Top 10 drivers for innovation

A CIO I spoke with recently says he has had it with technology. “We have all of the technology we need,” he says. “What we are lacking is the innovative use of that technology-that’s the really tough part.” I asked several members of the CIO Executive Council to talk about how they foster innovation inside their own companies. According to Council member Stephen Warren, CIO of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, “Innovation is doing something in a new, unexpected way,” he says. “It’s an epiphany, an aha.” But contrary to popular belief, innovation doesn’t have to result in business transformation or a huge expense. As members of the Council demonstrate below, innovation can be subtle, manageable and a core part of the IT organization.

1. DELEGATE THE FIRE FIGHTING. “You cannot drive innovation while you’re putting out operational fires,” says Carl Ascenzo, CIO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts. “Hire the best operations team you can, and stay out of their way.”

2. ESTABLISH CREDIBILITY. Trust breeds innovation, and communication breeds trust. Establish a formal communication program, as Jim Burdiss, CIO of Smurfit-Stone Container, has done. “Our Office of Continuous Improvement (OCI) is responsible for communicating with the enterprise on anything that has a technical impact,” he says. “If power goes down at a plant, the OCI lets everyone know. Without the OCI, we’d have a tougher time innovating.”

3. ACCEPT AND SEEK CRITICISM. “Not every idea is a good one, and some are downright lousy,” says Dave Clarke, VP and CTO at the American Red Cross. “To improve your ideas, ruthlessly seek out criticism. If you can’t bear to hear that your baby’s ugly, you won’t be a successful innovator.”

4. PROVE IT. Does the idea save money? Does it increase real productivity? Will it work? “Nothing ruins your credibility faster than a business case full of holes,” says Clarke. “Do your homework and get some feedback before you start shopping your idea around.”

5. LOOK AROUND. Staying inside your organization and keeping the lights on may be instinctual during down times, but it is hardly a pathway to innovation. “You have to look outside your frame of reference,” says Kent Kushar, CIO of E&J Gallo Winery. “You don’t have to be the first wagon out of the fort, but if you want to be a fast follower, you have to get out there with your customers and see what’s going on.” The same goes for your staff, says Larry Brown, CIO of Arch Coal. “The people in the trenches need to know that they have the flexibility to look at innovative alternatives.”

6. AVOID TECHNOLOGY WORSHIP. A project need not involve brand-new technologies to be innovative. “Stay off the bleeding edge,” warns Jeff Peterson, CIO of UNICCO. “Innovation is much more likely with tested and proven IT. At UNICCO, for example, we used a low-end portal toolkit to test an innovative account-management concept for how we collaborate with our customers. After receiving overwhelming interest from our customer base, we moved forward with Websphere, a proven technology.”

7. REVISIT THE STARTUPS. In addition to innovating inside their own companies, CIOs have a role to play driving innovation in the IT industry. As such, they need to start priming the startup pump again. “We all need to open the door a little wider for the startups that will drive the next generation of external innovation,” says Scott Hicar, CIO of Maxtor. “If CIOs can collectively agree to take at least one startup technology into consideration for your portfolio, the stream will start flowing again.”

8. TIGHTEN THE PURSE STRINGS. “Constraint breeds innovation,” says Clarke. “It’s very tempting, when money and resources flow freely, to stick with tried and true solutions. When money and resources are constrained, you have to find new and creative ways to solve problems.”

9. WATCH YOUR TIMING. “Innovative technologies are like a joke. It’s all in the timing,” says Gene Elias, CIO of Quiksilver. “Expecting operating units to participate in a new project at the drop of a hat is a surefire formula for failure.”

10. FIND OPPORTUNITIES IN PROBLEMS. Don’t get so lost in a problem that you miss out on the opportunity it provides. “Let’s say an application fails because some servers are misconfigured,” says the FTC’s Warren. “While you’re doing a physical walk-down of your infrastructure to solve the problem, emerge with a baseline architecture.”

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