Leadership: How to Get Inspired for Innovation

As leaders, we are charged with marshaling the innovative energy in our organizations. And we work hard at it. It’s too bad innovation doesn’t happen from hard work alone; if it did, we’d have all we need.

But innovation calls for more than diligence. At the center of every innovation there is the proverbial "Aha" moment, that moment of inspiration when you see something about a particular problem that you haven’t seen before. I have learned about this moment of inspiration from watching my wife, who is a dancer and choreographer, go through the process of looking for inspiration. Sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere; sometimes from a piece of music; and sometimes, to my surprise, from something I say or do.

Getting inspiration, then crafting it into a stage production, is what a performing artist does. Getting inspiration and crafting it into an IT system is what a CIO does. Perhaps no one would call us artists, but in order to foster innovation, we CIOs need to learn from artists.

How Artists Work

When seeking innovation we typically ask, How do we get ideas? But that’s the wrong question. I don’t think we get ideas; I think the ideas get us. Artists routinely say their best ideas seem to come from outside of themselves; what they do is give form to those ideas through whatever medium they are working in, be it painting, sculpture, dance, music, film or literature.

The better question to ask is, How do we put ourselves in a frame of mind where we can receive inspiration when it comes to us? Artists have been wrestling with this question for millennia. Here are some things I see artists do when they work:

  • They immerse themselves in their subjects. Actors immerse themselves in the personalities and histories of their characters, painters do sketch after sketch of an image, and musicians experiment with many different sequences of notes and tempos.
  • They collaborate. Many forms of art require effective collaboration between groups of people with complementary skills. My wife works closely with the dancers in her company, lighting designers, costume designers and musicians. She combines their different ideas to give form to her dance.
  • They play with different ideas. They don’t dismiss an idea just because it seems strange at first. My wife and her collaborators try out different combinations of movement, light, costumes and music to see what happens.

Inspiration occurs when a certain combination of ideas suddenly reveals a simple underlying pattern that ties the work together and expresses what the artistic work is about. Artists say they know the inspiration is authentic if they have an intellectual, emotional and physical response to it. Once that happens, there’s a flurry of activity as people flesh out their inspiration and give it shape. During this period, artists work long hours; they become single-minded about bringing their ideas into tangible form and presenting them to the world.

And once a big project is finished or a big show is done, artists leave town. Being creative is emotionally and physically taxing. Artists feel drained after they’ve done good work. They take time off to recharge.

Finding Your Muse

Extrapolating from my experience with artists, I see four basic skills that the innovative CIO needs to cultivate in order to excel at innovation:

  1. Immerse yourself in the business. It almost goes without saying that you should have a good grasp of the concepts and rules that guide the business operations of your company. This means a good working understanding of how each business activity fits into the overall business, how the work in each activity is performed, and what the cost and profit factors are.
  2. Collaborate frequently. CIOs need to innovate in the face of high levels of complexity in both business processes and technology. Complexity can be handled more easily if groups of people from IT and business units work together, bringing their complementary skills to bear on a problem. The innovative CIO orchestrates this process.
  3. Tolerate uncertainty. It is an act of discipline and sometimes of courage to immerse oneself in the details of a problem and resist the temptation to rush to judgment about what should be done. Because of the complexity inherent in most business problems, it is unlikely that the first few ideas to come along will be truly innovative. Don’t dismiss ideas just because they defy preconceived notions, and don’t give in to pressure to start building something before you get the inspiration you need.
  4. Look for simple patterns. As you investigate ideas and combine them in different ways to create system designs, look for designs where all the elements fit together in a simple, logical and complementary fashion. Remember that complex system designs usually signify that solutions have not been completely explored. When you find a simple combination of workflow processes and technology that can satisfy a wide variety of business requirements, then you have an innovative design.

Simplicity is important to artists because audiences can understand simple patterns of expression more easily, and so these are an effective way to communicate ideas. Simplicity in system design works well for a CIO because system designs that are uncomplicated are more likely to be built successfully and more likely to perform as expected.

As you and your team develop these four skills, you will see a remarkable increase in the innovation that happens in your organization. We CIOs are already good at working long and hard to get things done. When we combine that ability with an ability to discover inspirational ideas, then we unleash a powerful process for giving our companies the tools they need to compete and succeed.

Finally, remember that innovation is an art more than a science. As you become an innovator, you become an artist. So do as the artists do when you finish that big project—get out of town. Don’t bring your BlackBerry. Have fun. All work and no play makes a dull CIO, and no dull CIO has a chance as an innovator.

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