Innovation has long been confined in executives’ minds to the in-office playground experience of organic brainstorming. Movies helped: Think Big. Remember The Devil Wears Prada. Every heist movie ever. Apollo 13. Where are the ideas born? “In the room where it happens.”
Many organizations -- startups and giants alike -- invested in playgrounds for cognitive exploration for their workers. And then when the pandemic struck (or sometimes even before, shhh don’t tell), workers didn’t want to go play on the equipment as much as they wanted to play in the digital worlds they made for themselves. And like irritated teachers or parents, the executives felt hurt that the workers didn’t like what they were given and instead innovated in their own ways.
But now what?
Hybrid work means that companies and governments must prepare for a world with far fewer water cooler conversations and hallway collisions -- which, to hear office-preferring executives tell it, are the source of most novel concepts. But hybrid work also means a world with better intentional opportunities for brief personal conversations that happen between people across the face of the world, and for richer -- even post-verbal -- conversations at a greater scale than have ever been possible.
Chief information officers can help innovate more than any other executive: They manage the ways that companies can set their priorities for innovation, the means to give workers and executives the ability to collaborate on them, and the frameworks for the new products and services that will be rolled out inside and outside.
Here are three things CIOs can do right now to keep the momentum of innovation going as their organizations calibrate their hybrid work gyroscopes to figure out how to stay upright:
1. Make Innovation More Agile With Smaller (Sometimes Virtual) Steps
Document your innovation process to determine what you do to bring the best minds in your company together and give them what they need to multiply their potency. Discover where workers need to be together to share hands-on or zero-latency thinking and communication, and mark other activities as possibly remote or asynchronous.
People are better able to use digital tools than ever before. According to the Gartner Digital Worker Experience Survey, use of collaboration tools daily or weekly among digital workers rose from 55% to 79% between 2019 and 2021. More than 75% of digital workers use collaboration tools at least weekly, and nearly 50% use them daily. This means your most digitally resistant executive used virtual meeting applications more in 2020 than they did in the entire 20 years before that.
CIO to do: Assign staff to review three successful innovation efforts and determine what tasks were completed to achieve them. Likewise, review three incomplete successes to discover the lessons learned and what was successful.
2. Tally the Must-Do To-Dos To Make Virtual What Can Be Virtual
Mark on the innovation process flow which processes can be done virtually and how to improve them using virtual-only benefits. For example, if you needed to invite customers to your test kitchen in the past, now send them an app to record themselves making dinner for their families at home. You can include more people virtually, for less time, and from farther away. That’s true for your workers and your customers alike.
CIO to-do: Tally three possible customer-including activities that employ virtual applications and better activity measurements.
3. Draft a Menu of Meeting Types to Make Virtual Connections More Intentional
Plan everything intentionally. Design floats luck to the shore; otherwise luck just lies in the offshore mud and waves feebly at the beach.
The best virtual gatherings of 2020 were the planned ones -- the games of charades, the holiday meals where people shared recipes and made them independently, the weddings where guests attended, however briefly, when they never could have in person. Fewer meetings can make for better innovation if parts of the process are aligned to the best ways to achieve them. (Workers tell us they spend 8+ hours a week in meetings, on average; help them cut that time by making the meeting time they do spend the most productive it can be.)
Make plans that bring people together for the tasks that demand shared presence but also encourage them to share endeavors they might not have been able to foresee.
CIO to-do: Show executives the menu of meeting types that they can choose from and model the best behavior in selection by demanding that any meeting have a reason to happen when it does and a reason to include everyone invited. Require participants to set for themselves a role they’ll play in the meeting.
For centuries, minutes of togetherness have been treated like the slurry from a gold mine -- pan through enough volume, and some gold is bound to come out. But not all such time is equal, and hybrid work means that CIOs can aid organizations in discovering the key aspects of innovation processes, tag the ones that can be done in new ways, and deliver means of achieving them that cost less and deliver more reliable benefit.
Whit Andrews is a Distinguished Research Vice President at Gartner, Inc., focusing primarily on the organizational impacts, use cases and business opportunities for AI. He also serves as chairman of Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo 2021, taking place October 18-21 in Orlando, FL.