The CIO link between outlandish and IT innovation


Embrace the outlandish.

It might be the philosophy of filmmaker Woody Allen, performer Lady Gaga or entrepreneur Richard Branson, but should it be the thinking of your organization?

Yes, says John Oesch, assistant professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

If you want to be innovative you have to think outside the box, he recently told CIO Canada’s 2010 Exchange, and that means looking at things from different angles.


How different? Trying asking staff ‘How can we make customer service bad?’ That’s what will get them thinking.

“We tend not to be rewarded for producing outlandish ideas,” Oesch told the Toronto audience. Yet looking at process or products in wildly different ways can generate ideas that move an organization ahead of the competition, he said.

Take just-in-time inventory, Oesch said — the idea that manufacturers should keep only a day or two’s worth of inventory on hand. Or delivering packages around the world within 24 hours.

Brainstorming sessions are supposed to churn out ideas like these by the dozens. However, many brainstorming meetings get bogged down for a lack of creative thinking, he said.

But Oesch insisted creative thinking can be taught. “It’s a set of skills,” he said.

What blocks creating thinking is human nature. In effect, we’re judgment machines, quick to make decisions on eveyone’s ideas (including our own). But that suppresses creativity, he pointed out.

“In business, our reality is our social constructions,” he argued. “The social psychology [of people] strongly favours putting the brakes on stopping innovation. We worry about what others think of us.”

Training your staff to realize that can be a big step, Oesch said. So in a brainstorming session, staff may have to be encouraged to turn off their judgment systems — perhaps by asking for outlandish ideas (‘What would happen if we promoted randomly, and not by job appraisals?’… ‘What’s the advantage of giving personal tax breaks on the spin of a wheel?’).

That can lead to reframing problems – like the hotel chain that had a rule that people could only check out before 11 a.m. and check in after 3 p.m. Why not let guests check in and out when they want, as long as they notify the front desk?

Imitation shouldn’t be feared in brainstorming, Oesch added. That’s how the founder of FedEx got the idea of 24 hour package delivery – by copying it from the way U.S. banks process cheques. “Is this innovative?” he asked. “Damn right it is.”

Brainstorming sessions have to be structured, he added, lead by a facilitator. Let the ideas pour out for a few minutes, then stop and categorize them. Do several rounds. Creating categories should spin off more ideas.

There will be a learning curve, Oesch warned, but it will be worth it.


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