by Pearl Zhu

9 components that should be part of every digital CIO’s innovation agenda

Feb 06, 2019
CIOInnovationIT Leadership

CIOs need to be more well-rounded than simply wearing the mantle of "logical" or "creative." They should be good at both, but also dedicated to developing a comprehensive innovation agenda.

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Digital is the age of innovation. Innovation, in general, is surely a management discipline. To keep relevant, IT has to shift its reputation from a cost center to the innovation engine of the organization. In fact, IT plays a crucial role in expanding the creative side of the business and scale up the innovation effect of the entire organization. The contemporary CIO’s responsibilities are to understand the business’s collaboration needs and innovation demands today and into the future. From there, they can build an IT-led digital innovation agenda which covers innovative thinking, innovation management, knowledge transfer, technology update, entrepreneurship, and people-centricity, etc. It is the multifaceted management discipline.

1. Rejuvenate innovative thinking of IT

CIOs need to be creative enough to think out-of-the-box for embracing great ideas…and logical enough to plan, engineer and follow through. A great CIO with their finger on the pulse of technological advancement or information insight can provide many ideas on how new technology and abundance of information help to create fresh new opportunities. To make the digital paradigm shift, it starts with IT leaders and professionals who can think “out of the box” more often and broaden their lens to understand the business outside-in and do more with innovation.

With today’s information-driven business dynamic, there’s no shortage of problems to tackle, it’s all about being able to get all the way around the task, to see it from all interests. To harness innovation, it’s important for a creative team having people who do not have the same viewpoint of varying issues so that they can complement with each other’s viewpoints, broaden the points of interest and try new things to extend the thinking box and increase the odds of sparkling creativity. It is IT’s responsibility to identify opportunities for business transformation wherever analysis and assessment indicate the potential benefits of transformation efforts.

2. Develop digital IT as an innovation engine

CIOs play the bridge role of integrating the art and science of digital innovation. Technology is often the disruptive force behind innovation and information is the gold mine all forward-looking organizations dig into. Thus, IT plays a crucial role in creating a disciplined and managed space for developing and testing new models, products and business approaches. It also shields innovation teams from the organization’s dominant logic and established standard operating procedures, to strike the right balance of innovation and process.

CIOs are at the unique position in driving business innovation and transformation and need to handle them cautiously but firmly. They should spend time with peer executives on the strategic effort alignment. Only with the support of top executive teams, they can row the boat. IT has a great opportunity here to catalyze innovation and lead digital transformation of the business and become the innovation engine of the organization.

3. Practice IT intrapreneurship and run IT as a software startup

Today, IT is the wing of every successful business. IT entrepreneurialism becomes a new fixture for management in their efforts to spark creativity, substantiate competitive position, affect the market landscape, and drive new revenue growth. The key here is to run IT as the software startup and gradually institutionalize and communicate innovations throughout the organization.

CIOs should think as an intrapreneur and act like a startup manager, go out and talk with varying shareholders, business executives, customers, and partners, to know their pains and gains and understand their tastes, current and future needs. Practicing IT intrapreneurship means to harness changes, cultivate innovative cultures, and learn to generate more novel ideas in diverse teams.

Practicing intrapreneurship in the large organization also doesn’t mean getting rid of all rules. Instead, a high-innovative business has more disciplines, not less. To run an innovative IT organization, the most difficult challenge is not just about launching successful teams, but about maintaining their motivation and focus, cultivating the positive attitude and building a culture of risk tolerance and doing more with innovation.

4. Leverage a framework approach to manage innovation

Innovations in the digital era are coming at a seemingly much faster pace, with changes and potential disruptions. Therefore, organizations need to establish a framework to manage innovation in a systematic way. A systematic innovation approach is to depict innovation as a system, rather than a traditional process. A comprehensive innovation framework includes varying components such as strategy, process, culture, talent and risk management, etc. Though there’s no single structure that will work in every organization, a comprehensive innovation framework with all important enterprise components is the great tool to intensify innovation with focus and manage innovation in a structural way.

The best framework is good because of underlying data and structural elements. There lies the quandary because innovation may not have the data to back it up! Bridging innovation execution gap requires a systematic execution scenario with a fine-tuned framework, clear-defined stages, decision-making parameters, performance thresholds, metrics selections, combined with the iterative learning process and organizational structure that supports wide-ranging exploration at each stage, to pursue a mature way for achieving the great business result.

5. Help to innovate businesses by scaling and optimizing

Most IT specialist is eager to use new technologies and gadgets. But there’s a significant difference between technical proficiency and business innovation. Running IT as a business is not just about doing IT innovation but about scaling innovation effort and creating differentiated business value. IT can break digital transformation if it cannot ride the learning curve and catch up with the emergent business technological trends, or it simply lacks changeability to make continuous improvement and on-time delivery in a proactive way.

Information Management Systems are the backbone and become the making and breaking point of digital transformation. IT has to shift from bits, bytes, and lights to information, intelligence, innovation, integration, improvement, and interface. The challenge is about getting out from the daily burden and spending more resources and time on innovation-related activities, scaling up and making innovation a persistent and shared reality across functional boundaries and geographical territories. Innovative IT will leverage the advances in emergent technologies or existing technologies differently to provide innovative solutions for business now and in the future consistently.

6. Change the game and bring a different twist to what is currently established and perceived

Apply technology in new and innovative ways and run IT as the superglue for integrating a highly innovative ecosystem to stay ahead of competition and industry. Digital organizations are like the switch of the hyperconnected digital ecosystem. Today’s information technology enables companies to leverage their various environments or ecosystems, manage technology updates and knowledge transferring to chase innovation opportunities, take structural innovation approaches, and accelerate innovation speed.

There are many components in an effective innovation environment or ecosystem, such as innovation leadership, cultures, capabilities, practices, tools, recognition system measurements, or risk approach. Each component by itself may not cause a good environment, but collectively, they can weave an innovation ecosystem. Every organization needs to develop tailored innovation practices by leveraging effective technologies, tools or methodologies and apply them wisely with the expertise to really add value and drive innovation systematically.

7. Build IT as the backbone of a learning organization

Knowledge is the foundation of innovation. IT needs to become a learning organization which can also build learning capability for the entire company. CIOs need to ask themselves and others: Does IT drive team building and organizational learning? Do you want to be in a constant learning mode? With fast-growing information and shortened knowledge life cycle, the important responsibility of managing information and knowledge is about how to work in harmony for amplifying collective skills and abilities.

Organizations are at a crossroads where the segregation or silo of business units are at a need to reach across the aisles and respectively work with each other, learn from each other, co-develop innovation, and work toward the common goals to achieve the high-performance business results. IT is the backbone for building a learning organization, running an innovative IT organization is about setting cultural adjustment and understanding within the organization that innovation is embraced and expected, including the acceptance of failure along the path to innovation and ensure the culture supports innovative efforts, recognizes and encourages innovators to think different and take bold actions.

8. Leverage IT to foster a creative environment and fine-tune the organization’s “personality”

Innovativeness in the “corporate” world has a lot to do with fostering a creative environment. You have to live it and breathe it every day; otherwise, you would feel stuck. Organizations, just like individuals, have different personalities. Is your company a “thinking deep” introvert or a go-doer extrovert? Do you have a listening or telling organization? Is your team-setting homogeneous or heterogeneous? Inclusive or exclusive? And so on.

Because IT oversees business processes and manages the information life cycle, it directly impacts how the business “think and do things” there. IT has the very power to influence an organization’s “personality,” and unleash the digital potential of the business. There is no innovation without inclusiveness. Because creativity is a combination of divergent and convergent thinking. It’s best to bring a group of people together with cognitive differences such as different backgrounds, capabilities, strengths etc, in order to spark creativity. The business leaders such as CIOs must work with the right mindset to create an inclusive organization with every dip in the business lifecycle to foster a creative environment and improve innovation effectiveness.

9. Take outside-in lens to run a people-centric organization

Innovation often happens at the intersection of people and technology. Thus, customers become an important link in the innovation process. IT has two sets of customers – the internal business customers as well as the end customers of the companies. Building a customer-centric business is in every forward-thinking organization’s top executive agenda.

The new technology tools and business models allow a company to capture customer information on a continual basis. IT needs to be closer to the end customers and do more with innovation. To become truly people-centric and highly innovative, IT has to walk the talk, be open to diverse opinions and feedback, be humble to listen to customers, be confident to take the path perhaps no one ever takes before and be resilient to fail forward.

Retention of customers and reduction in the churn with better management of services provided to the customers will be an indirect way of increasing and maintaining the revenue. Innovation is change; from Change Management perspective, CIOs need to be like the anthropologist and psychologist, who can diagnose the problems from the mindset level, understand the variety of thoughts behind the changes, and build a people-centric and highly innovative organization.

Digital is the age of innovation; digital innovation has expanded spectrum and broader perspective. It is the age of options; it provides the opportunity to think the better way to do things. Any leadership role, especially a CIO, needs to be better-rounded than to have a title of “logical” or “creative.” They should be good at both and dedicated to developing a comprehensive innovation agenda. The fast-paced change forces IT leaders to be proactive and get really creative about how they orchestrate and implement changes, cultivate a set of digital habits, practice, practice, and practice more for running a high-innovative digital IT organization.