IT innovation as easy as Rice Krispie Squares

Every time my wife makes Rice Krispie squares – which is not nearly often enough – I’m reminded of a commercial in which what is obviously a mother is sitting in her kitchen, a batch of the homestyle treats on a plate before her, while outside in the living room the kids can be heard asking her when she’ll be done. “These things take time,” she says, barely looking up from the book she’s reading. Before she brings the Rice Krispie squares out, she throws a bit of flour on her face and feigns an expression of exhaustion.

This is the modus operandi that seasoned innovators may need to use. Certainly Apple does. How else to greet the lukewarm reception of its latest iPod, a launch that called some observers to question its entire go-to-market strategy.

“Year after year CEO Steve Jobs theatrically doles out groundbreaking products like rabbits out of a hat, from the Shuffle to the iPhone,” said the article in Maclean’s. “Investors expect more of the same, but meeting those big expectations is becoming near impossible.”

No, not near-impossible. Just impossible. And it’s the same for any other innovator. If you manage to wow your audience once, you might be able to endure the sophomore slump if you’re lucky. It’s once you’re a senior that things get really tough, and that’s what Apple is facing now. Apple is primarily fighting, of course, in a consumer market space, where the pressure to hit another one out of the park is particularly strong. But even among business users, it’s hard to marry innovation to a release cycle.

At Toronto Tech Week I sat in on a panel discussion with a couple of major outsourcers. An executive from one of them talked about how outsourcers can be expected to bring business transformation constantly, on a year-by-year basis. Much like cost arbitrage, this is a major incentive for farming out IT, he said, and productivity is another yardstick by which such transformation (the end product of innovation) is measured. I kept wondering how you spell that out in the contract, however. If more gets done, is it a result of “innovation” or just an efficiently run operation and perhaps a decrease in demand from the customer? If it’s something truly groundbreaking, do you get awarded a premium or bonus? And who decides?

Most IT managers would probably consider themselves fortunate if their biggest problem was continuing to impress senior management with their innovative work. Instead, many of them are focused on simply keeping the lights on and trying not to be blamed for user errors. Should they enjoy some major success however, managing expectations becomes an even greater challenge than following up their previous accomplishment. Yet, if they become the strategic enablers of business everyone says they are supposed to become, than innovation will subtly be written into their job description. When that happens, they will discover that IT-business alignment is not merely being a technology visionary but making sure the vision is doled out in modest doses. Innovation is seldom easy but it’s better if it looks hard. At the very least, it better look harder than making a batch of Rice Krispie Squares.

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