The buzz around innovation is inescapable. It's impossible today to open a trade journal or attend a conference without hearing about innovation's importance.
The problem is that too many CIOs view innovation as a kind of standalone activity that happens in the dark recesses of some R&D laboratory, while too many others view it as some type of technology to be deployed. You can almost hear a CIO calling his or her local services company and placing an order for innovation as if it were some shrink-wrapped product sitting on a shelf.
Innovation isn't some sort of mystical silver bullet that will solve all of our problems. Nor is it some new technology that we can buy and implement. Innovation is about creatively leveraging the tools and processes at your disposal to drive business value.
A number of years ago, we worked with a partner to add bar-code scanning to the tickets at our tournament. This ensured the authenticity of tickets and helped to reduce scalping of fake ones. However, it also created an opportunity for an unrelated innovation. The U.S. Tennis Association limits the number of people on campus during the U.S. Open to comply with public safety issues. Scanning tickets tells us in real time how many people are currently on campus, which allows us to sell additional passes. This generates additional ticket-sale revenue in the seven-figure range each year.
Did we deploy new technology? No. We leveraged an existing capability and found an innovative way to drive new revenue.
Another concern is that people don't understand that there is a certain culture required to successfully innovate. How many organizations in the current economic climate are open to trying things that may "fail"?
To drive innovation, you must be open to the reality that a percentage of the things you try will not work out as hoped. As Edison quipped when asked about the creation of the light bulb, "I hadn't failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Is your organization willing to stub its toe, or will it punish people who take educated risks that don't pan out?
A few years back, we implemented collaboration tools to support an important volunteer initiative. The technology we implemented--while best in class at that time--wound up not being ready for prime time. But the experience we gained from this effort, and what it taught our clients, allowed us to successfully deploy a SharePoint portal two years later with great results. The initial project was not a success, but it paved the way for future success. How would your management perceive that?
A last issue in the current innovation rage is that people are struggling to figure out how they can innovate when they have to focus on other important initiatives, such as enabling process change and cutting budgets. This shows a limited view of innovation as something that requires additional funding and happens in a vacuum.
Granted, some innovations do need seed capital. If so, work on reducing your operating costs to shake free a few dollars. In most cases, innovation requires less in financial capital and more in human thought equity.
Don't dedicate a team to driving innovation--make it the responsibility of everyone who works with you. Turn your people loose and let them come up with creative ideas. That is the true essence of innovation.
Larry Bonfante is CIO of the United States Tennis Association (USTA).
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