IT people have developed a number of skills that are invaluable to lead the #innovation
We live in times where business volatility, new technologies, globalization and increased competition force business leaders to step back and question every aspect of their businesses.
Organizations must be continuously looking for breakthrough developments in their business models and the value they provide to their customers. So radical change and innovation is a must to meet the challenges ahead.
Effective innovation management should be led from the top, the CEO and the leadership team, and permeate through the organization.
But the reality is that everybody's business is nobody's business or, in other words, many commanders sink the ship.
So, assuming you have to designate a person to focus exclusively on driving innovation for your company, who's the best bet?
The solution can be right in front of you. The person that leads the IT in your organization is a serious contender for this role. The CIO has several skills that make him/her the right person for this vital job.
1. In-depth understanding of business processes
Nowadays IT is vital in all aspects of the company. There is no department within the company that does not manage all its processes through computer systems. This means that the IT department must understand in detail how each department of the company operates to propose, configure and support their computer systems. IT is the Big Brother within the organization. It doesn't mind if we're talking about the marketing team, the sales team, the financial team, the human resources team or the product management team. At some point, every team must explain its internal working procedures to the IT guy.
This is a specific advantage to the IT department. Other departments need to collaborate between them but none of them has the in-depth knowledge of how other teams operate. Even Financials or Human Resources, that also support all the other business departments, need not understand so deeply how the rest of the departments work.
And this extensive knowledge is crucial to propose innovations in the innermost workings of an enterprise.
2. Understanding the big picture
But the IT department also views the interrelationships that take place between the different parts of the company. They can see how the information flows around the company.
In fact, I've received multiple times similar requirements from different departments to develop software that covers the same functionalities.
Even worse, I've received requests to develop functionalities that should be responsibility of a different department, uncovering that this department tried to keep under its control information that should be centralized.
And what's even worse, I've received requests to develop utilities to help them prepare information for a different department that I knew for sure was absolutely unnecessary because we had developed a workaround to collect this information two years ago and nobody reported to this department they could stop sending this information.
So, functional and divisional "silos" reduce efficiency in the overall operation, create frustration, and may lead to long-term harm to the organization by creating conflicts and resentment within the teams. The silo mindset results from the inability of team leaders to change something that is out of their control.
- Torben Rick
The first step to solve this silo mindset is to have this unified vision of the organization and be able to propose cross-functional changes that can improve productivity, save resources and to boost the achievement of goals. This is the responsibility of the leadership team but the support of the IT team is invaluable given their in-depth knowledge of how the information flows in the organization.
3. Technological background
Perhaps this is the most obvious point. Technology is what makes most innovations possible today. Technology enables digitization (moving from physical products or documents to their digital counterparts and from manual processes to digital and automated workflows) and, its consequence, digitalization (moving towards digital business and digital transformation while creating of new digital revenue streams and offerings).
And of course, the person with experience IT has a great advantage to understand what technology makes possible and is able to evaluate the feasibility of a change proposal.
But it is not only important to know what the new technology allows, but also if this new technology is mature enough to be applied in the company environment. Today there are a lot of new trends (big data, internet of things, machine learning, blockchain, virtual reality,...) that become buzzwords. Plentiful articles, books, and blogs appear daily on those topics. And this information can create unrealistic expectations.
Let's consider one example.
Big data solution providers make big promises. Just plug your data into our solution, they say, and we’ll deliver a stream of insights that allow you to improve marketing productivity, customer experience quality and service operations efficiency.
The reality is that big data won't solve business problems. People will do. Organizations need to decide in advance what they want to get out of their big data before they start working with it. There are plenty of successful technical implementations that are an absolute failure in terms of business results. Your data is only going to be as useful to you as your ability to make meaningful analysis out of it permits.
So big data, internet of things, machine learning, blockchain, virtual reality, ... (choose whatever you want) equals potential, yet there are a lot of components businesses need to figure out before they can truly realize its full benefit.
Technology = Potential, yet businesses need to figure out how they can truly realize its full benefit / #Innovation
And this is the double value of having a technical background in innovation: being able to see how technology can benefit the business and to assess when the technology is ready for the business and when the business is ready for the technology.
4. Transformation ready
All the areas within a company have undergone very important transformations within their operations in the last decades. The basics of marketing, production, finance, human resources management have a long-standing foundation and their principles remain the same as many years ago. The tools have changed but the concepts you learned at University are still valid.
But this is not true in IT. Computer science is a relatively new discipline and in a few decades it has changed from the equivalent of learning to walk to driving airplanes. The methodologies on how to manage software development, infrastructure, or projects have changed multiple times in less than 20 years.
Therefore, the IT manager is absolutely used to work in environments in constant change. It's ready to reinvent himself/herself every few years.
And this is basic for an innovation manager: being able to face radical transformations.
Most people tend to stay in a familiar environment and grow incrementally from that point on, expanding their comfort zones to new horizons and new responsibilities. Innovation, however, requires being willing to totally abandon existing environments and to consider total transformations.
5. A glimpse into the future
It's not science fiction. IT experts are continuously exposed to information about what's coming next. Not just about new technologies but also about the business opportunities that those new technologies can create.
Today every responsible professional, in whatever field, must be a continuous learner and keep informed about new trends in its field of expertise. The difference for IT professionals is that they also receive information about other fields who could benefit from technological advances.
By attending conferences, talking with illuminati or technology vendors or by reading newspapers, magazines or blog posts they discover successful use cases implementations of emerging technologies in any field. Therefore many times the IT manager is the first to know of new opportunities that can help other departments or grow the business in general.
In fact, this is a clear function of an innovator that the IT manager is already doing: to introduce new opportunities to the rest of the leading team of the company they might not have even considered.
And even where IT is not the first one to be informed about a new solution for any area of the organization, whatever the area is, they will have to involve the IT manager from the beginning. It is impossible to implement changes in any business process or to create a new product or service without involving the IT team.
6. Agile Mindset
Agile methodologies have revolutionized information technology over the past 25 to 30 years. They have increased success rates in software development, improved quality and speed to market while boosting motivation and productivity of IT teams.
Now those agile methodologies spread across all types of industries and functions. Functions as diverse as R&D, marketing, operations and even corporate strategy are embracing Agile. Companies in industries as varied as jet manufacturing, broadcasting, and winemaking are importing the techniques. In large, complex projects Agile’s success rate jumps to six times that of conventional methods.
By taking people out of their functional silos and putting them in self-managed and customer-focused multidisciplinary teams, the agile approach overcomes common barriers to successful innovation and speeds up profitable growth.
But agile is a mindset, not a methodology. And the agile mindset has to overcome important barriers to be effective. 80-90% of Agile teams report perceiving tension between the way the Agile team is run and the way the whole organization is run. In half of those cases, the tension was rated as "serious."
And guess who has already faced this situation? Yes, if your organization uses Agile, then probably it's being used in the software development team. If so, the IT manager has an invaluable experience that can save the organization a lot of trouble to manage Innovation initiatives.
Now Every Company is a Software Company
Information Technology has radically changed the way business is done. In the current Digital Economy every organization has to be managed in a different way, in an IT way. The guys from IT have already been there and have developed several skills invaluable to lead the innovation within the company.
Of course, not every IT manager has developed all those skills. Not every manager knows in detail the operations that their systems support. Not every IT manager embraces Agile. Not every manager has time to keep up to date. But probably they should.
And the fact that the CIO has those advantages does not mean it is the only person capable of leading innovation within the company. Probably there are others in the leadership team that can have better skills in areas such as creativity, communication or networking. And all of those skills can be learned or improved if they're willing to pay the price.
What really matters
Your skills and your background are important if you want to lead innovation. But what really matters is your attitude.
Be the leader. Leave your comfort zone. Have the courage to think differently.
Working in an organization shapes people to think in a similar way. But leading innovation means having to face the organization established culture and be able to fight for new ideas. It's a challenging position, but it's worth it.
Be the leader. Leave your comfort zone. Have the courage to think differently / #Innovation
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