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CIO innovation management: Tapping the collective IQ

Is the collective IQ of the group better for driving innovation than the genius of one? Two very smart technology leaders think so.

The collective IQ is the mother of invention. That's what stood out to me in our CIO coverage this week of two technology leaders. They both embrace the idea that the collective intelligence of the group may be greater than the smartest person in the room -- provided you can get everybody talking. And not just about the good stuff.

At Internet content delivery giant Akamai Technologies, co-founder and CEO Tom Leighton hosts a get-together for 15 employees every Friday. The group varies from week to week. "I give them a very nice lunch and we have a great discussion, but their job is to tell me what's wrong and what we can do better," Leighton said.

The remarks were made during a video interview I did with Leighton at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium. The topic was the role CEOs play in driving innovation. Cambridge, Mass.-based Akamai accounts for an estimated 20% of all Web traffic. Its customers include all the top media and e-commerce sites and most of the world's top banks. Leighton, who in addition to running the company is a longtime professor of applied mathematics at MIT, doesn't leave good ideas up to chance. Quarterly "all-hands" meetings where all of Akamai meets in person or virtually, for example, always include an innovation showcase. Employees submit their ideas each quarter and the boss chooses three to highlight.

"It can be anything from a new product or product feature to a way to save the company a lot of money or just something that is really cool," he said of this innovation management tactic. One recent employee team-generated idea improved how the company handles trending Web content. Ideas that are not chosen are put up on Leighton's personal website.

"You know, innovation -- ideas -- are like sparks, and it is very easy to extinguish them," he said. "There're a lot of people who can say 'No' and stomp them out. That's a dangerous thing, so we put structures in place with the goal of encouraging those sparks, fanning the sparks."

The goal is to create a culture where people are honest about what's going on. And it is not about who you are; it is what you say and the value of your idea.
Tom LeightonCEO, Akamai Technologies

Sparks are encouraged to fly from the collective IQ in another way. Leighton invites dissent from every quarter of the company, not just from the engineers. The annual celebratory gathering of the company's top sales people, for example, always includes a gripe session where folks get to air complaints, he told me. "The senior management is up on stage and we are just listening and hearing it. It's amazing what comes out: Things we didn't know that are really hampering their efficiency and now we have to go fix." For employees who might have some trepidation about confronting Leighton -- a world authority on algorithms for network applications whose science chops date back to his high school days as a Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist -- he offers up "Ask Tom" on his personal website where queries can be submitted anonymously. "There are some pretty tough questions that get asked," he said.

"The goal is to create a culture where people are honest about what's going on. And it is not about who you are; it is what you say and the value of your idea. That is really important for the culture. I think that is how we can help ourselves get better," he said.

Innovation management through company-wide think tanks

That same respect for the collective IQ is evident in TopGolf CIO Tom LaPlante, profiled here this week by SearchCIO's Senior Features Writer Karen Goulart.

TopGolf -- or Target Oriented Practice Golf -- is a chain of sports entertainment facilities where golfers hit golf balls embedded with microchips into sensor-ized targets to score points based on speed and accuracy. With more than a dozen venues here and in the U.K. under its belt, and with plans to expand by 10 or more venues annually, the company hired LaPlante as its first CIO last year. One of his charges? Making sure all the new technology-enabled golf complexes offer the same (ideally flawless) customer experience. To achieve a uniform customer experience across venues, LaPlante introduced rigorous project management with processes for documenting every work activity and equally rigorous post-mortems to dissect the lessons learned. To reach that ideally flawless pinnacle, however, LaPlante set about tapping the collective intelligence of the company.

"That's how we're going to take new, innovative ideas and push the envelope without impacting the production site," LaPlante told Goulart. "We're trying to create a culture where, whether it's an hourly paid associate on the food and beverage line or the CIO or CMO or CEO, it's everybody's job to come up with new ideas on how we can make things better."

He's formed a steering committee to solicit ideas on what the entertainment venues' next-generation technology should deliver. And he's forming a mini think tank in the technology group to figure out how to make it happen. It will start off with folks well-versed in hardware and software, but LaPlante eventually plans to rotate in employees from marketing and other departments, as well as on-site associates, including new recruits.

"When you're always adding new people you want to get them convinced that, 'Yes!' their opinions and ideas are going to be listened to and it's inherent in their job to come up with new ways of doing things."

Good ideas don't flourish in a vacuum and smart leaders know they can come from anyone in the company. And they put structures in place to encourage that. As part of a generation for whom process-oriented was an undesirable trait and innovation management sounded like a contradiction in terms, all I can say is, I'm happy to live and learn from others.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, executive editor.

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Are your leaders harnessing the company's collective IQ and do they have structures in place to accomplish that?
Opening to suggestion from everyone is the way to getting better as a whole