Escaping the shackles of static IT mentality

Futurist Tom Koulopoulos gives CIOs and CEOs a primer on how to innovate.

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Geniuses are wonderful to have around, charging up the workplace with bright ideas. You can almost see the cartoon light bulbs flashing. But most of us don't fall into that category, says Tom Koulopoulos, CEO of Boston-based Delphi Group and self-styled futurist.

For most people, particularly those of us who can remember our whereabouts when Neil Armstrong set foot on lunar soil, the capacity to generate new ideas has diminished over time. Our maturing brains have become a network of well-worn paths, even ruts. We rely on observations of the past to tell us about the future.

"You're what I call the Apollos, children of the space age. You're stuck. I'm stuck. I wish I wasn't," Koulopoulos said. "We need experiences to disrupt those neurons just enough to let new ideas seep in."

Koulopoulos spoke at last month's Fusion 2008 CEO-CIO Symposium in Madison, Wis., to business and IT executives about the importance of developing a process for innovation. If you're groaning now, Koulopoulos understands. Make the rounds of the business conference circuit long enough, and buzzwords like innovation -- or yesterday's business alignment -- can ring hollow, he concedes.

But in a competitive global economy where the ability to anticipate or, better yet, define the future marketplace is increasingly critical to success, companies do need to innovate. So how can workplaces escape the shackles of their past?

Koulopoulos is not the only who appreciates both the imperative to innovate and the difficulty in making it happen.

Innovation "has reached the level of near-meaningless cliché," said Bobby Cameron, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in a recent interview with SearchCIO.com.

Nonetheless, there is an "endless thirst" for business innovation, said Cameron, who explored the topic in his Feb. 21 report "IT Can Help Accelerate Business Innovation." A 2007 IBM survey of 170 CIOs found that CIOs strongly believe technology is profoundly changing their industries and providing competitive advantage. CEOs also want innovation. Seventy percent of corporate leaders named innovation among their top three priorities for growth in McKinsey & Co.'s 2007 survey "How companies approach innovation."

CIOs and CEOs say one thing and, alas, do another. Of those 70% of corporate leaders who named innovation as a top priority, 70% said it was not a part of their leadership team's regular agenda. The 170 CIOs so passionate about the transformative power of technology? Only 16% felt their companies took advantage of that power. Their companies deployed IT to drive efficiency, not transformation.

Innovation is a process

In a lecture enlivened with anecdotes about the unorthodox birth of nonstick tape at 3M Co., for example, and how the first water-cooled space suits nearly cooked astronauts alive, Koulopoulos gave a primer on how to incorporate innovation in the workplace.

First lesson: Innovation should not be confused with invention. The culture of invention pervades and pollutes the marketplace with endless variations of the same old products (new and improved toilet tissue). That is not the same thing as innovation, Koulopoulos says. "Innovation only exists if you can truly add value or meaning to the world and who we are."

Innovation is about adopting a new way of doing business, he said. It is a discipline to be practiced and it flows from a process. "It used to be you started with an hypothesis and moved forward. But now we start with the data and mine it. This is process-centric and a radical shift in how we think about innovation," he said.

Daycare center for innovation

Businesses put a premium on creativity but rarely provide the tools to make it happen, Koulopoulos said. A lot of innovation is tied to continued momentum. In the process of moving ahead, we stumble on new ideas. Organizations really interested in innovation should give employees leave to spend some portion of their time pursuing ideas not directly related to billable hours or organization duties. "It doesn't matter how much, it just has to be some time," Koulopoulos said.

You need to define the values by which you measure a good idea.

New ideas are fragile. Companies need a process to capture ideas and keep them safe until they are mature enough to stand on their own. Koulopoulos gave the example of an innovation incubator at Massachusetts General Hospital, swimming in $35 million of venture capital, that was formed seven years ago to essentially function as a "daycare" for new ideas. Doctors and nurses are encouraged to submit ideas, which the research lab promises to nurture and run with, or bank, or perhaps send back to its owner for refinement, but not kill.

Like Koulopoulos, Forrester's Cameron said he believes companies need a structured, scalable, repeatable process for innovation to become, if not second nature, then at least more likely to happen. You can read about his five-step process for business innovation here.

Yardstick for innovation

Companies can and should measure how innovative they are, Koulopoulos said. "What percent of your revenues comes from a product or service or a new business that was created in the last three or five or 10 years? You need to know that metric."

Innovation takes leadership. Experience, education, our relationships all work against innovation, becoming a funnel that narrows and narrows until all we can see is behind us, Koulopoulos said. The leaders at companies that are successful find ways to abandon their past success, he said. Microsoft, for example, sets up labs to mess up its products as a means of discovering the future. Oracle buys innovation.

Koulopoulos said he believes industry must play a large part in fostering innovation, until schools figure out a way to teach innovation. And, increasingly, innovation will come out of teams of people, he said, pointing to the Nobel Prizes won mainly by individuals before 1950, and the groups of people who have won the award after 1950.

His parting advice to his audience of seasoned executives: Shake things up. The older we get, the more uncomfortable it is to change. We fail to see how quickly things will change. "Create disruption," Koulopoulos urged.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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