I know what you're thinking, not another article on innovation! Well, it must be one of the most widely written about topics and one that's spawned a whole industry in its own right. So, why does innovation really matter and how can your organisation successfully innovate in your own field? [See also: 13 ways CIOs are embracing disruptive innovation and digital disruption]
From my own experience of leading highly impactful innovation programmes as well as reading countless books on the topic I've tried to condense some of common themes that might help you and organisation – whether large or small, single country focused or global, private or public. Here are some practical lessons for both the seasoned innovator and those new to the topic:
1. You don't have to reinvent the wheel
Many people are put off understanding more about the topic by believing that innovations must be ground-breaking and while many are, fundamentally it's about doing something differently or applying a solution or technique in a different way for your own environment. It's worth separating the process of innovation from invention which fundamentally requires creating something from scratch. An 'innovation' may be revolutionary or games changing such as the 3M Post It Note or it may simply make doing what you do a bit easier.
It can help by trying categorise your initiatives based on the likely impact they will bring and anticipated effort from 'subtle' but impactful requiring focus and effort but not vast investments through to 'transformational' where high risk bets might need to be made.
2. Ownership doesn't rest with the CIO
The impact of a successful innovation initiative will have wide reaching benefits but for long term success innovation should not and must not be exclusively driven by those holding the technology agenda. We may be the custodians of an initiative and have a more substantial role than many in deploying solutions but fundamentally in my experience for 'innovative' approaches to really succeed they must be driven by an underlying organisation need and strong functional sponsors who will support, celebrate and adopt the fruits of all your hard earnt labours in their own areas. Frankly, there is little point the CIO and their team crafting a new tool for the Operations team if they aren't going to use it.
The best ideas are ones that solve a problem and through a strong understanding of your business partner's wants and needs you will be able to self-assess ideas as they go through your mind or cross your table and ensure that you try and get support for those initiatives that will have a real impact.
That being said, as the CIO taking ownership to get an initiative off the ground is an important component of your business partnership role so by directing some of your hard fought budget into this topic can reap significant organisation as well as personal benefits but be prepared to have to invest in projects that might fall at one of the many hurdles along the way – that's part of the activity too!
3. Wide contributions enrich problem solving
The starting point for driving a fresh approach should be the employees that are living and breathing the day to day challenges or can see exciting opportunities. For many individuals being asked to work on the new and different can be inspiring and highly engaging and as such must be the goal of every leader to use the strengths of their own team whilst also helping them develop. That being said, however large or complex your organisation and however great your own people are don't just look internally for inspiration or ideas to solve your business needs or maximise opportunities. Look at partnering with other organisations in your local area that you have particular respect for or have a reputation in their own field. Consider striking a partnership your local University as there may be undergraduate or MBA programmes you can collaborate with to share investigations subject to appropriate NDAs or confidentiality agreements.
How about reaching out within your community for crowdsourced ideas that you can then craft and shape into reality? In fact crowdsourced ideas or for that matter really bringing an idea to life with the help of the public is something industrial giant Sony has recently started in Japan with its 'First Flight' initiative by giving the community the opportunity to rate and even fund ideas its employees come up with.
4. It's not just about being 'creative'
If we accept that on one level innovation is simply about doing something differently or better, then the outputs can really focus on the things you do all the time that need to be; faster, smarter or better. Much has been written about ensuring that you embed a formalised process of problem solving and ideas generation into the day to day of your organisation so avoid the temptation to single out the topic too much. The old adage is the story of the CIO who gives his team "30 minutes per day to come up with ideas", really, it doesn't work like that.
Creativity may come into the process particular when it comes to the initial spark of ideas but fundamentally it's about a structured process of assessing and exploring solutions that will involve a creative skillset at one or multiple points.
5. Define the benefits and celebrate success!
If we accept the premise that however good an idea it must make a difference in some way, well taking this one step further it must have some measurable benefit ideally financial. When assessing innovations why not adopt the same approach that you would when assessing a business case or considering an investment because that's exactly what it is – an investment of resources that should make a return in some way. It could be to reduce your cost of operations, it could increase your product or service margins or lead to increased revenue opportunities – whatever the benefits, define them, measure them, review and then celebrate the achievements of those involved on the journey.
So, you're probably doing much of this already which is fantastic news but if getting on the rollercoaster puts you off start small, strap yourself in and begin challenging the way you do things - define a structure, identify some key people to help you and start exploring new ways of assisting your people and your organisation and then sit back and celebrate!
Chris Eversfield has worked in IT leadership positions for the last 20 years, most recently as adidas Group's Senior Director for IT covering Northern Europe before setting up his own boutique firm, Attitude Advisory