Jump-start Innovation

Great ideas don't just happen. Here's how to light up your IT group.

About a year and a half ago, a group of IT directors at Partners HealthCare System Inc. took a look at their 1,200-strong organization and made a bold admission: They weren't as creative as they used to be. Despite pioneering technology efforts in the '80s and '90s, the IT group faced a health care landscape that was more complex and competitive than it was 10 years ago. "One of the things that occurs when you grow in size is you lose a bit of your entrepreneurship and innovation," says Mark Woodward, corporate director at Boston-based Partners. "We wanted to try to get some of that back."

Jump-start Innovation
Image Credit: Peter Bennett
So Woodward researched the concept of innovation -- what it looks like, how it's achieved and how an organization can incorporate it into its culture. "You can't just flip a switch," he says.

His research culminated in the January launch of a 16-week program that takes participants on a carefully planned but ultimately open-ended ride to becoming innovators. The 16 participants are divided into four groups, and each team is handed a challenging business problem to resolve. All are then deliberately exposed to new influences far from the comfort of their cubicles. For instance, they are immersed in the work of users in relevant hospital departments, listen to guest speakers and go on thought-provoking field trips such as a visit to the MIT AgeLab. While in the program, they are completely mobile, operating with just a laptop, a handheld device and a common meeting space shared with other program participants.

The hoped-for result? Individual metamorphosis, the rise of an innovation culture in IT and maybe even proposed solutions to the assigned business problems.

Serious Business

Partners' program illustrates just how seriously some organizations are taking innovation. Although innovation has always been important, there's a renewed emphasis on right-brained approaches to succeeding in today's increasingly global, hypercompetitive, unforgiving business world.

"There has been an understandable focus on efficiency and globalization and outsourcing," says Jim Eichner, vice president of advanced technology at Pitney Bowes Inc. in Stamford, Conn. "But a lot of those things have played out to a large degree. People are wondering how to differentiate themselves, and they have to innovate to do that."

"After the dot-com bust, companies kind of went internal," notes Sally Grant, CIO at the California State Automobile Association (CSAA) in San Francisco. "But efficiency and process are not going to take us to greatness." Or to put it another way, "You can't downsize to success," says Scott Anthony, a partner at Innosight LLC, a consultancy in Watertown, Mass.

But the goal is not innovation for its own sake; a key element of current efforts is to stop reacting to what customers are demanding and start anticipating their needs even before they've had a chance to articulate them.

Examples of this business trend include The Procter & Gamble Co.'s Swiffer, a replacement for the old broom-and-mop routine, and Earthbound Farm's prewashed salad mixes. "It's about changing the status quo and delivering something of such value that users adopt it and thereby change what's 'normal,'" says Tom Andrews, a principal at Stone Yamashita Partners, a consultancy in San Francisco.

What does all this mean for IT? Well, just as businesses need to differentiate their brands, IT also needs to prove its worth, and it can leverage innovation to accomplish that goal. "IT has to think of themselves like a stand-alone business," says Joyce Wycoff, co-founder of Innovation Network, a consultancy in Bakersfield, Calif. "Somehow, they have to come up with a vision that both excites them and creates value for their customers."

But for many IT managers, telling their organizations to be innovative is about as helpful as telling someone to have a nice day. It's pretty easy to imagine a few eye rolls among people who have already watched their organizations jump on other expensive and not-always-successful management theory bandwagons.

That's why jump-starting a culture of innovation goes far beyond pinning slogans on walls. For one thing, it's important to create a process for innovation that's distinct from linear project management efforts, which, as Andrews points out, are optimized for decisions, not for trying out new ideas.

This means replacing familiar steps like planning, analysis, design, construction and quality testing with new ones like problem framing, status quo questioning, observation synthesis, hypothesis mapping, prototyping and feedback-gathering.

Key to the process is directing your efforts at a question or problem that you're trying to resolve. Although you want people to think outside the box, you need to impose some type of constraint or else you get what Wycoff calls the "popcorn effect" -- wild ideas bouncing around with no purpose in sight. "The old mind-set was to create a bunch of ideas, get out of the box and let the creativity flow," she says. "But now we realize it's better to spend a lot of upfront time defining what we want to do and exacting criteria for success."

For instance, when developing Partners' innovation program, Woodward polled directors on long-standing business issues they wanted to address. He came up with four: improving patients' telephone interaction with the hospital, establishing a regional data exchange for hospitals to share information, providing better trend data on chronic illnesses and learning how to commoditize Partners' IT infrastructure.

The best way to know what problems exist is to experience firsthand how customers interact with the products and services you offer. "If you look at a highly innovative organization, the first characteristic you see is awareness -- awareness of the needs that need to be fulfilled and of the know-how that's around you," says Robert Price, former CEO of Control Data Corp. and author of The Eye for Innovation: Recognizing Possibilities and Managing the Creative Enterprise (Yale University Press, 2005).

At Amazon.com Inc., for instance, the mantra is, "Start with the customer and work backwards," says Werner Vogels, CIO at the Web retailer. Technology staffers are also regular users of the site, and most undergo a training program in which they take customer calls and respond to e-mails. At weekly meetings, they review e-mails that customer service has received and address frequent questions. "People have to feel responsible that we're really serving customers," Vogels says.

Similarly, when Pitney Bowes wanted to develop a next-generation call center system to improve interaction between customer service representatives and callers, it had IT staffers spend weeks in the call center, listening to calls and studying staff needs.

In innovation circles, embedding yourself within a community of people to see the world through their eyes is sometimes referred to as "ethnography," and it's highly encouraged. "For the IT department to be motivated by true human insight is a wonderful thing," Andrews says.

The idea for JetBlue Airways Corp.'s "paperless cockpit" germinated from just that type of insight, says Todd Thompson, CIO at the Forest Hills, N.Y.-based airline. "It came from sitting in the cockpit and seeing pilots pull out books from those heavy cases they carry around," he says. And after sitting in on morning meetings with managers while they continuously reviewed operations statistics -- such as average baggage-retrieval or airplane-turnaround time -- IT also developed a dashboard system that pushes that data in real time to their desktops.

After all, Anthony points out, much of innovation is facilitating the jobs users are already trying to accomplish -- not enabling them to do something new. "You need to find stuff that customers haven't raised their hands yet to talk about," says Tom Kelley, general manager of Ideo Inc., a design consultancy in Palo Alto, Calif.

Looking Outside

Users aren't the only place to turn for ideas, however. Companies striving to be innovators also look outside their four walls for inspiration. Not only does this get the creative juices flowing by forcing people out of their usual way of seeing things, but it also may help you find someone who has already tackled a problem you want to solve.

P&G has famously established a practice of "open innovation" by connecting with outside experts and partners, with the goal of getting 50% of its new ideas from outside the company. And no wonder: A late-2005 Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. study of 1,000 worldwide public companies shows no relationship between higher levels of research and development spending and high levels of growth, enterprise profitability and shareholder return.

And it just makes sense. "If you think of innovation as problem-solving and you're the problem-solver, you'll take help wherever you find it," Price says.

Some project teams visit museums or hardware stores or invite in guest speakers and performers -- even mimes -- for inspiration, Wycoff says. Or they look for an example of a company that's facing a similar issue but in a different industry or environment. For instance, participants in Partners' innovation program will visit companies outside the health industry, such as Fidelity Investments, State Street Corp. and P&G, for inspiration. Woodward can also imagine sending people to Google Inc.'s headquarters to help figure out how to commoditize Partners' own IT infrastructure.

"You need to think of your company as an ecosystem," Vogels says. "You want to leverage the intellectual power of the larger community. There might be a student in a dorm room with a bright idea [about] Amazon.com, and we'd like to foster that."

Pitney Bowes has benefited by reaching out to what might seem like strange bedfellows. After studying Web purchasing, the IT department collaborated with eBay Inc. as well as its own product development and marketing groups to carve out a niche for the company's otherwise traditional business. It developed a system through which eBay sellers can download postage and shipping labels. "Great companies get people together," Kelley says.

But diversity can also be found within a company, where hiring practices can encourage a wide range of input. At CSAA, Grant likes to hire staffers who reflect the makeup of the company's membership. "If you have a diverse workplace, you will get excellent input," she says.

At JetBlue, the company purposefully tries to hire at least some people from outside the airline industry, Thompson says. And at Partners, Woodward took pains to choose people for the organization's innovation projects who had no previous experience dealing with the business problem at hand. "We didn't want people to have preconceived notions," he says. "It's a risk and a higher learning curve, but we think it's worth it."

Celebrate Failure

Businesses often find it hard to accept that innovation goes hand in hand with failure. "On a good day, nine out of 10 efforts will fail," Andrews says. "You want the failures to be as good a learning experience as the successes."

But doing that means changing the way companies view and even how they talk about unsuccessful projects. For instance, Andrews says, you might talk about a "failed idea" but not a "failed team." Instead of talking about "killing" an idea or project, refer to it as "putting it on the back burner." And if someone comes to you with an idea, don't point out all the things that are wrong with it; ask the person how they can make it even better for the customer, giving it a chance to morph into something successful. This attitude can promote thoughtful risk-taking because people will be less afraid of presenting ideas without a lot of data to back themselves up, Andrews says.

In fact, innovative companies often celebrate failure -- literally. W.L. Gore Associates Inc., best known as the developer of Gore-Tex fabric, is known to end unsuccessful projects with champagne. Others hold "failure parties" in which refreshments are served and managers share with the staff their own failed project experiences.

Some use humor. After a new in-flight snack idea was tested on JetBlue and then quickly jettisoned, "no one was fired or deeply chagrined," Thompson says. In fact, the episode became an entertainment device, as a picture of the innovator was posted on the company intranet, along with a contest to write an essay on why the change was silly. "There's a cultural acceptance that we're going to make mistakes once in a while if we're going to be innovative," Thompson says.

In the end, innovation is a slippery concept, demanding chaos and discipline, process and flexibility, New Age approaches and old-fashioned common sense. After all, the motivation to innovate often emanates from the everyday thought, "There has to be a better way." Says Price: "It's about really giving a damn about something and being determined to find the know-how to help you with that problem."

Read more about innovation:

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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