Building a nimble workforce to drive technology innovation

The question that should be on the mind of every IT leader is not 'Should my organization innovate?' but rather 'How can we do it at scale in a way the creates tangible returns quickly?'

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IT organizations no longer have a choice between innovating or just operating the business. Ask business leaders what they want from IT, and many of them expect innovation and support for market growth. Ask CIOs what they think their role is, and you’ll find that many prioritize operations — focusing on just keeping the lights on (IDC survey, 2015). The truth for technology leaders lies somewhere in the gray zone of running and scaling IT while making focused, strategic investments in technology innovation that create real value and return on investment. As a recent Gartner survey showed, digital spending is increasing — expected to reach 28% by 2018. The question that should be on the mind of every IT leader is not "Should my organization innovate?" but rather "How can we do it at scale in a way that creates tangible returns quickly?"

According to Accenture Strategy’s Abizer Rangwala, a keystone approach for CIOs who have to keep the lights on but are expected to drive change is the concept of nimble innovation in IT. This is an approach to drive time-bound, tangible actions that enable technology organizations to build on their “across the business” competencies while stepping outside of the box to drive value in new ways. As Rangwala points out, changing the organization and workforce inside and outside of IT are critical enablers to success. In order to truly create innovation solutions and competitive advantage, leaders need to implement four changes to their workforce strategy.

  • Craft a new culture: Traditional mindsets and behaviors in IT do not generally enable innovation and digital transformation. Technology teams must pivot from being order-takers to idea-generators in order to work as partners with their business peers on building opportunities. A successful shift to an innovation culture is based on inclusive leadership, a “Show, don’t just say” approach, and encouraging teams to constructively “break rules.” Organizations can crowdsource ideas from within the enterprise and give a chance for everyone to make a mark on building a new product or service. Another option is to build a 30-day challenge for nimble innovation teams that focuses on helping people learn and feel comfortable operating in new ways that can lead to disruptive approaches and concepts.
  • Blend IT and business roles: Just changing the IT culture is not enough. IT and business leaders should limit the hard lines that have traditionally existed between the business and technology functions. The nimble innovation concept is a unique approach for shared funding. Supporting that construct, it’s important to avoid defining nimble innovation teams around traditional functional boundaries. Instead, choose people who can move between technical expertise and business perspectives and then push them to contribute outside of their day-to-day roles. This gives people a sense of ownership and accountability that builds engagement and helps the team empathize with each other and learn through the process.
  • Leverage the liquid workforce: Nimble innovation is not a consistent or static construct by its nature and neither is the way in which people will be involved in initiatives and activities. Leveraging a more liquid workforce can help leaders rapidly create value through innovation initiatives by making sure that the people have the right skills and are plugged in at the right times. This can potentially include people from outside the traditional boundaries of the enterprise. Examples including offering ad-hoc training opportunities (instead of an overly complex curriculum traditional in corporate programs) to help team members upskill for a specific task or effort. When it makes sense, a nimble innovation team can reach out to talent marketplaces outside of the enterprise to “plug and play” people with specific skills that may not exist in the enterprise.
  • Build a brand of continuous innovation: A key concept of nimble innovation success from a workforce perspective is for IT’s brand to transform from an external and internal perspective — people need to view IT as a catalyst for innovation not running data centers and other operational activities. Leaders and nimble innovation efforts must restructure the way of working and build a “marketing” approach to the organization that highlights talent and product success stories with a nimble innovation approach. When IT is an integrated part of the business strategy, truly innovative things can occur. For example, my firm, Accenture Strategy, recently combined the power of human insight and artificial intelligence technology to create Symphonologie, a first-of-its-kind symphony that expresses the music of business. This is a prime example of how strategy and technology together can unlock a new way to view the world.

We’re living in an “Uberized” world where everything is subject to disruption — IT is certainly no exception. Many technology and business leaders are realizing this and investing more in innovative activities and services. Provocative approaches like nimble innovation can help set up technology organizations for success. To better ensure a return on investment and optimized value creation, CIOs shouldn’t forget that the workforce is a central element of building an IT organization that generates unique ideas and builds new solutions alongside the business. Taking these key strategic actions around talent and human performance is a critical step in running a high-performance technology team.

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