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5 Contrarian Tips On Innovation

Think small, don't partner with business units and don't treat innovation like an election.

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Here's an oxymoron you never want applied to your company: It has a stale innovation strategy. Innovation is just as prone to insipid groupthink and cookie-cutter efforts as any other corporate initiative.

That risk is why I latched onto a few contrarian ideas I heard at last week's InformationWeek CIO Summit, held as part of this year's Interop event in Las Vegas. Our Summit brought together a dozen original thinkers to discuss practical innovation efforts at their companies. Here are five innovation ideas that jumped out at me.

1. Start With Internal IT Projects.

My first thought would be to start innovation efforts with business-facing projects, whereby the IT organization can dazzle its peers outside IT. But when Union Pacific CIO Lynden Tennison started a program called Innovation Station, to crowdsource innovation ideas from employees, he focused first on IT staff and internal IT projects. Tennison wanted projects he could green light without having to win over the COO or any other business unit executive, and he wanted to make sure this process actually worked to produce useful ideas before introducing it to other company departments.

[ Companies are paying less these days for crowdsourced ideas. Read As Innovation Competitions Grow, Prize Money Shrinks. ]

Here's one way it did. Union Pacific has installed "hot box" sensors that let railroad look for problems on the wheels of its trains before those wheels fail, and one of the pros on the company's IT team saw a way to eliminate many of their false positive readings. Tennison turned the staffer loose on the idea, appointing an executive mentor and providing access to the systems and team that analyze those readings. A false positive costs real money by forcing UP to pull a train off the track or even just slow it down. The fix worked and saved the railroad about $10 million, says Tennison, who's now looking to extend Innovation Station to other business units.

2. Don't Accept The Inevitability Of Failure.

ADP CIO Michael Capone isn't afraid to take a risk. He set up an innovation lab, tearing out the cubicles in half a floor of ADP's New Jersey headquarters to set up an open office environment. In addition to hiring about 30 full-time innovation specialists, Capone regularly takes people out of their daily IT roles to do short-term tours in the innovation lab.

What he didn't do is turn the innovation group loose on blue-sky, futuristic efforts. It's focused on getting something operational in six to eight months typically. "People say in order to innovate you have to fail," Capone said. "Well, my CEO doesn't buy that."

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Setting the culture around an innovation group is tricky. If you're taking risks you'll have some that don't work out. Many leaders try for a "fail fast" approach -- to set short time frames so new ideas don't turn into year-long science projects. Capone knows some things will fail, encouraging people to think differently and experiment, but he's setting a more practical and short-term tone than most other company innovation labs.

3. Consider Alternatives To Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down Crowdsourcing Voting.

No idea in its initial form is a blockbuster. It takes back-and-forth refining to make a spark of an idea valuable, and "voting isn't collaborative," said Todd Dunn, Intermountain Healthcare's director of innovation.

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User Rank: Apprentice
5/15/2013 | 3:45:54 PM
re: 5 Contrarian Tips On Innovation
Great point re: "summer action flick", Tony. Innovation, by nature, often produces incremental improvements. At it's core, it's really a process of reducing inputs and/or increasing outputs; that process is not always the most thrilling endeavor (particularly for higher-level execs who aren't living in the day-to-day successes/failures with the tactical innovation team).

In our experience, the challenge/trick to maintaining focus on, and enthusiasm for, innovation is to regularly reiterate "this is the input we're reducing, and the is the output we're increasing." Framing it in this context, with the business need at the forefront, can help teams stay focused on the right end-goals and help skeptical corner offices stay supportive of the project. This regular input-output sanity check can also help mitigate the rampant curiosity that emerges when folks take "fail fast" too far and too literally.
Tony Kontzer
Tony Kontzer,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/13/2013 | 11:49:22 PM
re: 5 Contrarian Tips On Innovation
Really great examples of counter-instinct innovation initiatives, Chris. The Intermountain example about the server installs is a particularly powerful one. I'm betting a huge percentage of CIOs wouldn't even classify that as innovation--they'd call it something blander like "process improvement" out of some misguided idea that innovation needs to be huge, like a summer action flick.

Tony Kontzer
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