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Innovation Sometimes Comes from Unlikely Places

CIOs must recognize and enable innovation in its many forms to gain a competitive advantage.

Innovation plays a crucial role in efforts to gain a competitive advantage, but ultimately it’s also crucial for survival. It can take many forms, often revolutionizing otherwise stagnant industries.

Check out this spotlight on Warby Parker, which ranked in Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2014. It’s a prime example of pairing technology with a new business model to remake an industry — in this case, streamlining the eyeglasses purchase process.

The most innovative companies all have two things in common: the willingness and the ability to leverage technology in new ways. As the natural innovation leaders, CIOs are in a prime position to provide structure and support.

However, it’s important for CIOs to pay attention to their approach. For instance, having a dedicated innovation team rarely works, since it conveys the message that innovation can come only from a small, elite team.

CIOs need to be able to recognize and embrace good ideas regardless of their source - an “outside-in” culture can pay strong dividends. In many cases, the best ideas for innovation come from the trenches as a direct result of customer or partner interactions. After all, this is often where innovation has the most impact and is a primary reason for encouraging everyone in the organization to participate regularly.

At the same time, CIOs must reconsider how they view “shadow IT.” When business units seek out their own technology solutions—without the direct involvement of the IT organization—it’s often a legitimate effort to do their jobs more effectively. Instead of seeing such moves as spiteful actions against IT, CIOs should recognize that shadow IT can lead to innovation. They need to be open to looking at such activity as a source of ideas and opportunities that should be explored more closely and embrace them.

Obviously, conscious investigation should play a meaningful role as well. For instance, every organization should have processes in place for seriously considering the latest technologies as they enter the marketplace. Many CIOs rely on periodic briefings from a handful of primary vendors; there is nothing wrong with that, but they are not a substitute for doing your own homework. This research is an important initiative deserving your direct attention whether or not the technology you research is something the business ends up using. If nothing else, the process provides the CIO with an informed opinion up front, rather than reacting when the CEO mentions the technology in a staff meeting because she read about it in a trade journal.

Innovation doesn’t happen by chance. It takes leadership and dedication. Are you up for the challenge of leading your organization’s innovation charge?

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