by Chris Curran

CIOs Need to ‘Unlearn’ Before They Can Innovate

Feb 26, 20133 mins
CIOIT Leadership

It’s time to dive into realms where you don’t have all the answers, says Chris Curran of PwC. Ditch outmoded ways of thinking, ask business managers and employees what they need to innovate, and find out what customers want before they even know.

Unlearning feels unnatural. As business executives, we’re hardwired to store information so we can recall it at a moment’s notice. However, shedding outmoded mind-sets can free you to create the breakthrough innovations that CEOs are demanding from CIOs today.

The first thing you may need to unlearn is what you think about innovation. Many IT departments equate innovation with improving internal operations and systems. Such enhancements are part of the story, but innovation that improves the balance sheet may require something more: pivoting to face the customer and embracing the uncertainty of testing products and services on external customers.

Forget about playing it safe. Companies that create inventions that draw a crowd anticipate what customers want and need before consumers know it themselves–and then deliver it before anyone else. You should dive into the dark to find the undiscovered space and emphasize what you don’t know rather than what you do know. Yes, to innovate radically, you have to amplify ignorance.

Most CIOs are in the habit of knowing and supplying all the answers. Business-unit managers and employees have beaten a path to IT’s door and demanded assistance. However, the knocking isn’t as steady as it used to be. In the era of the consumerization of IT, executives and employees are taking full advantage of their newfound ability to exploit today’s technology themselves.

It’s time to unlearn the notion that you should wait until you’re asked for help, and dispense with the urge to have all the answers up-front. Instead, reach out to business-unit managers and employees with questions about what they need to innovate. Ditch the idea of being a technology distributor and step into the role of strategic counselor. Focus on asking questions and listen intently. You may feel like you’re operating from a position of weakness, but this act is quietly powerful. So is turning your attention to information that’s outside of your enterprise.

For years, we have focused on collecting and analyzing data generated internally–orders, payments, sales leads and employee performance, for example–to make business decisions. Now, there are treasure troves of publicly available data that weren’t previously accessible. You can marry outside data from the government, marketing agencies, business partners and social media with internal data to unearth hidden pathways to new products and services. Big data’s big potential lies in taking an outside-in approach to decision-making. Unlearn the notion that the only data you need is the data you create.

The final thing you need to unlearn is something that you should have never learned in the first place: outsourcing software engineering. You’re not alone. Everyone got carried away. Vendors were fast and cheap. Outsourcing was hard to resist, but we went overboard and gave away a core skill set that is critical to exploring new ideas. Bring software-building skills–requirements management, architecture, prototyping and user-interface design–back in-house so you can quickly visualize the possibilities of innovation and share that information with business-unit managers.

The good news is that it’s never been a more exciting time to be a CIO. Technology is at the heart of innovation and the power to make the impossible possible is in the palm of your hand. Step outside the IT department and forge relationships with business managers. Delegate so you can set aside time to dream about how you can play a central role in inventing the next must-have product or service. Unlearn so you can lead.

Chris Curran is a principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers and chief technologist for the U.S. firm’s advisory practice.

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