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Making IT Organizations More Innovative

Innovation requires stepping back and reflecting upon the identity of the IT department or the organization. Now is a great time for CTOs to determine what is working, what areas missed the mark, and how to take steps to improve.

In today's digital age, technology leaders possess a unique opportunity to drive growth and innovation by adopting certain traits and transformation strategies – ways of working and leading that provide real value and make a direct impact on outcomes for the team and organization.

Most importantly, success at driving innovation (IT or otherwise) hinges on whether leaders possess several skills, some of which might be surprising to see. Based on my experience, two are most critical. The first skill of effective IT leaders is working toward becoming a bilingual strategist with well-rounded business and technology acumen.

No longer is it enough for chief technology officers (CTOs) to define technology stacks, manage costs, and select software vendors and tools. They must also be able to educate, socialize, and influence the CEO, management team, and board on appropriate capital allocation strategies and the right R&D investment areas to create shareholder value. They also need to stay abreast of industry, business, and technology trends as they think through their future-state technology vision and roadmap.

The second most desirable leadership skill is being a collaborator with commercial acumen who can articulate the technology vision to cross-functional stakeholders across an organization, so they drive alignment with their respective go-to-market strategies. Sales, marketing, customer success, implementation and support, training, and finance functions all play a critical role in a technology platform's commercial success. For example, if the CTO cannot translate technology capabilities into value propositions and ROI to enable the organization’s strategy, the overall goal of enterprise value creation will fail.

Other Required IT Leadership Skills

With these two key skills being sharpened, you can begin working to upskill the following character traits – all of which are equally important:

A coach-player personality that can motivate and empower teams to think beyond technology as they implement technical solutions. Encourage team members to think about holistic ways to integrate customer, market, and competitor feedback processes into the software development lifecycle. Doing so in real time allows the product and technical teams to operate without tunnel vision regarding product strategies and technical implementation.

Relationship builder with the board and external stakeholders to drive buy-in to the platform vision and associated external risks, such as competitor threats, cyber risks, or a macro-level industry trend. The CTO must be able to translate complex technical jargon into simple value statements that articulate the “why” with business benefits. Many customers buy products not just for existing functionality but also for future functionality and vision. This is where CTOs can play a critical role, even working with sales and marketing to develop a vision to drive commercial strategy.

Builder of trust and transparency with third-party vendors to forge strategic partnerships and an innovation ecosystem beyond the internal technology teams. Technology leaders can easily fall into the trap of trying to build all technology in-house, failing to recognize that vendors specializing in specific technology areas can play a critical role in helping a company scale digital platforms faster. The CTO, meanwhile, can focus on problem formulation, user experience, and customization to meet end users' needs. There are also opportunities to co-develop products with vendors for specific industry problems and share revenue.

Leadership Tactics

Leading transformation in an organization requires the following tactics:

  • Reconcile activity with intent – where are your roadmaps taking you, and are you following them based on your achievement review? Are you delivering new systems or solutions in a better-than-before manner (agile, continuous, user-focused)?
  • Connect the human to the humanity of processes – invest in people and their skills, hire new talent, listen to responses and stimulus from users to better serve them, implement solutions or practices that are best for those the technology serves rather than implementing IT for IT's sake?
  • Solutions, not problems; Are you focused on the problem instead of solutions? Are you using a solutions-first approach to innovation where it counts, with customers and partners?
  • Adjust targets based on success rather than failures – Are you planning success and customer satisfaction targets, or are you focused on mitigating loss?

Why All This Is Effective

Making an IT organization more innovative requires stepping back and reflecting upon the identity of the department or the organization. What are you attempting to create; what do you want to build in service to your organization or customers; and which direction or priority do you desire to take? In so doing, note your team's achievements, then celebrate them. Now is a great time to determine what is working, what areas missed the mark, and how to take steps to improve.

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