Innovation Starts With Culture: Interop Leadership Track - InformationWeek

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4/30/2015
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David Wagner
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Innovation Starts With Culture: Interop Leadership Track

Three IT leaders talk about how they transformed their cultures and became more innovative.

10 IT Hiring Trends Confounding Private, Public-Sector CIOs
10 IT Hiring Trends Confounding Private, Public-Sector CIOs
(Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Three successful IT leaders spoke at the Interop Leadership Track on Wednesday, and while they all come from very different organizations with different business plans and needs, they all came to the same conclusion. If you want to innovate, it starts with culture.

The first to speak was Terry Bradwell, former CIO and now Chief Innovation Officer of AARP. Bradwell did a daring and unusual thing for IT. He actually created new lines of business for AARP. "When we think about traditional IT, what are we concerned about? Wringing out every dime of efficiency possible," Bradwell said. He didn't think it was enough to just have the cheapest cost center possible.

"We changed our mindset to transform our organization," Bradwell said, "not to be the most efficient or the most cost effective. [We realized that] when we're in almost every business conversation the business has, we have to understand our business as well as everyone else. We have the chance to connect the dots across the organization. We made the commitment that we are going to be a strong value center."

Bradwell launched a tablet designed specifically for seniors and a senior tech training service that has gone on to national success. And then he turned those new products over to business units to run as ongoing operations. The key, Bradwell said, was that they offered the business an unusual deal: "We'd say, 'We'll take all of the risk, and give you all of the reward.'"

Challenging his own organization to "connect the dots" and think "entrepreneurially" didn't happen overnight. It came by making sure IT was in every conversation as early as possible. And it came from cataloging every time one of his IT pros felt the business was missing something. If they saw the business missing something enough times, they'd pilot it themselves.

[ For another leadership story from Interop read UPS Delivers on Data. ]

Small Teams, Big Goals

The second speaker, Eduardo Ruiz, Director of IT for the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, spoke specifically about how the power of his culture allowed his small team of eight to punch "well above its weight, producing success on a national scale."

Ruiz admitted that for many enterprises, "culture is squishy." A culture is made up of interactions between people. As the interactions begin to multiply, it becomes more difficult to predict or direct the culture. But Ruiz said, "If you start to pay attention, you can create a deliberate, vibrant culture."

Ruiz believes there are three elements to a culture -- people, environment, and team. When it comes to people, Ruiz says, "Invest in people. They are your greatest resource. Training is usually the first thing to go when you have limited resources or budgets get tight. But you can get creative. And most important, don't discount learning from each other."

He also stressed something counterintuitive to today's HR culture of search engines leading job searches: "Don't hire for skill. Hire for talent."

And then put that talent in a good environment to work. Ruiz uses physical environments to help his team handle stress. But he also makes the environment accepting of a certain level of failure and helps people have the resources to push out of their comfort zones with success.

Once you have that in place, you can work on team. "When I say team processes, I mean more of the human management aspect. Every time a new employee comes on board, they get a new laptop and a Rubik's cube," he said. "And if they don't know the algorithm to solve it, another member teaches it to them." This not only teaches a way of thinking, but it also creates an early bonding moment for the new hire. They all keep their cubes proudly on their desk.

(Image: Julian Stallabrass via Flickr)

(Image: Julian Stallabrass via Flickr)

Ruiz ended by pointing out a fundamental truth: "Culture exists whether you intend it or not. Shaping culture is more of an art form than a science, but if you put in place policies and procedures, you enhance or diminish the culture." Which would you rather do?

The 'Gift of Accomplishment'

When Jonathan Feldman took his job as CIO of Ashville, NC, 10 years ago, just as he sat down to his desk a crucial system went down for two days. He inherited a system that had too much downtime, a team with low morale, and consistently bad customer service ratings. He also had so many projects going at once, no one was getting anything done. "Imagine kicking 30 soccer balls down the field at once. You kick one and then run over and kick another and another. You never get anywhere."

Feldman first moved to change the culture by reducing his team to five priorities. That was all about giving his employees what Feldman calls "the gift of accomplishment." No one wants to go to work and feel like they are accomplishing nothing. When they had fewer soccer balls to kick down the field, they started delivering on projects.

Feldman then went out and starting measuring the things most important to him, including downtime of key systems and customer service. And most importantly, he publicized his department's goals. "When you say something out loud, there's nothing more embarrassing than not getting it done," said Feldman. "Every single quarter we do a quarterly report. Here's what we said we'd do, and here's what we actually did. And you see it in a very visible and tangible way. And most importantly, we admit to the ugly picture."

"When you start measuring," Feldman added, "just the act of measuring something affects behavior."

Feldman started seeing results. Then he did something just as important as reporting them: He celebrated them in public. "What gets celebrated gets repeated." His reward is an innovative and successful team that is trusted by the public and his stakeholders.

All three of these transformations have a lot in common. They created a culture without fear of failure, each in its own way. They created teams willing to take chances and innovate. But all three stressed that, before you can innovate, you have to have the back office running smoothly or else you'll be spending all your time putting out fires and no time innovating. If you want to innovate, take it from these three: Start with your culture.

Attend Interop Las Vegas, the leading independent technology conference and expo series, designed to inspire, inform, and connect the world's IT community. In 2015, look for all-new programs, networking opportunities, and classes that will help you set your organization's IT action plan. It happens April 27 to May 1. Register with Discount Code MPOIWK for $200 off Total Access & Conference Passes.

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
5/1/2015 | 4:40:53 AM
Re: Innovation Starts With Culture: Interop Leadership Track
These are defnitely lessons we've heard before, but they bear repeating and fresh perspective from executives at such high-brow organizations. Taking them in aggregate, I'd say I find Mr. Bradwell's story the most useful. The notion that we need to take  IT from being a cost center to an innovator has been said a thousand times, but he actually implemented (not 'is planning to implement') it in a way that was relevant to his industry, made sense in how it connected to existing IT operations, and added real, tangible new revenues to his business. For many businesses like AARP, making a piece of consumer hardware with their name on it  wouldn't make sense... but he recognized there was a specific opportunity for it because of their clientele (seniors). Then he went and tied it to a new service that was valuable for the same reasons. That deserves some praise.

I don't want to say the other stories were lacking by comparison; they're unique in that they're public-facing organizations with limited budget and resources - and they definitely offer valuable perspective to someone in a similar position that needs to set realistic goals. The smaller your team is, the more opportunity you have to impact culture. Jonathan Feldman is a frequent InformationWeek contributor, and I've enjoyed many of his articles, including his point about keeping your goals compact and in sight... but I can't let him get away with that terrible soccer analogy. Even my flabby body could get enough of those 30 soccer balls to the goal in a short enough time frame to score more points than are usually scored in a typical game of soccer. Maybe kicking thirty Rubik's cubes would be another story (btw, that is George Bush in the pic, if anyone was wondering. I had to click the source). 
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