How enterprise IT gets creative

Creativity is the driving force in top-tier organizations. Here's how five are capturing opportunities for innovation and pulling in fresh new ideas.

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Each lab has a main focus for innovation, Shivanandan says: leveraging big data for better products and services in New York; mobile wallets, couponing and other digital services in Virginia; and opening the company's banking APIs to third parties to provide additional services in San Francisco.

The labs make monthly presentations to the steering committee on current projects and lessons learned. "The teams are agile and quick, so they get a lot done each month, and when something happens in the industry, we can quickly reprioritize," Shivanandan says. "We're really trying to create a tiger team to focus on the art of the possible."

Importantly, each lab's focus is well integrated with business goals. "It's not just this cool place where people do crazy things," Shivanandan says. "There's a prioritization process, and it's integrated with the work people are doing on an everyday basis."

MasterCard: Each lab has three priorities: innovation management, technology and incubation. The teams work closely together to generate ideas, evaluate them and then define concepts, build prototypes and use a test-and-learn approach to see how those ideas will fare in the market.

The teams aren't judged based on hits and misses, but on their ability to apply lessons learned to what does eventually succeed, says Lyons. "We want to be honest with ourselves about whether or not ideas are viable," he says. "[That] involves failing fast and making the tough decision to stop work when it's appropriate."

Additionally, the company sponsors processes that spur innovation from its employees, Lyons says. For instance, more than half the company has participated in Aspire, an online, social collaborative brainstorming program, he says, and employees are also given time to work on ideas that they're passionate about. Meanwhile, Innovation Express is a 48-hour competition to build prototypes, video demos and go-to-market plans, and KickStart is a fast-paced, time-boxed, dedicated startup-like environment to accelerate commercialization of a product.

Grange Insurance: During monthly meetings, the innovation group discusses opportunities, uses a heat map to rate ideas with the lowest risk, lowest cost and highest value and assigns skunk works groups to investigate applicable technologies and idea feasibility. Individual teams do some prototyping and provide updates at the next meeting. Once they have something to show, they share the prototype with business leaders. "When you have something that someone can visualize, you gain support more quickly," Fergang says. When approved, projects get funded and enter a formal project management process.

The key is speed: Prototype fast, and fail fast. "We don't choose 30 things to pursue," Fergang says. "We scale back to just a few and then do them as fast as possible." About twice a year, the group conducts a show-and-tell, inviting business leaders to see a range of prototyped ideas.

Equinix: It's crucial to recognize that some ideas don't pan out. At Equinix, "no one is penalized" for failures, because failing is part of learning, Lillie says. In fact, one engineer learned so much about hybrid clouds through a stalled innovation initiative that he now helps educate customers on the topic. "Not everything is going to work out, but it's all great learning," Lillie says.

What are some tips for getting executive buy-in and funding?

CapitalOne: Early in her tenure, Shivanandan organized a "scan trip," which involved taking a group of business and technology executives to visit with innovators and startups, including Google, Facebook and Square, to answer the question, "What is innovation in the banking industry?" "I wish I could say I did it intentionally to get everyone jazzed up, but that was the ultimate result," she says. "It was an 'aha moment' that really showed us there's a lot happening and that technology is a key enabler to banking in the future." Nine months later, the company secured a physical structure for its first digital lab, hired a leader and assembled an agile team to get started.

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