kept saying ‘No, no it’s not coming, nothing is going to change,’” said an IT leader. “And sure enough it did.”

The same leader pointed to a contrasting example: Walmart and their proactive digital revolution. As major online retailers like Amazon have exploded in power in recent years, Walmart has done everything possible to stay competitive and meet their customers online.

At the table, the IT leader of a men’s clothing company said they are urgently working toward a home-delivery model to serve a growing consumer love for subscription services. Is there a similar threat to your industry?

Focus on your core.

Before you rush into new and uncharted territory, you better have a good idea about who your customers are and why they love you. Innovation is great for pushing your company into new worlds, but your energies will be wasted if you don’t first understand what your core value is, explained an IT leader.

She is the CIO of a popular food chain, and she said her company is very careful about choosing which technology innovations to pursue. If something is not core to their business, or their customers – like a fancy touch screen tablet at the table — they don’t waste time pursuing it.

Start from scratch.

What happens when the world has changed so drastically the product you create is no longer needed? You change your products, of course. This was the revelation of one paper manufacturer, whose IT leader joined us at the IEF dinner.

“We spent 15 years polishing an old apple in new ways,” he explained, discussing paper’s downfall in the Internet age, “but we now need to do something dramatically different. We need different products that work in dramatically different ways.”

This is an especially challenging issue for manufacturers, he explained, since they own so many heavy duty, expensive machines and capital assets. But where there is a will there is a way. His company has started using the old machines to create customized products, for new niche and emerging markets, as well as traditional markets they have ignored in the past.

Further Reading: The story behind Blockbuster’s failure to adapt

2. Why change management is key… and how to do it

Treat change management as a “nice to have” at your own peril, warned the members of the IEF. In fact, a few members argued that without the proper leadership, planning and training in place to support the adoption of your innovative projects, failure is guaranteed.

 If you don’t have a [change management] strategy already in place on launch day, you have already lost, said the IT leader from an educational institute.

Another agreed, arguing the change management lead is just as important as any project management lead or processes put in place to deliver the product.

Unfortunately, creating the right kind of change management strategies is easier said than done. But IEF members had lots of advice to share on how to do so effectively. The key, they suggested, is to make your change management approach reflect the actual needs and attitudes of your users.

One easy way to get there is to draw inspiration from ‘Design Thinking’ and agile development methods, where user feedback is used early and often when defining, designing and updating a solution. The IT leader of a city talked about getting out in the field to interview end-users about the pains and steps involved in manual processes, before his team attempted to improve things.

“Get out there early and find out how they do their job, find out all the pains they go through,” he said.

Another powerful approach to motivate end-users is to clearly define “what is in it for them,” the IEF members said. If you can tell them how a change benefits them, as well as your customers or the company, then they will have an easier time making the switch to new technologies. This clarity of purpose is extremely powerful — and can help overcome even the most painful transitions, explained one leader:

Change is painful. But irrelevance is much worse.

Get the word out

While it’s great to put in the hard work of focusing on people, don’t forget to market your findings and messages at the same time. Knowing a change is coming is often just as important as having that change be customized to your users, said one IEF member.

“The unknown is dangerous,” he said. “They might not like it, but if they can understand it, it’s OK.”

So, put together your focus groups, build your communication plans and identify vocal, early adopters to help bring your change to fruition. It’s the best way to give your project a fighting a chance at adoption!

See How Design Thinking principles can be used to drive innovation

3. Five ways to get more insight from your data

So much data… so little time, expertise and insight.

That’s a predicament familiar to nearly all IT leaders today, characterized by unfathomable data creation, and extremely limited tools and skills to extract insight from those nascent resources.

The good news is you don’t need a billion-dollar budget or an army of data scientists to make a difference. There are multiple low-hanging fruits, and practical strategies you can use to start pulling more insight and value from your data, today. Here are just a few of the ideas shared with us by the Vancouver IT leaders.

1. Open data to unlock unexpected, creative results.

One IT leader described a fascinating story of the power of open data. She works for a city in British Columbia and said the local leadership decided to let anyone access huge databases of information — with zero expectation for what would be done with it all.

“Cities have so much data,” she said, “We are not sure how it will be used, but it will be fascinating to see.”

A quick scan of Vancouver’s online repository of open data reveals a wide array of information from a variety of sources, including parking tickets, crime reports, and even an up-to-date inventory of the city’s trees! The potential this data offers is tremendous and sometimes surprising; other cities’ open-data initiatives have helped reduce traffic deaths, speed up construction projects, and fight air pollution, to name a few examples.

2. Find someone who will ask the right questions.

Whether you need a Chief of Data, or just somebody in charge of treating your data as a mystery in need of solving, businesses are starting to see the value in hiring someone to take the lead with data analysis.

“We have all the data, but we are not asking the right questions,” said one leader. “Do we need a Chief Data Officer to help?”

A few examples were shared that showed the power of having someone think outside the box regarding data. Walmart, for example, puts beer next to the diapers, showing a creative strategy pulled from gleaning and understanding the purchasing behaviours of dads coming in late at night to pick up Pampers in an emergency.

Similarly, when your local hockey team is in the playoffs, food retailers would love to know which pubs will sell more chicken wings, another IT leader suggested. Asking the right questions of your data can reveal this simple solution.

3. Leverage Artificial Intelligence.

Let’s say you can’t afford to hire someone full time to analyze and draw insight from your data. Maybe you can get a robot to do it instead?

This was the suggestion from one IEF leader, who said advances with artificial intelligence, and increased affordability of SaaS solutions — such as IBM’s Watson — is making this approach increasingly viable for businesses of all sizes.

“It’s incredible what Watson can do, and now that it’s SaaS, anyone can use it,” he said.

See How another Canadian city is using open data to improve citizen lives

See How AI helps unlock value in Big Data

4. Security trumps user experience

What’s the point of having an amazing customer experience if none of your customer’s trust you?

This rhetorical question reveals the crucial need for businesses to protect their data at all costs — even if it means making sacrifices to some aspects of your business, customer experience and services. It’s also a much needed reminder as we find ourselves in a time where the customer’s expectations are higher than ever — yet so too are the risks and sophistication of attacks.

For the IT leader at a national food chain, however, treating security as the top priority just makes sense, even though it has prevented her company from pursuing a few innovative ideas. She said the company was once considering using digital terminals to give customers an easier and faster way to order food. But when it was clear the company lacked the resources or budget to properly secure the terminals, the idea was scrapped.

“We didn’t have the resources to manage that new project, not in way that we were confident, so we didn’t do it,” she said.

TIP: Hedge your bets with Bitcoin

When you get hit with a ransomware attack, the currency of choice for those ransomware criminals is Bitcoin, thanks to its untraceable, anonymous nature. And deciding whether or not you should actually pay ransomware is a difficult decision to make, but many businesses are starting to think it’s wise to keep a stockpile of Bitcoin, just in case.

The currency is wildly volatile after all. With the potential for prices to drastically increase in the coming months (or days), purchasing some today might hedge your bets and reduce damages in the long run. Getting used to the complicated and eccentric buying and trading processes of this still-new cryptocurrency early will also help speed things up should the day come you need to pay up!

Stay up to date on modern security best practices at the Softchoice Security Hub

5. Diversity at the spearhead of disruption

Something very rare and special happened at the IEF event in Vancouver — something many in the tech industry hopes to become the norm, and soon: we were crowded by women!

With four women IT leaders present at the table, Vancouver’s “Women In Tech” contingent seems healthier and more robust than ever. Certainly, this is far more female faces than we normally see at these events — often (but certainly not always) leaving our facilitator Erika Van Noort as the sole women in attendance. To which she reacted:

“Hats off ladies for making it out! We’re so happy to see you here.”

Diversity is a competitive edge

This isn’t just a question of changing demographics. It’s a question of innovation and staying on top of the game, said one IEF leader.

Diversity is a key part of our innovation strategy, said one of the female CIO’s at the table. Not just in terms of gender and backgrounds, but age differences, too.

Indeed, one leader said that as the company changes its demographics, and hires more young people, it needs to be very careful not to shut out the old generations still working there.

“We need to figure out how to be innovative and bet on disruptive technology, while still supporting the legacy,” he said.

Read More on how Softchoice inspires diversity with Girls in Tech

CIO Table Talk: The Cheat Sheet

This concludes our IEF Vancouver Chapter Event, where we see that tough decisions lay ahead. And these decisions are crucial in order for IT leaders to drive their businesses to success. Here are some key takeaways:

  • When facing disruption, you must choose to take threats seriously, to re-focus your core business value and sometimes re-invent your services from scratch
  • When rolling out solutions, you must pay careful attention to end-users with a robust change management program, tailored to their unique needs and motivators
  • When straddling mountains of data, you must activate the resources needed to understand what the information is telling you and how it can drive new business value
  • When developing new solutions, you must make security a priority — at all costs!
  • And finally, when trying to build an innovative culture, you must focus on your people, and treat diversity as one of your biggest strengths

Join the conversation: #CIOTableTalk

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