Want to foster innovation? Get out of your comfort zone

If you ask Hal Gregersen, innovation is one of the most important factors of success in the enterprise, and that's especially true for IT. In his MIT lecture series, he coaches attendees from around the world on how to stay curious and ask the right questions.

Looking to create programs designed to shake up the status quo, MIT's Sloan Executive Education department has partnered with businesses to create custom educational programs that focus on solving problems and encouraging critical-thinking skills among employees. Its workshop on innovation last week was led by Hal Gregersen, who brings years of experience working with companies to help CIOs to stay ahead of the curve.

MIT's custom programs, like the one led by Gregersen, deliver a hands-on experience tailored to business needs. In fact, MIT get in the trenches of a business to interview employees to see how work gets done day-to-day to fully understand the business as a whole. From there, problems are identified and a custom program is built to address those specific needs. Oftentimes, the programs are directed at the C-Suite and other higher-level employees, who can take the information back to the office. Alternatively, MIT will bring programs directly to businesses, or create collateral that can be shared company-wide.

Gregersen, who's just one of the many experts MIT has called upon to help lead these lectures, is the co-author of The Innovator's DNA, but that's not where his resume ends. Gregersen has spent decades in the business world, researching the importance of enterprise innovation. That's why MIT hired Gregersen as the executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and as a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation in its Work and Organization Studies Group. He's been the keynote speaker at companies like AT&T, Accenture, SAP and IBM and his research has appeared on the BBC, CNN, Forbes and The New York Times.

Innovation in the age of bi-modal IT

Innovation is an important concept in tech, especially with the rise of bi-modal IT, big data and BYOD. These concepts are changing the way businesses view IT, and it's quickly becoming one of the most crucial aspects in nearly every industry. But, thanks to this rapid rise in technology, IT departments are generally bogged down with keeping on top of security compliance, managing massive amounts of unruly data and staying on top of the company's networks and hardware. All that leaves little time for innovation and adopting new technology.

"Were in a world full of deep change, and we all kind of know that," says Gregersen. "I think information technology folks are at the core of change in all these organizations. So they're at the forefront of figuring out how we reconfigure these systems in order to effectively deliver whole new business models in many instances."

One example Hal gives is from his time spent consulting with a company in the financial industry. The company was stuck batch processing its data, but it wanted to transition to a more hands-off, continuous flow of data. His advice to the CIO was to get out of his office and to go to each employee in every department and figure out how they use the data. Rather than trying to determine what was best for the company from the comfort of his office, Gregersen said this CIO needed to figure out how the data is used in order to find the best process for collecting and disseminating it.

This a common thread for top level executives, according to Gregersen. They stay too confined to their offices, rather than getting out and interacting with the lifeblood of the company. It's difficult to decide what services, software and hardware will best integrate into company without understanding how each department functions. CIOs typically want to determine the most cost effective software or technology that will be embraced within the organization, has a low learning curve and won't make employee's jobs any harder.

Success isn't comfortable

Ultimately, Gregersen says that business leaders need to get uncomfortable to be successful, and that is especially true for CIOs. He points to some of the best leaders in the country, like Elon Musk, who make it their business to experiment, get creative and challenge tradition. He says that as children, we ask questions, but that slowly that trait is worked out of us as we grow older.

Gregersen's aim with this course was to help attendees find that inner child who asks the questions most adults wouldn't consider asking. Through curiosity, CIOs can approach problems from a new angle and solve issues in a way that positively affects the business from the top down.

Throughout the course, Gregersen led attendees through a series of lectures, presentations, exercises, group activities and brain teasers to force them to get outside their comfort zone and figure out how to ask the right questions. To boil down Gregersen's philosophy to one simple concept: "Get out of your comfort zone to ask the right questions."

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