CIOs spill secrets for innovative IT

What does it take to stay innovative in the ever-changing world of IT? Well, over a dozen CIO 100 winners may have the answer. Their 15 secrets for success are listed below.

1. Don’t rest on your laurels
“You continuously have to try to improve IT’s position,” says Foley & Lardner CIO Doug Caddell. “You have to build credibility, capitalize on successes and market IT. If you don’t, no one will.”

2. Spend time on organizational design
“Most IT people don’t think in deep and nuanced ways about human systems the way they do about computer systems,” says Vince Kellen, VP of IS at DePaul University. “IT organizations are often under engineered. But they should be treated like any large technology project.” The goal is to align employee talents with organizational needs.

3. If you love innovation, set it free
“It’s easy to get into the trap of thinking, we innovate it, so we own it,” says Scott Sullivan, VP of information technology and services for Pitt Ohio Express. But the real success of IT-led business innovation comes only when the business takes ownership. “It’s hard to do. It’s your baby,” says Sullivan. “But when it comes to IT-driven innovation, you have to let it go.”

4. Get stakeholder skin in the game
For David Behen, deputy county administrator and CIO for Washtenaw County, Mich., the key to successful innovation is to get stakeholder buy-in-not just philosophically but literally. “Get them to put forward some form of resources,” says Behen, whether it’s human capital, assets or money. “Once you have that, it’s pretty hard to stop the momentum.”

5. Assume anything can be improved
“You have to have the courage to examine what has been the norm and ask yourself why, and then ask yourself why again, and ask yourself why a third time,” says Tim Harvey, executive VP of global distribution services and CIO of Hilton Hotels. Any process has the potential to be more efficient. “You have to find where things can be changed to satisfy customer demand while at the same time improving internal operational results.”

6. Make business people comfortable
“If I put my IT staff in an 18-wheeler and asked them to drive, they’d be pretty scared,” says Chris Luter, IT director of Veridian Homes. And “if you’re talking to the business in a way that is intimidating, you won’t create a partnership with them.” So Luter avoids techy jargon.

7. Test, and test again
Washington Mutual commissions focus groups to test-drive customer-facing applications while they are under development. “It isn’t until we establish what is going to work best for our customers that we build the software,” says CIO Deb Horvath.

8. Think broadly about ROI
A large-scale IT project’s return on investment isn’t always delivered in neatly packaged cold, hard figures. For this reason, Randy Headrick, Air National Guard’s CIO and director of communications and information, recommends factoring in cost-avoidance variables – such as fines you won’t have to pay or employees you won’t have to add to the payroll – for a more accurate assessment of a project’s financial impact.

9. Look for silver linings
Required projects such as complying with regulations don’t have to be painful if you use them as opportunities to improve operations, says Ron DePoalo, CTO of the Merrill Lynch Global Private Client technology group. He used Check 21 legislation (which encourages banks to process check images rather than paper) as a catalyst to improve customer service and save money.

10. Use what you have
Winning management buy-in on an enterprise-wide IT project isn’t only about justifying investment dollars. Rather, says Karan Sorensen, CIO at Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development, it’s equally important to take advantage of existing resources “so that when you look from a cost perspective, there’s a high degree of leveraging.”

11. Explain yourself
Major innovation can mean major changes in how employees work. Delphi CIO Bette Walker says it’s important to deliver a clear, consistent and concise message to frontline workers to avoid attrition and poor morale. A carefully crafted strategic communications plan shouldn’t just appeal to senior-level executives.

12. The best solution may not be yours
“I can code in seven different languages, but I’m a business guy,” says Samuel Gaer, executive VP and CIO of the New York Mercantile Exchange. When Gaer proposed listing Nymex’s energy futures contracts on the well-established Globex platform run by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, he told his boss: “This has nothing to do with a lack of faith in our abilities; this has everything to do with a forward-looking business relationship.”

13. Seek skills you don’t have
A successful collaboration pairs partners with complementary skills. “Mitch [Davis, CIO at Bowdoin College] is the king of the creative idea,” says Erin Griffin, VP of IT and CIO of Loyola Marymount University. “I’m a process and planning person.” The two organizations built a joint disaster recovery system. “Not only did our staffs have complementary skills,” says Griffin. “We did as well.”

14. Grow with the business
To be considered a partner in innovation, IT needs to move forward in sync with the business. “If [the business] keeps looking backward and IT is still in the same place, that’s a problem,” says K&L Gates CIO Steven Agnoli. Moreover, your IT strategy must mirror (and help to realize) the strategic goals of the business. Thinking too far ahead can create just as much of a mismatch as not moving fast enough.

15. Harness creativity through diversity
At the outset of a project, bring together the best and brightest from a multitude of disciplines, recommends Marriott VP of Enterprise Security Kathy Memenza, who led the company’s project to encrypt and monitor the use of credit card data using public key technology. Team members from enterprise technology planning and engineering, architecture, and security, among other Marriott departments, brought unique and varied experiences related to protecting and using customer data that no single person or single department possessed alone.

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