Let’s please make this a collective New Year’s resolution: Any attempt to outsource innovation should be treated as an insult to the IT department.
Just before the holidays I read a piece in the New York Times Magazine called, “In Search of the Perfect Brainstorm.” It chronicled the rise of various organizations that focus on innovation or fostering it in other companies. They hold special off-site conferences to get executives building imaginary businesses, or doing physical exercises to limber up their creative skills. The main firm profiled, Jump Associates, sounded particularly impressive, and comes with a considerable track record of more than 10 years:
Jump’s work has elements of management consulting and a bit of design-firm draftsmanship, but its specialty is conceiving new businesses, and what it sells is really the art of innovation. The company is built on the premise that creative thinking is a kind of expertise. Like P.&G. and Mars, you can hire Jump to think on your behalf, for somewhere between $200,000 to $500,000 a month, depending on the complexity and ambiguity of the question you need answered. Or you can ask Jump to teach your corporation how to generate better ideas on its own; Jump imparts that expertise in one- and five-day how-to-brainstorm training sessions that can cost $200,000 for a one-day session for 25 employees.
As I read through the article I noticed a few things. There was little discussion of who else in an enterprise might own the innovation agenda, and almost no mention of anything related to technology. This is interesting since technology is often the tool used to execute innovative strategies.
Then I started thinking about the qualities of the employees of Jump Associates and their ilk as described in the story: super-high energy, a little eccentric, and an aversion to being called consultants. Contrast that with IT departments. The perception of eccentricity is there but, given their often inordinate workloads and high pressure, the energy may be less than super-high. And though they are often internal consultants, they are treated and sometimes act more like order-takers.
The companies who employ Jump Associates clearly aren’t seeing the initiative and ingenuity within their own four walls that could spark new ideas within their technology staff. Probably few of them would take seriously the idea of their IT department leading them through warm-up stretches before facilitating dialogues around new business plans. But why not? IT departments are often filled with supremely effective problem solvers with a good knowledge of how organizations work as a whole and individually. Perhaps before IT managers are often forced to work well within difficult constraints CEOs do not turn to them to brainstorm new ventures where the worries about resources need to be temporarily put aside.
Here’s your challenge: study these kinds of firms – their culture, their approach to business people and their techniques for creating collaborative solutions. Maybe you could make more money by joining them and becoming a consultant to other firms. But to be a sort of internal Jump Asssociates that transforms your organization – wouldn’t that ultimately be far more fulfilling? I can think of few better ways to dive into 2011.