Five Things Judy Estrin Has Learned About Closing the Innovation Gap

Using her experience as an IT executive and entrepreneur, former Cisco CTO Judy Estrin shares why CIOs and other leaders must nurture innovation to fend off global competition in her book Closing the Innovation Gap.

Without innovation, nothing happens.

People talk about innovation but they too often take it for granted. Innovation can drive economic growth, just like cell phones, PCs and the Internet did. It also increases the quality of life, with anything from new gadgets for entertainment to new tools for medical procedures. We are at a point where we are faced with many challenges: the economic crisis, energy dependence, national security. None of those problems will get solved without innovation driving the solution.

CIOs have an important role to play here.

It's easy to confuse the results of innovation and innovation itself. Right now, we are reaping the benefits from decades of innovation. Think iPods, Internet startups and the like. But we're not planting new seeds. Sustainable innovation is the result of the combination of research, development and the application of science and technology. It also includes the communication between those communities. CIOs have an important role to play here. They drive innovation by making their business partners aware of what new technologies have to offer; they also support it by being responsive to their business partners' needs. CIOs also can encourage innovation by communicating needs to vendors and trying new products and services.

Accept failure.

Taking risks and learning from failure is part of the process. You shouldn't aim to fail, but you should be able to accept failure. In order to create a setting for innovation to occur, you have to be willing to question others and to share information to facilitate the exchange of ideas. The key to creating an environment that maximizes innovation is to create a balance of these points. Leaders set the tone for the entire organization, and their willingness to self-assess and acknowledge failure is critical. The business world has become short sighted.

Business has become significantly more risk-adverse. Longer-term innovation requires investing in things that might fail. So by definition, investing in innovation is not efficient. There also has been so much emphasis on compliance that the amount of CIO mindshare and the money to invest in new things is less than it was.

Innovate through the recession.

The current economic crisis makes it all the more important for companies and their CIOs to focus on innovation. CIOs need to be innovative in figuring out how to do more with fewer resources. They also need to make sure they are still investing in the future, so when we come out of the recession, they emerge stronger. It's clearly a very challenging time for all leaders, including CIOs, to carefully balance current needs with a eye on the future.

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