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The first step to IT playing an integral role in the innovation process is to understand its role within the overall organization. Most importantly, it's necessary to connect to overarching strategic goals and have both a vision and a view of how IT supports business processes. Harvard's McAfee says that an organization must balance an outside-in perspective that's focused on technology and how it can affect an enterprise with an inside-out view that taps into the organization's business model and strategic focus.
The right balance is essential. A problem with outsourcing, McAfee says, is that over time it's easy to lose sight of the core strategic vision. On the other hand, organizations that are too internally focused can lose sight of today's fast-changing technology landscape.
"You may not understand the nuances and opportunities," he notes. "A Digg-type application that allows bookmarking and voting or a Twitter-like application that provides a mechanism for sharing and building on ideas quickly can fall between the cracks."
Success requires a culture that accepts risk, manages failure and puts an organization's cognitive surplus to work. "Even the busiest of us on our busiest week have some downtime and spare time to think," McAfee points out.
Moreover, says the Wharton School's Hosanagar, employees can't feel as if they're on the chopping block if they make a mistake. Equifax's Webb agrees. "The idea is to celebrate the learning that results from failure," he says. "The goal is to do lots of prototyping, lots of piloting and experimenting. If something doesn't work, we move on." These "fast kills," as McAfee puts it, help maximize resources while minimizing costs.
Anthony's takeaway: Innovation is a lot more predictable than executives generally believe. But it requires a distinct discipline. Yes, it's about nurturing creativity, but it's also about connecting dots and creating processes that transform ideas into improvements.
When an enterprise gets it right, everything from incremental improvements to a radical revamping of technology and the business is possible. Only then, says Anthony, "are people able to solve problems and confront challenges in a highly effective way while building a competitive advantage for the organization."