What if everything you knew about innovation was wrong?\nThe fear of digital disruption and the boundless opportunities that are arising as we enter the digital era are making innovation a critical topic for CIOs and their C-suite counterparts.\nAs a result, enterprises are launching innovation-focused initiatives at every turn.\nBut what if creating innovative breakthroughs and developing a much-heralded innovation culture isn\u2019t about creating tiger teams or unleashing unbridled, free-wheeling creativity into every corner of the organization?\nWhat if driving innovation in the digital era came down to three simple actions?\nStart here: Innovation ISN\u2019T about technology\nIt's inevitable, hear the word innovation, and you immediately start thinking about technology. After all, innovation and technology have been nearly synonymous for most of the last two decades.\nThis inclination is even more likely if you're an IT professional, given our natural fondness of technology.\nBut if you want to transform your organization into an innovation machine, the place to start is with the recognition that innovation is not, in fact, about technology at all.\nThis fact was brought home for me during a keynote presentation at an IoT event last year. On stage was the CIO\/CTO of Dutch smart building developer EDGE Technologies, Erik Ubels. As he talked, I checked my program several times. This was a CIO?\nThe way Ubels discussed what the company was doing was illuminating. \u201cI love technology, but it\u2019s about building better buildings for the world,\u201d he explained during a subsequent conversation we had on the subject. \u201cIt\u2019s healthy, sustainable, the best working environment for employees. There\u2019s a war for talent and a building is an important part of how you express yourself as an organization and a building that people like to go to.\u201d\nHere was the person responsible for the technology at a company that had made technology a central component to its value proposition \u2014 and there was almost no talk about technology either from the keynote stage or during our conversation.\nThe message was clear: If you want to innovate, don\u2019t anchor your mindset to technology.\nSecret #1: Gaze to the future, but act in the present\nOne of the reasons that it\u2019s easy to join innovation and technology at the hip is that it simplifies the process \u2014 it makes it more concrete.\nIf there\u2019s pressure or demand to innovate, just launch an ambitious technology project and you have something you can point to as proof that you\u2019re responding. But as my conversation with Ubels made clear, that\u2019s jumping the gun.\nInstead, the place to start is by continually casting your gaze toward the future, both in terms of trends affecting your industry and the technologies that may impact those trends. "It's the CIO\/CTO's role to keep an open eye on things and even if technology has failed in the past, don't give up on it, keep it in your mind, and you might be surprised," he shared.\nBut Ubel\u2019s statement leaves a couple of things unsaid. The first is the business context. It\u2019s about keeping your eye on the future, but not generically \u2014 it must be in the context of what technologies could be the game changers for your organization.\n\u201cThe way we were able to get the business to see IT as a business partner rather than overhead was when we created the ability to articulate technology capabilities in business terms,\u201d explained Bradd Busick, CIO of Seattle-based mechanical contractor MacDonald-Miller. \u201cI\u2019m involved in the sales process when we pitch companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Boeing. They want to talk to the CIO. The CEO would never have guessed, in his wildest dreams, that someone from IT would be helping to lead the company.\u201d\nThe second unstated, but essential element to a forward-looking gaze is the reason that Busick is now at the leadership \u2014 and deal \u2014 table: the ability to transform that gaze into competitive advantage for his organization.\nBoth Busick and Ubels have created this advantage by looking forward and being willing to place bets that others would not. As Ubels puts it: \u201cWe get an edge by being on the leading edge. Others want to wait until the technology is proven and a commodity.\u201d\nSecret #2: Lay the foundation with standardization\nIn 2015, Bloomberg called EDGE Technologies\u2019 first building (located in Amsterdam and also called The Edge) the \u201csmartest building in the world.\u201d\nSo, when I had the chance to talk with Ubels one-on-one I was understandably excited to hear the secrets to how they were able to create this level on innovation on a sustained basis \u2014 and make it all work.\nI was not at all prepared for what he shared.\nAccording to Ubels, one of the essential enablers of innovation is standardization. "Even though we move quickly with adopting new technologies, we establish a standard and document very well how everything integrates together," he said.\nWhen he shared this, I stopped him. I wanted to be sure I'd heard him correctly.\nAfter all, standardization conjures images of bureaucratic processes that force people into well-trodden paths, ban anything even a little progressive, and restrain creativity. It seemed to be the complete antitheses of how an innovation process should look.\nBut he clarified that they see standards as things that continually evolve and, therefore, enable them to simultaneously innovate, adapt, and ensure quality. "We build buildings with that standard, and while that's happening, we're working on the new standard. So, we're always creating \u2018minimum' standards \u2014 and then allow for that to adapt, and change sensors, lights, etc. to update at the time of deployment."\nHe went on to explain two other essential drivers of innovation that standardization enables.\nFirst, he explained that innovation doesn\u2019t happen at every layer, so you must focus your innovation energy where it matters. \u201cStandardize, simplify and remove variability to create the foundation of innovation. This allows you and your staff to focus on the innovation on top \u2014 not having to worry about making it all work.\u201d\nSecond, he cautioned that innovation is not about just doing anything and everything \u2014 it must instead be measured and targeted. Almost paradoxically, standardization helps create that focus. He explained, \u201cThat\u2019s the core difference between how we do [innovation]. Others just hook up everything because they can. If you want to scale, do it cost-effectively, [and with] stability\u2026standardize.\u201d\nSecret #3: Change the mindset\nAnother reason that innovation can be challenging for CIOs is that it doesn\u2019t happen in a vacuum. No CIO can innovate on their own. It requires both buy-in and participation across the enterprise.\nAnd given that many IT organizations continue to fight perception issues, this need for buy-in can be a significant barrier to adopting an enterprise-wide innovation culture.\nOvercoming this barrier and shifting the mindset both within and outside of IT, therefore, becomes an essential building block of an innovation capability.\n\u201cI realized that I had turned the corner when I heard my CEO and CFO talk about the fact that our maintenance baseline [revenue] had grown 11% since we introduced wearable technologies into the field,\u201d said Busick. \u201cThey didn\u2019t know how we capture it. They just knew that our customers weren\u2019t leaving and that we\u2019re adding new ones because of this technology capability.\u201d\nThat ability to deliver innovations that were directly affecting the bottom line helped cement the mindset shift that Busick had sought to create as he transformed IT from a traditional back-office role to a driver of business value. That initial value then created a virtuous cycle, that opened the door to even greater innovation opportunities.\nBusick explained: \u201cBeing able to drive real business benefit gives me the right to be heard and the opportunity to do something like introduce a dedicated space for virtual reality\u2026and that capability, what we call the M-Lab, enables us to build a fully interactive model of a project before its built\u2026And that will flip the entire supply chain. \u201d\nThe question, however, is how to get your organization to this place. There are two answers.\nThe first is that you need to build and cultivate a team that is willing to go there with you. \u201cIt\u2019s a mindset. Every day we can do better, faster, smarter. You need to build a team with the same kind of mindset,\u201d extolled Ubels. \u201cIf you hire people that don\u2019t have that mindset or aren\u2019t getting it, they\u2019ll leave. It creates a fast pace. If you\u2019re constantly on the latest and greatest and figure out how to do this \u2014 you get this trust from the CEO and leadership.\u201d\nAt the same time, however, the CIO needs to be laying the foundation for this to work. "Earn the right to be heard. Change the perception from keeping the lights on \u2014 that's table stakes," implored Busick. "Instead, paint the picture that I'm a business guy that just happens to be in IT. That opens up a different dialogue. Once you start participating in the actual business \u2014 things like going on sales calls and ride alongs \u2014 that's what changes the game."\nBuilding innovation as a strategic capability\nPerhaps the most significant problem I have with how organizations approach innovation is that they treat it as a project \u2014 something that some team over there is responsible for handling. It's much the same problem I see with how people approach the broader question of digital transformation.\nIn both cases, the minute an organization treats it either as a fixed-time project or the responsibility of some specialty team, the effort is doomed.\nInstead, organizations must view innovation \u2014 and digital transformation, more broadly \u2014 as a strategic capability that they must build and then continually foster.\nOf course, that\u2019s much harder than just launching a tiger team or hiring a consulting company to \u201ccreate an innovation.\u201d\nThe trick, it would seem, is to not start with innovation as your goal. As Busick explains, you should instead focus on being the enabler that helps the organization identify those things that will create competitive value and use that process to drive innovation.\n"I used this as a fact-finding effort [to identify] those capabilities that were valued but missing. And then I put it back on [the business leaders] asking them to prioritize where we were at in terms of importance, both where we're presently at and how important it will be to future business," he shared. "And as I asked this of every department, suddenly I'm identifying themes that can quantitatively determine the capabilities we need. Now I'm at the investment table because I own the data."\nThis process became, in effect, the organization's innovation roadmap \u2014 and firmly cemented Busick's role as a principal driver of innovation in the organization. "We call this a capabilities roadmap, and it became the tool that everyone used to decide what to invest in \u2014 and now no one is talking about technology or spend. They're talking about capabilities."\nAs we step fully into the digital era, the ability to innovate on a sustained and scalable level will be a critical capability. And as technology will continue to be a vital component of that innovation, the CIO's ability to drive and lead innovation efforts will be just as critical.\nThe good and bad news is that stepping into that role and creating an enterprise-wide culture of innovation is not out-of-reach for the modern CIO, but it may demand that you fundamentally alter your view of how to do it.