How To Achieve a Culture of Innovation in IT

By Marilyn Weinstein  |  Posted 06-03-2011

How To Achieve a Culture of Innovation in IT

Every CIO knows his or her organization's business, inside and out. But what about the rest of your IT team? In order to make a strong case that IT is "part of the business," it's important that the entire IT organization knows the business inside and out. If you're nodding your head in agreement, but aren't sure how to establish this model, follow these four guidelines and you'll be well on your way.

  1. Teach your team your business. While the importance of ensuring that your team understands your business may seem obvious, it's not commonly practiced across IT organizations. Instead, this knowledge is generally shared among the business team (product, sales, accounting and finance roles) and relayed to the CIO alone. However, it is equally important that the network support team has insight into the company's supply chain, understands the pricing factors, knows the customers, and is aware of other key factors driving the business.
  2. Connect with the business. Make sure your IT organization not only understands the business, but feels connected to it. There's no denying that the level of passion and innovation that team members bring to their jobs will increase if they feel connected to the overarching business strategy and objectives. Consider how orders travel across the company. Does the IT team understand how this happens? If not, they should. Business processes should be understood by your entire IT team. Even better, encourage them to read and understand your company's 10k to truly understand how IT is a business driver. Try holding simple training sessions on business elements and operations, and then quiz your team afterward. Make it part of each team member's MBO that he can competently explain the business drivers and speak to the company's financials.
  3. Develop trusted relationships within your organization. Assuming that the concept of ingraining IT into the business represents a cultural shift for your company, keep in mind that charging headfirst without establishing relationships with the business team can do more harm than good. It requires hard work and persistence to gain the trust of business leaders. Make this a priority as you work to ensure that IT is seen as an integral part of the business. Similarly, your CEO and all of his or her underlings must wholeheartedly believe in the value of employee innovation and they must commit to hearing IT's ideas. When such conversations do happen, avoid "IT speak" and focus, instead, on discussing goals and barriers in general business terms. Be prepared to listen in on business strategy discussions and offer insights and suggestions in business vernacular that address critical corporate needs.
  4. Consider the risks. What are the career risks associated with stepping forward and putting yourself "out there" to the larger business team? The biggest risks of this approach are largely internal to the IT team - not to the company at large. To avoid any detrimental effects from seeking IT innovation, it's imperative that you have a strong IT leadership team in place below you while you dedicate time to gaining support from the business side. If your own IT leadership team isn't fully up to the task, you run the risk of being labeled an absentee CIO who is out of touch with the day-to-day IT operations. Consider this is a worst-case scenario. As long as you stay in touch with your IT team, instilling confidence in your leaders and staying abreast of IT initiatives, you will continue to reap rewards and build more credibility with the rest of the C-Suite.

    A Lasting Culture of IT Innovation

Once you've put yourself out there with the rest of the business, and sold and executed on your ideas for innovation, it's time to really drill down and instill a lasting culture of innovation within your IT organization.

Business innovation will organically generate as the whole team becomes engaged in the business. When your IT employees understand supply chain issues, for example, they'll automatically begin thinking of other supply chain avenues. And, when they learn about a competitor's new product, they will instinctively begin thinking of new product innovations for your company. However, the equation does not stop there.

While innovation may start with education, nothing will happen unless a continued focus and desire to maintain a culture of innovation exists. Here are three tips to help drive a lasting culture of innovation.
  1. Put your commitment where your mouth is. Don't fall back on your commitment to innovation. Formalize ideation in a meaningful way that works for you and your team, and consider having quarterly full-day white boarding sessions, creating contests, and forming committees to keep the energy going.
  2. Exercise bragging rights. Long after any potential monetary awards and recognition ceremonies are over, the innovation itself will carry on as business is improved. Brag on behalf of teammates who initiated the change. Highlight successes to HR, and have them published in your IT or company-wide bulletins.
  3. Track your team's success. Did your SAN team come up with a unique way to store data, which went on to be a leading product for the business? Track numbers, and talk about them often with your business executives.

Keep in mind that one of the best ways to kill innovation is to fail to implement the great ideas your team has generated. Once there is executive-level support, start designing programs that foster innovation - and put those ideas into play.  And then continue to do so. Innovation breeds success, and vice versa.

Marilyn Weinstein is CEO and founder of Vivo, a Silicon Valley-based IT staffing and consulting firm that specializes in successfully aligning the business and technical needs of IT with the expectations and cost requirements of the CFO.