As an IT leader, being able to foster innovation not only benefits the IT itself, with greater efficiency, effectiveness and value, but the organisation it serves and you personally, as it illustrates your ability to be an internal agent of change, a true business partner, and an asset at the strategy table.
1. Define and articulate your definition of IT innovation
Asking your team to be innovative is like asking an athlete to play better. While it may feel motivational and instructive to say it, it’s most often taken as disapproving and vague to the person receiving it. So if you want people to innovate, define specifically what you’re looking for them to do. Think specificity.
My definition of IT innovation: The successful creation, implementation, enhancement, or improvement of a technical process, business process, software product, hardware product, or cultural factor that reduces costs, enhances productivity, increases organisational competitiveness, or provides other business value.
While this description is rather long, use its components and concepts to define your own definition, based on your organisation’s current needs and your future IT vision.
2. Recognise the difference between project management and R&D
IT projects by nature are very project-management oriented. They have clearly defined deadlines, specific cost estimates and deliverables, and calculated and expected ROI. True R&D has a totally different set of rules, measurements, and expectations.
With R&D type projects, you can’t add to your plan that the big discovery and breakthrough will happen on a specific day. It doesn’t work that way. The big breakthrough will happen when it’s ready, or maybe not at all.
As a result, with R&D type projects, ROI can’t be reliably calculated; deliverables, other than status and budget reports, can’t be predicted; and total cost to implementation can’t be effectively estimated.
So as an IT leader, if you want to foster R&D-type activities within your organisation, you have to judge both the project, and those working on it, using R&D-based, not project-based, criteria.
3. Build an innovation pipeline
Building an innovative culture is not only people-oriented but process-oriented. You must develop a formalised process that identifies, collects, evaluates and implements innovative ideas. Without this process, great ideas and potential innovations die on the vine.
There also has to be an appreciation and understanding that innovative ideas can come from many directions, including your employees, internal business partners, customers, vendors, competitors, or through accidental discovery. The reason it’s important to define your most likely sources of innovative ideas is so you can create idea collection processes for each individual source.
4. Embrace the unfair expectation of others toward IT
The IT and business processes you design, the software you develop, and the services you provide are mentally compared by your user base to vendor-purchased software, industry best practices, and services that cost tens of millions of dollars to create, maintain, and deliver. It’s not fair, but we do it too.
As a result, the evaluation of new processes and software must be viewed through this unfair lens and if implemented, expectations must be properly set as to what will be initially delivered, and, maybe, enhanced over time. Incorrectly inflated expectations can hurt IT’s reputation in general and stifle business agreement to fund your team’s innovative ideas.
5. Follow the “Form and Content” doctrine
This doctrine maintains that all deliverables, no matter how big or small, must have both form and content. Form is how it looks. Content is what it says or how it works. This should be followed for documents, systems, processes, and anything else delivered to others. Form without content is a new system that looks really good but doesn’t do what people want.
Content without form illustrates that the person or group delivering it undersells and isn’t proud enough of their work to make it look good. From a fostering innovation perspective, all implemented ideas must follow this doctrine, or your department’s new innovations won’t be well received, thus, putting your whole innovation objective at risk.
6. Recognise and promote internal innovations
Employees tend to concentrate on the objectives, tasks, and values that their manager articulates as being important. Therefore, if you don’t pay attention or support innovative ideas suggested by your staff and others, then neither will they.
So talk about innovation in your staff meetings, and when an idea is implemented, publicly praise the person who suggested it and the people who implemented it.
This public praise uses the same concept as posting a picture of the “employee of the month” so other employees see it and will work harder in the hopes of being showcased the next month. There are many employees who wouldn’t be interested in this designation, but it’s very motivating for those who do.
7. Provide a safe environment when innovation fails
When an innovative idea is suggested to you, good or bad, praise the person’s effort, interest, and the initiative. When good ideas are presented, they’re placed in the innovation pipeline previously discussed.
Less attractive ideas can become teaching moments, from you to the employee, on why they won’t work combined with pointers on what constitutes ideas that would be more likely to gain traction.
And should you approve an idea, allowing the employee to spend time on its completion, and it fails, praise the effort and don’t blame the employee or they may never suggest an innovative idea again.