How IT leaders can define and drive IT innovation

While innovation is a goal of most organizations, many IT leaders are hard-pressed to define what innovation is. The CIO Executive Council outlines four essential principles for IT leaders to keep in mind as they develop or hone their strategies.

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Rather than passively sitting on the sidelines, IT leaders must take responsibility for accelerating change, and realize they are accountable for contributing to the culture. The most innovative behaviors in the CEC survey revolved around human interaction: collaboration, mentorships, and the sharing of a vision. By assertively making the choice to foster this sort of collaboration, IT leaders will be better suited than ever to drive their organization – and, perhaps, their industry – forward.

The 4 principles of IT innovation

There are four essential principles that define and drive IT innovation that every IT leader must keep in mind as they develop or hone their strategies, according to the CIO Executive Council Research Board:

1) ROI-backed innovation is sustainable innovation. Innovation must solve, or prevent, a problem or provide a shortcut to a tangible anticipated result (e.g., a new revenue stream or an enhanced customer experience). That means that a laser-like focus on outcomes is paramount, coupled with extensive communication across the enterprise.

“To be more innovative, you have to be close to your business partners where they have real problems,” says Kristie Grinnell, vice president and CIO at General Dynamics. “Solve the problems with business-led IT on a small scale basis and then if the innovation is the right answer you can scale for the rest of the business.”

Julius Tomei, chief customer and information officer, and head of supply chain at Focal Point, agrees. “Innovation must have a purpose tied to the business and its customers,” he says. “Innovation is not about the latest and greatest technology or gadget – it’s about how we can do things better – whether that’s the right person for the right job, better processes, or [making] better use of the existing technology.”

Raj Singh, CIO at FordDirect, is one of the 53 percent of IT leaders in the CEC survey who have employed an innovation lab to meet this goal. “With the current pace of change in technology,” he says, “innovation is now the oxygen for any organization striving to be a disruptor. Every organization must have an innovation center with a license to go ‘outside of the lane,’ operate without constraints, and explore future trends without the fear of failure.”

“At FordDirect,” Singh adds, “we challenge our Innovation Lab to keep an eye on evolving technology, monitor changes in consumers’ behavior and model future needs. The Innovation Lab’s goal is to focus on future value creation and solve future problems, four to five years from today.”

2) Collaboration cultures become innovation cultures. Culture is perhaps the single most important determining factor when it comes to innovation. Yet is impossible to objectively quantify culture – a messy mixture of complementary and competing personalities, tasks, drives, and agendas. It is far more profitable to focus on what IT leaders can control – namely, formalized, specific actions – that drive innovation, and allow those quick wins to help shape and define culture, which is malleable.

“Build opportunities to surface innovative ideas and disruptive innovation into your standard operating process,” says Kevin Neifert, CIO at Raytheon Company. “This allows leaders on your team, and innovators in your organization, to surface ideas and provides an opportunity for you to visibly demonstrate your support of innovative thinking. You won’t be able to take action on every idea, but that’s OK. The value of fostering a culture that embraces innovation far outweighs the negatives of the few things you might not be able to support.”

3) Trust is the currency of dynamic IT organizations. Trust is both a leading and lagging indicator of innovation. Only trusted IT leaders are given the leeway to drive change in the first place; and increased trust is the intangible benefit that innovative IT leaders bring back to their respective departments.

Trust is also the accelerant that turns colleagues into innovation advocates. IT leaders must “continually engage those who can help champion your idea and help accelerate it to becoming a success,” says Frank Ribitch, senior vice president technology for the Americas at IPG Mediabrands.

“Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes,” adds Focal Point’s Julius Tomei. “Successful IT leaders are passionate about the business and look for opportunities to be impactful. They must be a business partner first and an IT leader second.”

4) Innovation is change, and change creates emotional reactions. Resistance to change is natural. Innovation efforts are simultaneously energizing and destabilizing. People fear loss of control and autonomy, and warily try to sort out what the ‘new normal’ really represents. Depending on the nature and scope of the change, jobs could be at stake.

There is no magic bullet, but IT leaders who are effective at change management rely on two key attributes: transparency and flexibility. They must discuss the potential opportunities and pitfalls candidly and make themselves completely available to their peers. And they must be nimble enough to guide their colleagues, point by point, to long-term success.

“Innovation by nature is creating a change within your organization,” says IPG Mediabrands’ Frank Ribitch. “Change is often met with emotion, which can help quickly derail your initiative. To combat this, be nimble. You’ll find not everything will work as you had initially anticipated. Learn from your iterations and adapt appropriately.”

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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