Practical innovation: Getting real on getting creative

The word innovation can inspire either great enthusiasm or a lot of eye-rolling. While it’s a huge driver for the technology industry globally, we know that locally it can crash against the reality of resource and tactical constraints. Given these challenges, Rick Mears, CIO of Owens & Minor and a recent Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leader, found a way to make innovation work, and work quickly.

When Rick and his team are interested in an emerging technology, they partner with an outside company that is a recognized expert in the field. In joint discovery sessions, the expert company and the Owens & Minor team identify a problem they can solve in 90 days or less using the technology. The expert company then provides an assessment and a pilot, resulting in a quick vetting of the technology with shared partner resources and an accelerated time frame for deployment.   

Fast. Practical. Relevant. The approach addresses two frequent constraints: lack of a dedicated team and lack of time to evaluate and introduce emerging or new-to-the-business technologies to an established organization. Because it’s difficult for companies to set aside the resources to make innovation happen in a systematic way, this joint SWAT team approach works.

But what if you do have a dedicated team? What should it be doing? According to Gartner’s Six Styles of Technology Innovation Groups, it could:  

  • Conduct technology and environmental scans to identify opportunities to use new technologies in the business.
  • Evaluate products and opportunities through prototypes and pilots.
  • Introduce new technologies to the business.
  • Educate the CIO, CTO, business leaders and senior executives about technology opportunities.
  • Create scenarios and future visions for technology-led business transformation.
  • Leverage local innovation activities around the organization.
  • Drive or support idea challenges and idea management.

Such a large scope is a geek’s dream but frequently not possible. However, with Owens & Minor’s approach, companies can partner to accelerate the discovery and evaluation of new technologies, enabling them to strike a balance when committing full-time staff to such activities isn’t an option.

No one person can be an expert in every emerging technology, so reaching out to smart firms hungry to solve real-world problems makes sense for everyone. An attitude of “technology for technology’s sake” isn’t allowed. To keep everyone focused on innovation that creates value for the customer, Rick says he frequently asks during meetings, “Why would the customer care?”

Besides bringing in experts to spark fresh ideas, how can leaders get their teams to think creatively?  Rick is a big believer in not throttling the human mind. “A lot of us in our leadership roles do things, intentionally or not, that stifle innovation because we’re afraid of mistakes,” he notes. He says he gets excited when he can get his colleagues’ “brains out of regular work mode,” adding that leaders shouldn’t “set limits on people’s ability to create great ideas.”   

For a medical products logistics company, connecting products to the point of care means hard work with a low margin for error. Rick, who has been CIO at Owens & Minor for eight years, says competition is fierce, and keeping focused on the customer and innovation truly can create competitive advantage. He has to be spot on when it comes to what he calls the bill of rights: getting the right product to the right place at the right time at the right cost and in the right unit of measure. Finding better ways to make this happen is crucial. Innovation matters.

As Steve Jobs once said, "Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about the money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it." (The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs, C. Gallo)

Just ask Rick. He doesn’t roll his eyes. He rolls up his sleeves, finds a good partner and gets to work.

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