Filters and a flat organization keys to innovation process

Filters and a flat organization keys to innovation process

Date: Jul 05, 2011

Global Crossing CIO and Chief Technology Officer Anthony Christie is no snob when it comes to good ideas.

All technology-related ideas from across the telecommunications network carrier's employee base feed into a structured innovation process run by an office that's part of Christie's group. Ideas pass through a "strategy screen," the parameters of which are set by that office and are based on three business tenets: improving the company's financials, improving its customers' experience or improving its employees' experience.

If it's determined that an idea relates to one of those tenets, it goes before a forum. If it passes muster there, it is kicked up to senior leadership.

"If the idea is approved, we would support it, and that person [who came up with the idea] would have the ability to come out of their job and work on the idea for a certain period of time," Christie explains in this video interview for SearchCIO.com's CIO Innovators series.

Good ideas that don't fit in with Global Crossing's business strategy don't necessarily fall by the wayside, however. It is not uncommon for someone on his team to pass on an idea to an associate at a private equity firm.

"Innovation, no one has a monopoly on it, so you need to give people the ability to come and go," Christie says.

That freedom does not extend to indulging in techno-speak, he explains. He has encountered the "eyes glazed over" look from the C-suite when his group starts speaking in bits and bytes. That's a surefire way to kill even a great idea.

"Depending on the function that you're speaking to, you're going to boil it down into nomenclature that they will understand, whether that's marketing, finance, IT, sales or development."


Read the full transcript from this video below:

Filters and a flat organization keys to innovation process

John Brown: This is John Brown and I'm here today with Anthony Christie, CIO of
Global Crossing. This video is part of the SearchCIO.com Innovators Video
Series. We're here today at the MIT Sloan School of Management at the CIO
Symposium.

Welcome, Anthony.

Anthony Christie: Thanks, John. Good to be here.

John Brown: Anthony, what do you feel is the CIO's role in innovation?

Anthony Christie: It's a very broad question, isn't it? There's another part of
my title, which is CTO. Our company made a decision a couple of
years ago to actually put the forward-looking technology
function in the business alongside the classic CIO role
because of a fundamental belief that so much of what customers
will be needing two to three years out, and the things we'll
need to be doing for them today to prepare for that, are systems
and IT driven. From our standpoint, the two are in many respects
almost interchangeable.

John Brown: How do you calculate the risks, the benefits and the ROI of
innovation?

Anthony Christie: In our company, the No. 1 screen for any incremental or
large-scale investment is strategy-based. The investment itself
needs to be either adjacent to or advancing our existing core
strategy. That's the first screen. After that, there are a
number of different conventions that we would use, whether it's
a greenfield approach for something that we might believe is a
burgeoning technology that might have applicability at some
point. We might encase that and seed it a little bit if, in fact,
that proof of concept bears out.

We have a very formal and structured business case process where
we will look for a return on investment for whatever market
returns that that investment should be giving the business over
that period of time. I think the key, though, is a strategy
filter first so that you just don't have people coming in with
every idea that they might happen to read in this week's
Technology Journal. Secondly, you don't want to pull that green
chute before it has a chance to grow. Some of this does have to
be protected, but through that strategy scheme.

John Brown: How do you create a culture of innovation within your organization?

Anthony Christie: At times, there are colleagues of mine that say, "Sometimes we
have to dampen it." It just seems, John, as if there's no
absence of, "This is what we really should be doing. This is how
we should be doing this thing better." Our company really was
built in a culture of innovation, very early adopters of IP
technology, some might say on the bleeding edge, back in the pre-
dot-com days, and here we are today. I think there are a couple
of ways that we've evolved, and we've embedded this into our
culture and we've embedded this into our organization structure.

For example, as part of my group, we have what we call the Global
Crossing Office of Innovation. What we do, using our internal
communications, is entice any associate across the enterprise.
They don't have to have an IT or a technology or engineering
title, the belief being that you, me, this person or anyone
could have a good idea that's innovative and that could make the
difference.

We've structured that somewhat. It has to pass a strategy
screen, it has to have a rudimentary outline of what that idea
is and how it can impact our business, and then our CTO forum
reviews that. If the team believes that it has merit, we will
take that down a path of additional screens, up to and including
taking an idea to the senior leadership team of the company. If
it is in fact approved, we would support it. That person has an
ability to come out of their job and work on that for a certain
period of time. A lot of us know different private equity
investors, etc. If it's something that Global Crossing might not
choose to invest in, we've also introduced people to the concept
that others might be.

That's one way we've done that, and I think that's representative
of the point that no one has a monopoly on innovation, so you
need to give people an opportunity to come and go.

John Brown: What technology is causing you to rethink how you operate IT within
Global Crossing?

Anthony Christie: That's a great question. If I could turn it around slightly --
because it's something I remind myself and my team every day --
let's not get so hung up on the technology that we're trying to
find a home for it. Let's sit back, take a breath and remember
what problem we're trying to solve. What are the choke points in
the business that genuinely exist? What are the pressure points
to growth? What is in the way of removing cost from the
business? And then step back and say, "OK, do we have some
interesting cloud technologies, storage technologies,
virtualization technologies that allow a developer not to have
to fight between themselves for a proof of concept? How about
two or three proofs of concept for the price that heretofore one
cost?

First, we have to back up. What are we trying to solve? I know
that if I go to my peer group and I sit around the senior team
level and start talking in bits and bytes, I see eyes glaze
over. We have to step back and say, "What business are we in?
What are we trying to solve?" and then bring that technology
into it.

John Brown: Anthony, I wanted to loop back a little bit. You had mentioned how, in
the organization, everyone understands the strategy. How do you
actually communicate that strategy, deliver it and make it a
part of the fabric of working at Global Crossing?

Anthony Christie: That's a great question. Over and over and over again. There's
no substitute for repetition. You can use as many tools as you
want, up to and including starting with town halls in a forum,
just like we're sitting in right now. I've done this, and my
peers on the senior leadership team have done this at Global
Crossing. Big believers in that flatness and having people
giving them the opportunity to check in on what that strategy
generally is, and then constant repetition.

Also, abstracting it. Bringing it up. It's really not that hard.
What is it that we are trying to do in our company? We're trying
to improve our financials, we're trying to improve customer
experience and we're trying to make this a great place to work.

Those are the three tenets of the strategy at Global Crossing.
If you grab any person around the globe, regardless of what
language they speak, I will bet you they will say those three
things in one way, shape or form.

It's back to the basics. Abstract that message, clear and
simple, and then repetition, over and over. And then, of course,
depending on the function that you are speaking to, you are
going to boil that down into nomenclature that they can
understand; marketing, finance, sales, IT, development.

John Brown: What business drivers are really shaping the technology that you are
investing in today?

Anthony Christie: Growth, customer experience, employee experience. These are
genuinely the business drivers, and it's no happy coincidence
that they're tied directly to the corporate strategy. Our
customer experience emphasis predates what -- and I am going
to brag a little bit now. Up to this point, we're having a great
discussion. I've got to brag a little bit because when I see a
lot of my competitors saying, "We're all about a premiere
customer experience," I think back eight or nine years ago to
when we started doing primary research, because we really were
trying to differentiate ourselves from people that had a heck of
a lot more money to spend than we did.

When we asked customers, "What do you think constitutes a
different customer experience?" we thought they were going to
say this technology, this many more people, this price -- it's
always price. Uh-uh. Do you know what they said, John? "When
something breaks, fix it fast." Back to the basic blocking and
tackling. But inside that point, there's a tremendous
implication for your upstream processes and technologies.

When you say, "What's the one area that we continue to invest
in," outside of new products and services for growth and our
people, it is improving that customer experience. A lot of that
isn't necessarily whether we're going to be putting our storage
arrays in some area where it's much easier to retrieve that data
in the event of an outage. A lot of times, it's the unsexy stuff
of cleaning up customer records and inventory and matching it to
the bills, so that when you are talking to them about an outage,
they are actually looking at the same inventory that you have in
your hand.

John Brown: Anthony, I'd like to thank you very much for your time today.

Anthony Christie: It's been a pleasure, John.

John Brown: This is John Brown with SearchCIO.com, here at MIT's Sloan School of
Management at the CIO Symposium. This video is a part of the
SearchCIO.com series on CIO Innovation.

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