by Michael Schrage

Are You Innovative? Ask Your Customers and Colleagues

Aug 15, 20066 mins

If you really want to know how innovative your IT shop is, don’t bother benchmarking your competition or retaining consultants: Just ask your colleagues and customers. The question is simple. The answers will surprise you.

“What’s the most innovative thing you think IT is doing for you?” Just ask. It’s not expensive. The best reason for asking: You’ll quickly learn how critical stakeholders see—and don’t see—your IT organization’s innovation “brand.” You’ll also gain quick insight into how they define innovation—or if they even care about it at all. A shrug of the shoulders matched by a glazed look of annoyance is not uncommon. Hopefully, that’s not how your CEO or CFO reacts.

Then again, they may not care as much about innovation as you do.

Because IT wants to be customer-centric and future-focused, we’re often too quick to ask, “What do you want IT to do for you?” That’s not a bad question, but it’s one that’s sure to set false expectations. CIOs had first better grasp where internal perceptions are rather than selling where they’d like them to be. Getting to where you want to go depends on it.

Too many employees, for example, don’t associate IT with genuine business innovation. They think of technical upgrades and enhancements. That perception effectively brands internal IT innovation as “geeky” and “techy.” That’s bad brand positioning for a CIO who wants to help an enterprise grow.

It’s not surprising that different parts of the enterprise define innovation differently than does IT. The surprise—and disappointment—comes from hearing so many of your peers and their subordinates define IT innovation initiatives in ways that make what you’re doing seem incidental, inconsequential or taken-for-granted. CIOs need to hear those answers. I have heard responses ranging from “the most innovative thing IT does for us has been cutting our downtime in half” to “runs the website” to “implemented a CRM we actually use” to bursts of cynical laughter. Are you confident you know how that question will be answered both inside your organization and out?

Why Users Know Best

The simple beauty of simple questions is that they frequently yield simple insights that matter. One Fortune 100 CIO who casually but consistently asked employees to name the most innovative thing IT was doing was consistently referred to the help desk. He discovered that, in addition to answering technical questions, this help desk had made a follow-up practice of e-mailing URLs of sites that would further explain to users how to get more value from their machines.

That simple—and cheap—innovation prompted the CIO to partner IT with HR. They set up a pilot program to send targeted URLs to employees with questions and concerns about health care, educational programs and personal-day policies, and it tested well. The CIO cleverly leveraged an existing internal perception of an innovative IT practice to make his organization more visible and more valuable.

This approach can lead to revenue-generating ideas as well. For example, an airline CIO learned that his online customers thought the most innovative thing the airline did on its website was the seat selector map. That got the CIO thinking whether the site should offer people the opportunity to pay more to get “better” seats. That’s an easy Internet experiment to run: Would individuals pay an extra $15 or $20 for an aisle or exit row seat on a four-hour flight? Like the e-mailed URLs, this idea cleverly played into what IT was already seen as doing innovatively and successfully.

How to Build the Innovation Brand

CIOs can better build IT’s innovation brand by explicitly linking it to their customers’ perceptions of innovation. You build your innovation brand not by doing things you think are more innovative but by doing those things your customers and colleagues find more innovative. How will you know this? Because they’ll both tell you and show you. They’ll effectively explain how e-mailed URLs and seat maps can become innovation springboards for IT.

The hard problems materialize when IT’s internal and external clients can’t answer the simple question. They don’t know, don’t care or simply take for granted what IT does for them. Even worse, they understand the question perfectly but genuinely believe that IT is not an innovation partner or supplier. What should CIOs do then?

The best answer is, “Take ownership.” In the spirit of turning a bug into a feature, I’ve seen CIOs successfully exploit the total absence of their shop’s innovation brand by personally going out to the business units to learn how they defined innovation. The CIOs, out of their own budgets, had a SWAT team of trusted lieutenants present IT-enabled innovation ideas to key business units, then ask them what seemed like valuable innovations to them. These CIOs were savvy enough to recognize that “supporting the business” was no longer enough; IT’s role in “supporting the business’s innovation agenda” also had to be explicit.

Bring IT Innovation to the Business

Of course, CIOs can also boost IT’s innovation brand by successfully exporting their own innovations. At one Fortune 200 company, the CIO informally asked his people what they thought was the most innovative thing IT was doing. To a person, they declared that their extreme/agile programming effort was an innovation initiative they really liked. This CIO immediately had a couple of his lieutenants scout for XP project opportunities in business units that wanted a new, more agile way of working with IT. The methodology became a platform for collaborative innovation.

There is no way a CIO can be an innovation leader without a real grasp of how IT’s innovation brand is perceived. More importantly, there is no way that IT can successfully become an innovation leader unless it learns how its internal and external customers define what’s innovative. While there are many detailed, comprehensive and expensive ways to determine these things, simple questions sincerely asked offer a lot of bang for the buck.

Instead of asking, “Are we doing a good job for you?’ or “Do you think you’re getting a good value for your time and money?” CIOs need to ask the business users a few simple questions about what IT does for them when they try to innovate. While perception surely isn’t reality, it’s where reality starts. It’s where innovation begins too.