by Joe Eng

Make IT Innovation Everyone’s Job

Mar 25, 2011

How JetBlue’s CIO instills a culture of innovation throughout his IT organization

Some people, both within and outside of IT, view innovation as antithetical to good IT practices. After all, IT organizations operate according to processes, methodologies and standards. Well-run IT departments are, above all, consistent in what they do. Innovation, the doubters say, is anti-standards and thus has no place in IT.

The doubters are wrong. I know because I’ve had the good fortune to work in several stellar IT organizations. But it’s essential to define innovation more broadly than as just a flashy new product or service. If we think narrowly, we’ll only get a small portion of our IT organization to be innovators.

In a top-notch IT group, innovation includes initiatives that may seem mundane but that make the business operate faster, better and at a lower cost by doing something differently.

The challenge (and opportunity) for us as CIOs is to define through our words and actions what innovation means to our organizations. We have to instill in our culture the necessary mind-set and recognize team members who demonstrate it.

No Excuses

I want my IT staff to understand innovation as making something better without waiting for me or another business leader to ask them to. In my previous role as CIO at SWIFT, a financial-services infrastructure provider, I launched a campaign—starting with an e-mail—to explain my thinking.

I reinforced my communications by spotlighting innovative individuals or groups during my quarterly town hall meetings. I specifically tried to find examples among operations groups that aren’t traditionally seen as thinking outside the box. In this way, we would create an organization where anyone can feel comfortable trying new ideas.

One of the early examples I highlighted involved a team member who noticed that end users were frustrated with a system that our vendor was having trouble fixing. After several attempts, the problem wasn’t resolved completely. The employee decided not to wait any longer for the vendor and came up with a solution independently.

In an environment with many vendors, it’s not unusual for people to blame the contractor and wait for a solution. It was refreshing to see an individual take the initiative, do something innovative and solve the problem without making excuses.

Keep the Team Together

After I showcased many such achievements, no matter how small, the IT staff started thinking about innovation in new ways and it became even easier to find examples to highlight. However, convincing everyone in IT to see themselves as innovators is a continuing process that requires you to provide consistent direction.

At JetBlue recently, during a meeting with my testing team, I asked what innovations they had come up with recently. Their reply? “Nothing, we just test.” So I reiterated my view that they, too, are innovators, even if the improvements they come up with aren’t fancy.

If we as leaders define innovation broadly and, more importantly, recognize it among our teams, then IT can be an important source of innovation for our companies. We have many opportunities, not only to apply IT to new products, but also to create new and better business processes.

Meanwhile, by encouraging everyone to improve their corner of IT and the company, we ensure our team remains a cohesive group, undivided by perceptions that some people—the innovators—are cooler than the rest.

Joe Eng is CIO of Jet Blue.