IT leadership can often be a very 'seat of the pants' experience; not unlike the accident and emergency department of most hospitals on a Saturday night. You have mastered the art of triage, often having to weigh up the demands of the most aggressive against those who are most in need.
But of late, you have noticed that many of your 'clients' are increasing arriving with the same condition. It's probably some sort of virus, but it's critical that it doesn't get out of control. The condition might be referred to as digitalis innovaphilia, an incorrigible urge to (have you) explore new things using new technology. The condition is quite acute, and usually is constrained to the extreme end of the reality spectrum, ranging from science fiction right through to thoughts that only some form of psychedelic experience could generate.
Of course the users expect innovation, but the media, and the futurists, are blurring fantasy and reality. And it's making you look like the guy that put the 'no' in innovation.
But for many CIOs, innovation is akin to having you perform with more spinning plates, some of which haven't been given much of a spin to begin with. Naturally this can lead to innovation being perceived as nothing more than another headache, particularly when time is of the essence and no extra budget is forthcoming.
Worse still, users are cloaking their demands in algebraic terms. Rather than give you a shopping list of what new tech they want, they describe their need in terms of their requirements, e.g. profitability, productivity, customer experience and so on, leaving you to reverse engineer how you might deliver on their outlandish requests.
There are two approaches:
- Immunise the users.
- Genetically modify the virus to limit its damage.
Immunising the users would only work if they trusted you. And for many organisations that trust is not there. We still haven't been forgiven for Y2K or the 'thinning' out of their beloved PCs.
So I suggest genetic modification. In essence, the users won't believe you, but they will believe what they see. With this in mind, I encourage you to set up an innovation centre. This is initially an exercise in expectation management, where you show users the art of the possible.
Possibly all your budget is tied up in 'run the business' technology management? Well get leaner in order to free up some operational budget for building an innovation centre. If necessary, you will have to start modestly. But the sooner you start the better, in order to limit the contagion.
Start with open days, with a view to being always open. Invest in business development staff. Their job will be to promote your innovation centre and draw users to it. Once enthralled by the experience, the next stage is to close deals, i.e. get them to pay for further innovative exploration. Make it easy for them. Accept cash and headcount. When people pay for innovation, you will find the plates spin faster and so require less management.
At the very least you can start educating the users in terms of where the various technologies sit in respect of hype cycles and s-curves, thereby managing their instant gratification urges.
Innovation projects can range from turning today's technology into operational value through to turning tomorrow's technology into business reinvention. Get this right and you will be presiding over your own lean startup, where the users define the path of the business.
Reward your best people by moving them to the innovation centre. Ultimately your aim is to free up your department's collective cognitive capacity to focus primarily on moving the business forward rather than solely reactive technology management.
As you become increasingly profitable, you can start to play around with prototyping new business models. How might you embrace the practices of low cost airlines, social enterprises and povertised entrepreneurship in your existing model? Perhaps one such experiment might fly and so require a new CEO?!
You will know that your genetic manipulation of the virus has been successful, when the users see you as the driver of innovation, rather than being an obstacle to it. You have the choice to either lead a constantly under siege A&E function, or run a crowd-pleasing (and safe) theme park.