How Do You Survive The Innovation Hamster Wheel?

This is how two tech leaders do it, and we'd like to hear more tactics from you.

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

November 6, 2012

4 Min Read

It really isn't ever going to stop, is it? You had that great idea. You aligned, crowdsourced, socialized, got buy-in, managed change, transformed ... Name it, and you did what was needed to push from brainstorm idea to business success.

Time to do it again. Now what have you got?

We talk a lot about tech-driven innovation, but we should acknowledge that what IT and other business leaders want to do just isn't natural. Yes, everyone wants to work on new and exciting projects. But then most normal people want to settle back into some steady state. People resist the notion of constant innovation, of constant disruption and change. We did that big-change thing. Aren't we done?

It's why CIOs need some process for innovation, some formal way not only to keep disruptive ideas coming, but to guide them safely through the gauntlet of ways companies can kill even great ideas.

[ Gather more good ideas. See 6 Bright Ideas Found At A Tech Conference. ]

Richard Thomas, the CIO of Quintiles, which provides services to pharmaceutical and biotech companies to help them run clinical trials, has a somewhat unusual way of keeping innovation in the pipeline. "We passionately believe in giving our ideas away," Thomas said at the InformationWeek 500 Conference in September. (Watch the video of Thomas' presentation.)

Thomas pushes his IT team to come up with what he calls "game changing" ideas: IT-powered new products that drive revenue, or process improvements that reduce costs significantly. Once IT has that great idea, however, Thomas looks for the right business unit to partner with and lets that business unit champion it and carry it forward.

For example, Quintiles has worked for three years on a project called Semio, with partner and customer Eli Lilly. Semio is a collaborative environment that pharma companies can use to examine healthcare data to design the best approach to a clinical trial, balancing the cost, time and chance for success. To develop that project, Thomas teamed his IT pros with Quintiles business unit experts and Eli Lilly experts; those business experts led three of the four technical development teams.

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Giving away ideas isn't always easy for ambitious IT folks to swallow. But Thomas doesn't want to build a fiefdom of products that he and his IT team run on an ongoing basis. He's creating an engine for producing those ideas and partnering with others to get them done.

If IT hands off projects once they're built, that keeps a certain pressure on his team to come up with the next game-changing idea -- and to stay in this world of constant change. "New IT is definitely not for everyone," Thomas warned. "It's a bit out there, and it's not certain what it will look like when it's finished, especially with some of these game-changing types of initiatives."

Innovation Blitzes

Allstate has its own way of keeping the innovation wheel spinning. For the past five years, an innovation team run out of the IT organization has worked with business units to figure out the company's biggest problems and then rally employees to generate ideas to solve them.

It started out with plenty of doubters. Matt Manzella, Allstate's director of technology innovation, remembers how the innovation team wanted chairs that were a different color from those used elsewhere at Allstate, to send a small visual cue to visitors that they're doing something different in that area. A facilities manager balked. "She said, essentially, 'When you fail in a year, we need to redeploy those chairs,'" Manzella said at the InformationWeek 500 Conference. ( See Manzella's presentation.)

Allstate runs two or three "innovation blitzes" a month -- online brainstorming sessions aimed at a specific problem, using software from Spigit to vote ideas up and down and marshal comments. The innovation team works with business units to frame those problems, so when good ideas come in there's a receptive audience.

InformationWeek is looking to profile more of these organized innovation efforts, so if you have a system that works, we'd love to hear from you. (I'm at [email protected], or on Twitter @murph_cj).

What matters isn't the exact approach. Other companies tackle innovation in a more ad hoc way, pulling SWAT teams together with only a very small central team for support. Some companies hold annual innovation fairs. What does matter is having a system for innovation that the company recognizes and fits the company culture. Having such an effort acknowledges that continuous, disruptive innovation, while an unnatural act, is nonetheless critical to keeping companies and products from stagnating.

About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

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