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IT Leadership // CIO Insights & Innovation
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Patrick Houston
Patrick Houston
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Innovation Lesson: Disrupt Before You're Disrupted

Even innovators struggle with the pace of change. Here are some of the ways Silicon Valley companies like LinkedIn push the edge without falling off.

If you're among those IT execs and managers grasping for ways to keep up with the curve -- let alone get ahead of it -- take comfort. Even those who reside in the so-called Cradle of Innovation are struggling as mightily as you.

In my meanderings around and about Silicon Valley, innovation itself has been consistently cropping up as a topic among the entrepreneurs who are supposed to embody the very word -- as they too confront the same disruptive mobile, social and cloud technologies they've help wrought.

For example, CEO John Donahoe took a conference stage recently to discuss how he's reinvigorating eBay, a company that played a large and early role in turning retailing upside down. He's rekindled "that magic alchemy of innovation"-- his words -- with a treatment resonant of the alchemists' heyday: He resorted to blood-letting -- by replacing 80 of the top 100 people who were at eBay upon his arrival in 2008. Now, he said, "We have a nice blend of 150 people," consisting of 50 from the old guard and 100 from a new one.

I suppose sometimes such drastic measures are what it takes to get a company or team cranking again. I'm not a fan of the approach. Instead, I'll endorse an approach used by cloud-computing pioneer There, I met Matt Bennetti, a mergers and acquisitions exec, who acts less like any dealmaker I've known and more like a talent agent. When buys a company, Bennetti personally sees to it that the newbies find acceptance, not so they adapt to Salesforce but so Salesforce adapts to them, their fresh eyes and cutting-edge ideas. He'll even champion them for bigger roles. And in that way, he does his part to keep new blood coursing through the company's veins.

[ Get more innovation tips and share your best practices on how to Survive The Innovation Hamster Wheel. ]

But my favorite strategy for rapid renewal came by way of an encounter I had with LinkedIn. If you've spent any time on the social media service favored by professionals, you've had to notice its recent rat-a-tat-tat of improvements -- a new iPad app, LinkedIn for Windows phones, strikingly revamped profile and company pages, and a host of features around content, updates, endorsements and notifications. Get this: It claims it's making new or incremental updates -- beyond minor bug fixes, mind you -- at a rate of 700 times a week.

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The hyper-innovation has led to hyper-growth: LinkedIn has grown 42% in the past year alone to 187 million-plus members.

How did LinkedIn set the stage for that performance? Simple: It got out of its own way. When I dug into the details behind its sidestep, I had to utter a silent "hallelujah" -- based on my own experience as a line of business and product owner.

You know what a product manager of any kind hates? Waiting. There's nothing worse than standing in a queue, especially when time-to-market means so much. In most cases, the blame lies with bottlenecks caused by centralized resources, like IT. At LinkedIn, it wasn't exactly IT, but something quite akin to it -- an engineering process that led to a single testing, certification and change-management team. Nothing went live at LinkedIn until that team let it be so.

As it goes, LinkedIn wasn't doing badly. It was issuing new releases to its platform every two weeks. But, as Mohak Shroff, one of LinkedIn's engineering directors explained, even that admirable pace wouldn't do, and especially not in a culture that was attempting to rev innovation through "hack days," "incubation challenges" and other similar rank-and-file exercises on one hand, yet slowing it down on the other.

So, just before the end of 2011, the company focused all its engineering resources on Project Inversion, so called because its aim was to forget about incrementally changing processes and toolsets, and instead turn them upside down by fundamentally re-engineering them. According to Shroff, one of its leaders, the all-out effort entailed creating the tools to automate testing, certification and change management. That was hard enough. But there was a second, even bigger challenge: For the automation systems to work, the engineers at LinkedIn had to recode the platform itself so it could respond to the tools.

Now, with Project Inversion fully implemented, LinkedIn's engineers and product teams are launching new products, features or improvements not every two weeks but two times a day.

That means the world to product leaders like LinkedIn's Mike Grishaver. He's in charge of LinkedIn's company pages. Now, he has a choice: hit the market with an improvement when it's fully ready, or do A/B testing -- trying a change for as briefly as a single day just to compare its results to the status quo or a different option. Either way, he can do it under the most telling circumstance -- real market conditions.

I worked with Mike at Yahoo where we together suffered the snail's pace of its engineering processes. I pressed my former brother-in-arms for the non-company line about Project Inversion. When I did, his back straightened. "Dude," he exclaimed, "it's made material difference." Mike is a corporate revolutionary. You know the type. They're constitutionally incapable of going along to get along because, well, they're so often the real innovators. So when he says he's able to disrupt things before they disrupt him, I take him at his word. My advice: You should too.

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