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The prevailing challenge within the IT community today is successfully igniting the passions of innovation while remaining focused on delivering the operational excellence required for sustaining a company. As a matter of course and history, we know that there is no compromise in keeping the operations running effectively for the business. So the real question becomes, ‘how do you integrate a focus on innovation without crowding out the emphasis you’ve placed on reliably delivering IT operations?’ As I ponder this, I assess the situation from three complementary vantage points: Organization, Talent, and Culture.
The funny thing is when you think about creating a focus on innovation in your organization, it falls into a lineage with other significant change management challenges that companies are facing. Therefore, in addressing it as a ‘change to manage,’ it is wise to ask yourself the following questions:
• How do I organize to deliver innovation?
• What talent do I need to deliver innovation and do I have it today?
• Is my culture conducive to not just giving birth to innovative ideas but also nurturing them to bear fruit?
The question of how to organize for innovation must be assessed from the perspective of what part of the organization you are charging with delivering the innovation and how much time you are asking them to spend on it. Commonly, I’ve seen companies take two paths. The first entails challenging all parts of the team to deliver innovative ideas and commit 10-20 percent of their time driving it. The other approach involves dedicating a fully focused team 100 percent of the time. Both have pros and cons. In my experience, my strategy has been to start with the first scenario in order to get the organization trained and conditioned around the expectations, challenges, and potential of delivering innovation. As that effort matures, you’re able to get a read on the real capabilities of the team. Then, you can evolve into scenario two. At this stage, you’ve seen who can think, act, and deliver on the mission, as well as what talent gaps you must fill through consultative support or direct hiring.
"It’s important to assess your organization’s culture against the prevailing requirements in order to achieve good innovation"
To that point, you must conduct a critical assessment of the talent in your organization in relation their ability to innovate. It’s not an easy task, as you may have to create scenarios that give team members an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to think or create non-linearly because their job typically constrains them to think in linear, logical patterns. Ultimately, you can’t be afraid to shake it up a bit by moving people around, entrusting them to work on special projects, which will help you in assessing their broader skill set. It’s often the case that the routine of the current job fails to inspire creativity or innovation. So go shake it up!
Why does culture always creep into these types of debates and strategy discussions? Largely because any good harvest requires the right combination of soil, rain, and sun. The absence of any of these environmental factors can constrain the growth of even the best seeds. It’s important to assess your organization’s culture against the prevailing requirements in order to achieve good innovation. Many companies have to isolate, incubate, or create new environments or departments to ensure they can formulate the right environmental factors to encourage creativity and innovation. This is the hardest of the questions to answer when it comes to balancing operations and innovation, as you do not build a business to separate it from the core. While your natural inclination might be to hold this special project close to giving it all the support and sponsorship it needs for success, often it just needs room to spread its wings and grow.
Another consideration for culture is, realizing that sometimes the team needs the realness of failing on their own in order to truly motivate and drive their creativity. As I noted above, I’ve personally chosen to nurture first and then spinoff versus build it from scratch separately—but there is no perfect answer. The best answer is a function of the time, company, and technology involved.
In closing, when it comes to striking a balance between operations and innovation among my IT staff, I want every team member to be charged with knowing their business, business partners, and the challenges the business is trying to solve. It is imperative that the team learn first-hand the voice of the external customer, as well as what creates value in their industries. From there, the team has to feel inspired to build a hypothesis that addresses the real problems and empowered to experiment and create prototypes to solve that hypothesis. Most importantly, in all of this, I want their efforts to be visible to their business partners. If my team has to ask for my permission to innovate, then I have failed at a major part of my job. The key is to arrive at a place where the team feels empowered to innovate as a rule. For the long haul, I expect that identifying a focused team to cut loose on an innovation mission is going to produce the step-changing innovation we all desire.