by Mark Settle

Don’t be victimized by technology innovation — turn it into a team sport!

Apr 13, 2017
InnovationIT Leadership

‘Innovative’ isn’t synonymous with ‘new,’ and other takeaways on innovation from a seven-time CIO.

This article is part of a series highlighting key takeaways from my recently published book, Truth From the Trenches: A Practical Guide to the Art of IT Management. As a seven-time CIO I’ve had an opportunity to observe the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of IT management up close and personal. Truth From the Trenches is my attempt to share my experiences with emerging IT leaders to help them avoid the chronic problems that afflict so many IT organizations.

Every member of an IT organization is a technologist. To one degree or another, every team member is involved in selecting, implementing, adapting or maintaining one or more technologies that are critical to their company’s business operations. In my personal experience, every technologist is also an innovator at heart. Whether they are working with a wholly new business application or maintaining an existing hardware device, they are continually seeking ways of extracting greater value from the specific technologies that are within their areas of expertise.

Technology innovation can be pursued in many different ways. It may involve expanded utilization of an application or hardware technology that has been purchased in the past. It may involve the replacement of existing tools and systems with new technologies. Or it may involve the selective addition of new software or hardware capabilities in ways that enhance the business value of a company’s existing systems. Finally, innovation may manifest itself as the experimental implementation of an emerging technology, in effect placing  a high-risk/high-reward bet on a new capability that differs significantly from the systems currently in use.

Properly managed innovation can deliver tangible business benefits and boost staff morale. Unmanaged innovation can actually be counterproductive. It can result in a portfolio of capabilities that is difficult to operate and costly to maintain. Furthermore, it can waste inordinate amounts of organizational time and energy and yield marginal business benefits. The following are a few tips on innovation from someone who has worked many different innovative teams.

Avoid innovation elitism

IT leaders often make the mistake of assigning innovation to a small group of “really smart people” who are empowered to be the gateway for the introduction of all new technologies within their organizations. Innovation labs and skunk works teams can provide a useful DMZ (demilitarized zone) where the normal rules of engagement with business partners are momentarily suspended. Unfortunately, they almost inevitably create an internal caste system in which a few “lucky people” get to have all the fun playing with new technologies while the majority of staff members are stuck supporting legacy systems. Although they may not come right out and say so, staff members supporting legacy systems usually resent the freedom, funding and management attention that their colleagues in the innovation lab receive. Innovation labs are, in effect, a public admission that innovation is not ingrained in the day-to-day functioning of an IT organization and that a separate “safe zone” was required to pursue innovation opportunities. 

Innovation labs frequently trigger peculiar passive-aggressive behaviors on the part of the IT staff. On the one hand, staff members will verbally endorse the importance of establishing such labs and express personal interest in specific lab projects. But they will aggressively come up with reasons why they can’t become substantively involved in such projects due to a lack of skills or other demands on their time. Consequently, when the lab prepares to pass a newly selected tool or technology to one of the organization’s operating groups, there’s no one there to catch it!

‘Innovative’ and ‘new’ aren’t synonymous

Somehow, we invariably assume that innovation involves the implementation of something new when, in fact, tremendous innovation can be achieved by getting rid of something old. Most IT shops are forced to maintain aging systems that are based on outmoded or obsolete technologies. Efforts to retire such systems free up staff time and budget dollars that can be reinvested in implementing more modern capabilities. They allow staff members to retire their old unmarketable skills as well. 

The biggest deterrents to successfully retiring aging technologies are staff complacency and management apathy. Sunsetting and rationalization programs are passing fads within most IT organizations and are associated with specific management regimes. They fail to be institutionalized within the operational fabric of the organization and consequently fail to achieve their long-term goals.

IT leaders are fooling themselves if they believe they can implement a steady stream of new capabilities without reducing the cost, complexity, operational risk and staff demoralization associated with the maintenance of legacy technologies. Campaigns to retire the technical debt within an IT organization’s technology portfolio should be planned and celebrated as innovation achievements, thereby involving an even broader cross section of the organization in the innovation process.

Construct an innovation pipeline

Innovation management should be one of the primary concerns of every IT leadership team. The forces of technological change are inescapable. Every IT organization is bombarded with ideas about new tools, services and applications from its vendors, internal customers and even its own employees. Furthermore, commercial enterprises continue to make IT investments in both the best of times and worst of times. IT leadership teams need to find ways of harnessing this constant influx of ideas and investment opportunities or be victimized by it. 

Sales organizations employ sophisticated techniques for identifying prospects, qualifying leads, identifying legitimate sales opportunities, generating customized proposals and closing deals. IT organizations should adopt similar frameworks for establishing a pipeline of technology leads and opportunities that can be transparently shared with IT staff members. The application of a consistent set of hurdles to new technology ideas ensures that precious time isn’t wasted on ideas that are unlikely to succeed and that the broadest possible cross section of relevant stakeholders — both inside and outside IT — are involved in making final procurement recommendations. Sales management teams typically review their opportunity pipelines on a quarterly basis. IT leadership teams should do the same. 

If a passion for innovation isn’t an innate trait of every member of an IT organization, then they have no business being in IT! One of the principle responsibilities of every IT leadership team is to explain to every member of the organization how their activities contribute to the organization’s overall innovation agenda. Innovation is a team sport in every truly successful IT organization.