Carving a true path to an innovation culture

Pragmatic agility, APIs and automation make up the key ingredients required to hack an innovation culture.

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Enabling innovation is hard. It is not just building new products or improving existing ones or improving processes, workflows and interactions. It requires a change in thinking, a change in culture and a change in expectations of delivery and progress. It is about treating innovation as a sum of three parts - implementation, adoption and value confirmation. And the key to enabling such a culture is through a combination of pragmatic agility, APIs and automation.

The path to true innovation that delivers the intended value in a confirmable, measurable way has three discrete stops 

  1.   A hypothesis driven implementation
  2.   A concerted effort towards adoption
  3.   A measurable, deterministic confirmation of value

An approach to innovation that only focuses on a subset of the above or attempts to address the above in a haphazard, unplanned manner almost always takes to a longer time to value. A culture of innovation is similar to architecting a high rise. It requires a foundation that can support the structure and a frame that enables . Once a foundation is present, focus can be shifted to solving real problems and subsequently confirming that the problems have been solved. An approach that hopes for adoption and value confirmation with  an incomplete or non existent foundational layer does not work.

Pragmatic agility 

An agile culture is not simply the incorporation of an agile process into the innovation process. However, a process level assimilation of agility is often not enough to deliver success. Real agility is defined as the ability of a team (or a group of teams) to deal with ambiguity while keeping the strategic objectives front and center. Agility that attempts to circumvent the three step process (hypothesis -> delivery -> value confirmation) often falls flat and ends up creating a process and execution friction.  Hacking an innovation culture that is designed to offer systematic value requires the application of agility within each state of the three step framework listed above in addition to moving through the three phases in the framework. 

Driving agility to reduce the iterative cycle time is easier in a ten person startup but incredibly difficult in a large organization. Large enterprises tend to have distributed work forces and complex projects (with both parallel and sequential execution)  across multiple time zones. Execution in such an environment can be slow if the right balance between scope and ambiguity is not met. For example, the risk and cost of execution in a large organization (think of a large freight train moving on a frozen lake) mandates that not only is the end goal of innovation well defined and articulated, but that it has been well evangelized and understood by all and the framework and maturity is in place to ensure that execution and progress can be easily measured and tracked. In addition, top strategic objectives need to be further broken down into composite goals represented as milestones and corresponding dependency charts defined that clearly layout the path towards successful execution.

APIs, Contracts and Interfaces

Innovation requires alignment and alignment requires a clear understanding of the required parts, the supply chain that delivers these parts and a deep understanding of how these parts work. To build digital supply chains, enterprises need to embrace an API first thought process. This includes the ability to abstract internal implementation details of the “part” to be supplied and the delivery of the required capability as a service over a standard interface. This thinking and approach can lead to a massive reduction in the intra enterprise alignment cost. Alignment costs in large enterprise typically spike if the burden to discover, learn, understand and build upon a “service” is left to the consumer of the service. This pain is substantially magnified when the consumer of the service ends up having to learn the internals of the service when trying to consume it. An API first approach forces the service owner to empathize with their consumers and design and build a service that reduces the alignment pain.

Automation

Automation is the third key technique that I find has an exponential impact to the ability of an enterprise to innovate. Automation with its ability to free up resources can enable and improve any product development activity ranging from hypothesizing, hypothesis testing, product design, product deployment, execution and support to be more iterative, experimental and ultimately coverage toward the ideal outcome . Following is a set of automation strategies that are useful to spur innovation.

Automation as a way to make time

Automation of systems,workflows, processes etc can create new time and free up cycles for the organization. Because automation frees up time and attention, this new found freedom can be used to evoke new ideas and hypothesis that the organization can use to further improve their state. Simply by auditing and removing manual operations, a climate of innovation can be cultivated.

Automation as a way of improving the status quo

Automation offers a strategy to improve the status quo. Simply through the act of automating processes and workflows, an organization can improve across several key metric. Because automation can help an enterprise reduce the clutter and superfluousness that can creep into any manually driven workflow, an automation strategy will quickly reveal such areas of improvement. Everything from meetings, communication, management tracking, strategic planning can get streamlined, more efficient and data driven when the organization’s automation maturity is increased.

Automation to understand what’s broken

Automation (or the attempt to automate) can offer critical insight into breaks in the organization’s systems and processes. Critical business workflows that are not automate-able without serious investment highlight potential pitfalls for the organization; those that could be used to disrupt the entire organization by a smaller upstart that focuses on designing an automated version of the process/value chain from day one. Such insights have extremely high strategic value 

Automation to remove biases and human errors

Automation offers a strong strategy for removing human errors and biases. Customers often complain about inconsistent experiences when dealing with an organization. Automation offers the ability to remove such inconsistencies and offering a standard, error free experience to both internal and external users and other systems and processes.

Automation for scaling

Automation when implemented early in the lifecycle offers high ROI that is required for an organization to be able to scale to more users, more usage and more employees. This occurs because automation reduces the manual time required per operation or manual time required per delivered service. Potential of automation can be detected if the response to the need to grow and scale is found to be the addition of more employees. This automation ends up providing a faster, better, less error prone service to its users, systems and employees.

Conclusion

Hacking a culture of innovation requires three key ingredients; a realization that innovation does not happen over night and does not follow a specific pattern; a need to understand how to truly be agile while managing risk; thinking and deconstructing problems as small services represented as black boxes and a tremendous appetite to automate the enterprise. Organizations that are perceived to be innovative almost always have all four of the above identified ingredients. 

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