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Under-the-gun managers and other factors that kill IT innovation

In this interview, author Jill Dyché explains why IT innovation should be on every CIO's agenda

IT Innovation is a term invoked by just about every company these days, but delivering on innovation is not so common. In her new book The New IT: How Technology Leaders are Enabling Business Strategy in the Digital Age, author Jill Dyché argues that if CIOs and IT leaders are serious about becoming more relevant to the business, they should start embracing -- and building -- an innovation practice, which encourages employees to think creatively and experiment.

The starting point for IT leaders, according to Dyché, vice president of best practices at SAS Institute Inc., is understanding the corporate culture where they work, a point she elaborated on in part one of this two-part interview. Here, she talks about why innovation is catnip to boards of directors, how managers undermine creative thinking and why innovation buzzwords are buzzkill.

The book's longest chapter is on innovation and going digital. Why is innovation so powerful? And how does it fit into the new IT?

Jill Dyché: Innovation is a conversation that very few CEOs and boards of directors turn down. If you want to talk to the board of directors about how your company can be more innovative, you'll probably not only be invited to the board meeting, but to stay for lunch. That is absolutely a larger culture issue than just an IT issue. And it's a great conversation to happen.

Jill DycheJill Dyché

The reason it's the longest chapter is because it's one of the most important ways IT leaders can start to shift the conversation. And it's also a great way to get investment commitment. If you go into an executive team meeting or a board of directors meeting, and you tell them that you want to upgrade the CRM application or you want to move to a new ERP system, that may be approved, and you may get a green light. But you're not going to get a lot of time on the agenda. If you want to start talking about a culture of innovation and how to formalize things like discovery work, leaders are all over those conversations. And IT should be right in the middle of them.

We're seeing some companies creating innovation labs outside of IT, which is a huge tragedy for the IT organization. It's a lost opportunity to really kick IT into high gear and get them newly relevant.

The one thing that tends to sabotage innovation the most is innovation by buzzword.
Jill Dychéauthor of 'The New IT'

When building an innovation culture, should it cut across the organization or should a small team take up the charge? What's a better practice for the enterprise?

Dyché: The best practice is to position innovation as inclusive. There are new, formal processes around sharing new ideas, whether that's an improvement to a core product set or getting better food in the break room. On the one hand, there needs to be institutionalized encouragement for that. A C-level person has to say, 'We want your ideas; we have an open-door policy, and here's how to do it.' So there should be a process for submitting new ideas and for vetting new ideas. Everybody should be encouraged to submit those ideas without fear of penalties.


Dyché: The biggest barrier to innovation is managers who want their people stuck in their day jobs. For those employees, there's a penalty for big ideas because they have to keep writing code to sustain the release momentum. So, if they find a better way of doing something, they aren't encouraged to leave their niche, contribute those ideas and become part of an innovation team.

Why do managers put on the brakes?

'The New IT' by Jill Dyche

Dyché: It disrupts the steady state. When employees are working on a project and have a big idea or see a better way to do this, what better time to invite fresh thinking, right? But that makes managers who are rewarded on time-to-delivery twitchy. That's the biggest barrier: How do I sustain the typical project and project deadlines but at the same time encourage people to leave the project team temporarily, go off and see the execution of their ideas? There's a little bit of choreography involved, but it's completely worth it, not only in terms of the organization's interests, but also in terms of an employee's growth, longevity and retention.

In your book, you offer a list of qualities that can sabotage innovation. What's the deadliest?

Dyché: The one thing that tends to sabotage innovation the most is innovation by buzzword. And what that looks like is someone saying, 'We're going to be a digital enterprise.' Well, that word assumes a certain understanding of what a digital enterprise is in the context of the company’s specific culture and business objectives. The secret to being a digital enterprise is deconstructing digital into foundational efforts that drive business value.

So managers need to be able to drill down from high-level concepts like 'digital marketing' into more tactical projects -- for instance, offering consumers a digital wallet or a real-time mobile product recommender. Then they can establish the measures and skills necessary to deliver digital functionality. Truthfully, this is the only way to make the digital enterprise a reality. That's the level of tactical conversation that needs to happen around innovation for it to get off the ground.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

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