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PHOTO: Ian Schneider

Innovation doesn’t just happen. As Rita McGrath argues in "Seeing Around Corners," innovation requires a corporate commitment at all levels to create a portfolio of wins, as well as cadres of highly skilled practitioners.

Given this, how do we develop adaptive corporations that successfully manage for today as well as for the future? How can organizations set in place the people, processes and technology needed to succeed today, and at the very same time build for future business requirements? This is a great question for CIOs who are living with change day in and day out.

What People and Process Barriers Do Organizations Need to Overcome?

Innovation starts with education. Those leading the change need to know where to go with their new ideas. They also need to perceive where there is a reward for taking what can be personal risk in pursuing an idea. And in cases where CIOs are themselves pushing the organization forward — being what Deloitte calls change instigators — they need to partner with the influencers within their company to get innovation happening. This means CIOs need to consciously build the right relationships and open processes for working with business counterparts.

At the same time, CIOs need to make it clear that it is acceptable to learn and fail. Without this understanding, it's hard to tell people not to worry about failure. A culture that look to place blame when something goes wrong will not succeed at innovation. 

According to CIO Paige Francis, organizations fail at innovation where “historically mistakes were penalized or there is immature staff and culture. All surmountable with focus, buy-in and lots of energy. You have to build the right environment to succeed.” With the right culture, energy on the technical side, organizations can move “to quelling the effect of tech debt and paved cow paths, which pulls time, energy and headspace away from innovation,” said former CIO Joanna Young. The final ingredient is adding experimentation to the innovation process. Former CIO Isaac Sacolick said, “innovation is more than business change, it's transformational, especially at the executive level. Experimenting, incremental planning, feedback-driven pivots, proofs of concepts, pilots for many are a relatively new, but they are key to innovation and digital transformation.” For these to work, leadership needs to show it accepts not only experimentation but a continuous fail, learn, innovate cycle.

Part of all this is CIOs accepting the mandate for IT leaders to become business people, to learn to speak the language of business, to understand current business processes and the limitations current operations are creating.

Related Article: How the CIO and CHRO Will Rethink Employee Experience Together

Building a Cadre of Business Innovators

For CIO Deb Gildersleeve, “having the internal influencers in place is a great basis for a center of excellence model that can be augmented throughout the rest of the organization.” Successful CIOs understand that having IT aligned with business people, and getting to know them as people, matters. CIOs should set the standard here by working with line of business leaders to establish a culture of innovation that permeates the entire organization. Former CIO Tim McBreen said, “he used influencer partnerships to instill innovation in the organization and establish business innovators. They got all the credit with IT supporting them. We never said IT did it. We said business did it and influencers got the credit in all leadership meetings.”

For this reason, it is critical that CIOs facilitate an innovation platform where ideas can be shared to solve company problems and people can comment, discuss and vote for the best ideas. At the same time, small, dedicated corporate investments, including money and time, should be allocated to develop the new ideas every month or quarter. The goal should be to let them fail fast and learn. To deliver on this, former CIO Joanna Young said, “find leaders and influencers that are closest to the customer in product, sales and support. Get a couple of really great ideas implemented. Once people see their innovations become a reality and get recognized, a flywheel affect will be created.” With success, everything comes back to what McBreen suggested above — celebrating successes and building a culture of recognition.

Related Article: What You Can Do to Build an Innovative Ecosystem

Creating an Organization That Does Not Say 'We Tried This Before'

Sacolick suggests organizations “find people that are ready to ask questions and challenge the status quo and then provide them the technology to drive change including self-service tools, low-code platforms, and the invitation to be a stakeholder to new investments.” He continued by saying “don't push innovation. Instead, do innovation.” This means doing the following:

  • Acquiring supporters.
  • Experimenting and improving.
  • Scaling the successful innovations.
  • Marketing wins internally and championing supporters.

CIO Martin Davis agreed with Sacolick, stating, “innovation is best when it is natural and not forced. It needs the right environment to succeed. This environment should encourage people to experiment within certain boundaries and not fear failing.” Meanwhile, Young said, “to the last point, organizational memory is long regarding innovation initiatives that resulted in people's careers being impacted negatively. Leaders must commit to a reward and recognition system for innovation including ideas and experiments that don't come to fruition.”

The goal for CIOs should be as CIO Pedro Martinez Puig suggests “to create a funnel of innovation where employees are able to dedicate part of their time and some resources to experimenting. And whether there is success, move forward, or fail, it is critical that you share your learnings.” Clearly, 2020 represented for some, a baptism by fire. According to Gildersleeve, “2020 forced us all to innovate. It is part of the new normal. Now more than ever organizations know they have to be agile and open to change.”

Related Article: Turn Your Enterprise Social Network Into an Innovation Pipeline

Should the I in CIO Stand For Innovation, Information or Both?

Davis said, “[the I] has always stood for more than one thing. For some, it was about integration. To be fair, sometimes it’s only IT that can really see in detail across the organization and is therefore in a unique position to innovate.” Young agreed, but said, “more important regardless of I that one executive, reporting to CEO, and be accountable for all technology in majority of organizations.”

CIO David Seidl added, “I think we all need to remember to innovate and to keep asking ourselves from growing stale. But CIOs are often a wholly different animal for organizations, enough so that I'd not call it the same role.” Puig agrees and said, “innovation needs to be part of the company value system and pushed across teams, without IT not necessarily being in the center. If we play well along our role as facilitator, coach, and inspiration-provider, we should be more than satisfied. McBreen concluded by saying, “I prefer to not align innovation to any particular person or organization and hold company leadership down to mail clerk accountable.”

CIOs Play an Instrumental Role in Innovation

Innovation clearly cannot be on IT’s shoulders alone. But with that said, CIOs still need to be in the center of the action. They can no longer only be the place innovation gets delivered. As part of this, CIOs play a critical role in defining an innovation culture that seeks out change masters and in creating an environment where it is OK to experiment and to fail. The organizations who continue to succeed make innovation a core business capability and deliver innovation quickly out of what Geoffrey Moore calls the transformation zone.