The most important and overlooked cycle in the CIO toolkit

We all agree that it's every CIO's job not just to operate, but to innovate. And not just to innovate on a single project, product or software release. The single most important cycle for a CIO is the critical sequence of conditions required to create sustainable innovation.

No, it's not mastering the business planning cycle. It's not the budgeting cycle, or iterative software development cycle, or even the strategic planning cycle, as these are all simply the price of entry for any successful CIO. They're necessary but not sufficient.

We all agree that it's every CIO's job not just to operate, but to innovate. And not just to innovate on a single project, product or software release. I'm not referring to "burnout innovation" efforts that leave everyone exhausted, dying for vacation and updating their CV's. No, two weeks in Maui won't cure the burn-out caused by the other 50 weeks in the year.

The single most important cycle for a CIO is the critical sequence of conditions required to create sustainable innovation. It is the CIO's primary responsibility to create the organizational muscle necessary to innovate over time, for the long run. CIO's should spend 50 percent or more of their time viewing their roles through the lens of what I refer to as the Sustainable Innovation Cycle.  This cycle isn’t a literal series of steps, but rather a set of five inter-related outcomes that ultimately determine a CIO’s success.

Four of the outcomes are no mystery.

Think of outcomes 2 through 5 as largely sequential.  However, in this case it's actually helpful to review them in reverse order:

Outcome 5 is the sustainable innovation that we all agree is the “holy grail,” end-state we seek as IT leaders -- the ability to consistently deliver value over the long run. It's what I refer to as sustainable excellence and is the alchemy that results when motivated, talented people repeatedly and fearlessly deliver on needle-moving business challenges. It's our desired end state and, like art, we all know sustainable innovation when we see it.

Outcome 4 is very simple. In order to innovate over the long run, CIO's need funding. Every growing company has an insatiable demand for scarce capital and as a result, CIO's must successfully compete with other business units within the company for this capital. In fact in many cases, CIO's are competing for capital with the very business unit executives whose businesses they seek to improve. That can be awkward. How does a CIO ensure the continuous flow of capital required to feed sustainable innovation?

Outcome 3 requires that deep credibility be in place in order to ensure that funding continues to flow into innovation efforts -- a level of credibility that extends up to the CEO and to the board. In order to successfully compete for capital, IT leaders must be viewed as savvy stewards of their company's finances. This is particularly crucial in innovation investments, which can involve uncertain outcomes, unclear timelines and when viewed through the CFO's lens, unconvincing ROI analysis. CIO's must recognize that political capital is expended when innovation funding requests are granted.

Outcome 2 requires delivering results in the short-term. In order to achieve deep credibility, IT organizations must find ways to deliver on the important and visible projects as early and as often as possible. Delivering quick wins that improve the perception and credibility of an IT organization is never easy and can often come at a price -- in the form of exhausted employees and higher turnover. I refer to this as innovation fatigue.  If not managed properly, delivering results in the short-term can undermine the very goal we're seeking -- sustainable innovation. More on that in a moment.

So, delivering short-term results begets the credibility which in turn ensures the funding that enables IT organizations to achieve long-term, sustainable innovation. But this is a cycle, which therefore requires a critical piece or "link" in order to be complete.  

The missing link -- Employee meaning

So, what outcome completes the cycle? What connects short-term project results with long-term, sustainable innovation? Very simply, it’s employee meaning. That must be outcome 1 (and in fact also outcome 6). A strategic focus on increasing meaning for ourselves and for our organizations ensures that those short-term results in outcome 2 can be sustained over the long run.  

Some may argue that efforts directly related to creating meaning and purpose for employees lead to distractions and overhead that can in fact inhibit the “real work” of delivering innovation. I’d argue that exactly the opposite is true. The relationship between meaning and innovation is not one of conflict, but of synergy. Investing in employee meaning transforms organizations, as they begin to perceive a greater purpose to their work. These organizations simultaneously achieve great things and make employees feel as though they’re part of something great.

Who doesn’t want that? Sure, I still oversee budgeting, planning, software development and strategy cycles and must do them well. But they’re largely known and often routine. However, ensuring employee meaning as a critical step towards sustainable innovation isn’t routine. Nor is it a spare time activity. It requires commitment and a change in the way CIO’s view their job. Some leaders may insist that they don’t have time for this effort. Great leaders will believe they don’t have a choice.

When in doubt, lean towards meaning.

How would I define meaning? More on that soon.

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