Opinion by Thornton May

Tech’s Holy Grail: IT can’t afford to choose poorly

holy grail
Credit: © Copyright Lairich Rig, CC BY-SA 2.0

When we’re surrounded by “next big things,” how does IT decide what to choose and what to do with that choice?

There’s a memorable line in the penultimate scene of the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.The evil antagonist has just met his comeuppance after drinking from what he hoped was the immortality-granting Holy Grail. Says the Grail’s ancient guardian: “He chose poorly.” It is up to the hero, Indiana Jones, to choose wisely.

IT executives today need to choose wisely from a rapidly expanding array of investment opportunities that have the potential to be game-changers or merely to distract, or even to destroy value. But research I have been involved in at the Value Studio program, at the College of Engineering at Ohio State University and at the Executive Leadership Council of AIIM indicates that the mechanisms whereby most organizations create and evaluate their opportunity set are broken. When it comes to making technology bets moving forward, another famous line from another Steven Spielberg-directed blockbuster comes to mind: “We are going to need a bigger boat.”

Change has changed

Do any of you believe that the next 10 years of technical innovation are going to be less interesting than the last 10 years were? They will be at least as interesting. You are an IT professional in an extraordinary time. At a recent Value Studio session, one of the attending “Value Artists” commented that for the first time in at least 10 years, CIOs are being asked to do unstructured problem-solving. IT is no longer just about “fixing something,” “deploying something” or “optimizing something.” IT is being asked to envision and create the future. 

The question, then, is, “What tools will IT use to do that?”

In a way, the answer is obvious. It’s the same thing that Steve Jobs cited way back in 1997, when he had just returned as CEO of Apple. In an interview with Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, Jobs responded to the question “What is your long-term strategy?” by saying, “I am going to wait for the next big thing.”

This was not a flippant answer. Back then, technology market leaders were companies that, upon identifying an inflection point, were able to jump in full force and with full focus. Two decades ago, “next big things” came along at a leisurely pace.Today, they surround us. 

Need proof? Check out the #NextBigThing hashtag on Twitter. Or type “next big thing” into your favorite search engine. Every facet of personal and commercial existence has a “next big thing” — actually, multiple “next big things,” eroding the stability of the status quo. I have previously lamented the sad state of technology adoption in large, complex enterprises today.

Collecting ideas

If we are surrounded by next big things, it’s important to be open to every possible source of innovation. Much of the literature describing innovation celebrates ideation, the process of gathering new ideas from as broad a population as possible. Innovation used to be handled in hidden nooks and crannies apart from the operating part of the company. This type of “in a bubble” innovation is no longer practical, scalable or effective. Today, most agree that everyone in the enterprise is a potential source of new ideas. Everybody innovates. Progressive companies allow any employee to come forward with an idea.  

At Toyota, the Creative Ideas Suggestive System was implemented in 1951. Since then, it has generated more than 40 million ideas from employees at all levels of the organization. At Shell, over $250 million has been invested in over 3,000 ideas since the Game Changer Program’s inception.

Collaborative technologies make collecting and submitting ideas easy. Front-line employees are perfectly situated to notice ways to improve customer experience; operators at call centers can spot patterns of defects, and janitors are rich with ideas about how to reduce costs on wasted supplies. 

The point is that everyone needs to be recognized as a potential source of the next big thing for the enterprise, and the organization has to ensure that all its employees perceive themselves that way. And I do mean everyone. The enterprise that overlooks the opinions of women, minorities and its most mature employees is an enterprise in danger of missing the next big thing. If you think the only worthwhile ideas come from 24-year-olds with blue eyes and a Y chromosome, you are going to miss out. 

But wherever the ideas come from, the most important thing of all in innovation may be how you think about those ideas. Yes, you need them to move forward, but coming up with a lot of good ideas is not the key to good innovation. This bit of blasphemy is being espoused by an emerging band of innovation scholars, foremost among them Michael Schrage, author of The Innovator’s Hypothesis: How Cheap Experiments Are Worth More Than Good Ideas. Those who would create value need to move beyond the shackles of traditional engineering and marketing groupthink — believing that innovation means creating more choices — and recognize that innovation is not what you offer customers, “it is what your customers adopt.”

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