Innovative Ideas Are A Dime A Dozen

Ideas abound. The real challenge for CIOs is to pick the best ideas that can be implemented quickly and visibly.
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Our company held another innovation session last month. These sessions, run by our operating divisions, are intended to establish an environment for employees to get their creative juices flowing. Sam, our president, has decided that innovation is one of our key corporate themes this year.

As CIO, one of my major responsibilities is to facilitate innovative changes and implement new ideas. However, I still cringe when I hear that another innovation session is scheduled. Innovation isn't just about coming up with creative ideas. Those ideas must be implemented--and we as a company tend to be soft on implementation. I know other companies are struggling with this same issue, as Rob Preston wrote about in a recent column.]

We have no shortage of ideas. Here are a few of mine: I wish my kitchen cupboards washed the dishes so I could just put them away dirty and take them out clean. I'd like my smartphone to unfold into a laptop, then fold back up again and fit into my pocket. I wish our CRM software tracked our reps' locations, figured out which customers they met with, listened to their conversations, and completed the call reports automatically. Ideas aren't that hard to come by.

These innovation sessions yield long lists of great ideas. Many of them are already on our IT organization's list but fall outside the budget we have set for this year. Other ideas aren't very good at all. And some are absolutely brilliant in both their creativity and simplicity. But in all cases, the idea itself is only the first part of the process.

[ For more thoughts on how to foster innovation at your organization, see How To Become More Agile And Innovative. ]

What we need are innovative ideas on how to implement truly innovative ideas. Call it innovative innovation. I struggle to get our organization's collective head wrapped around this notion. I don't want to be raining on the idea parades, but I hate to see the disappointed faces when employees' winning ideas are forgotten or ignored.

Chuck, one of our plant maintenance supervisors, stopped me in the main reception area as I was returning from an offsite meeting the other day. He usually rags me about forgetting his name. Embarrassment is a good teacher, so I don't forget Chuck's name anymore. "Hey, Chuck, how are you?" I asked.

"John, I need to talk with you," he replied. "What about my idea? Remember the one I submitted online? You know?" I was supposed to know, but Chuck let me off the hook and continued: "The one about adding a 'for sale' section to our intranet. It would be fantastic to be able to post items for sale to employees. When are we going to do that? Don't you like that idea?"

I remembered Chuck's idea once he mentioned it. And I could have explained to him the considerations we would need to take into account: the number of public sites devoted to this purpose already; the value to the company of administering such a function; the policy we'd have to write to govern it, etc.

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Which brings me back to the point of implementation: Implementation includes everything required to realize sustainable value from an idea. It includes communications and training and usage measurement and all the other work required to engage an organization in the adoption of a new or changed process.

This is the real challenge of innovation. A massive consumer market is adopting IT like never before; millions of talented people are coming up with bold, creative new ideas every day. So there's no shortage of innovative ideas. The challenge is in picking and executing the right ones.

For me, innovative innovation starts with picking the best ideas that can be implemented quickly and visibly. I'm wary of the ideas that appear simple at first glance but take an army to implement. The fewer the people involved, the better. Even major shifts in business process must start this way.

Simple but highly visible implementations of new technology generate enthusiasm and pride within a company. People like new shiny things, and there's legitimate organizational value in being an early adopter of certain technologies. Call it the gadget process: It's a great way to find some of the best of the best and assess just how easy it will be to create sustainable value.

It's a new day that takes new ways.

The author, the real-life CIO of a billion-dollar-plus company, shares his experiences under the pseudonym John McGreavy. Got a Secret CIO story of your own to share? Contact [email protected].

Nominate your company for the 2012 InformationWeek 500--our 24th annual ranking of the nation's very best business technology innovators. Deadline is April 27. Organizations with $250 million or more in revenue may apply for the 2012 InformationWeek 500 now.

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