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Sound teamwork can help midmarket CIOs avoid innovation failures

Creativity can make or break a CIO, and poor teamwork can be an innovation killer. CIO Scott Lowe looks at what not to do when you manage innovation.

Although the word innovation has been watered down with overuse recently, the concept itself is absolutely critical to organizational success. One has only to look at the examples of innovation failure set by Blockbuster, Sears and Borders to be reminded that a company can't rest on yesterday’s triumphs; tomorrow's glories must always be on the radar, and staying ahead of the curve is not negotiable when successfully managing team innovation.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

What does that mean for innovative CIOs? It means you can never stop moving; you must always be thinking about ways in which you can manage innovation, differentiate the business or just make things better. This requires people who have the resources, willingness and skills to envision the future and act on opportunity.

Unfortunately, for as many great ideas as there are, there are just as many ways that a company can make it impossible for team innovation to take place. Here are a few ways to ensure innovation failure in your own environment.

Shooting the messenger can derail team innovation

Often, team innovation comes through solving a particularly vexing challenge. By candidly identifying that a problem exists and then working to create a solution, teams find ways to improve efficiency. However, those team members who innovate sometimes have to deliver unpopular news to the powers that be. If you're the kind of manager who "shoots the messenger" rather than listening and managing innovation, your people will learn that bringing problems to your attention makes them a target -- whether or not that person is actually the cause of the problem -- and they'll stop coming to you. Ideas will simply die on the vine, and the business suffers as a result.

Similarly, great ideas can come from anywhere. If you're listening only to the people you choose to surround yourself with, you're ensuring that your organization will be slow to innovate. Besides actively destroying overall team morale through your exclusion, you'll never be bothered by that great idea you'll never hear about.

When times are tough, budgets must be cut. Often, the first things to go are the line items that don't have an immediate or measurable return, like training and development budgets. In other words, in order to make it easier to get through a difficult time, organizations cut the very things that make it easier to get through the future.

Obviously, if the very survival of the organization is at stake, there may truly be no choice but to cut training budgets and special projects. The key, however, is in prioritizing those efforts when the money starts flowing again; failure to quickly replenish those innovation builders means that people and products will suffer.

Establish a culture of IT accountability

Great ideas are often developed from a small seed that grows into something larger that has great benefit to the company. It takes time and effort to develop an innovative idea into this bigger entity -- sometimes, the only way that an idea can grow is to talk it out with someone. In an organization with short-term focus, it can be easy to overlook ideas that haven't been fully fleshed out. If you don't take the time to work with your people on their ideas and see if there is a way that they can have merit, you'll definitely ensure innovation failure.

I have witnessed an organization making the transition into a blame-oriented culture. People did only what was necessary, and they did it to the letter. Email was routinely used as a protective mechanism so that people could establish their alibis, and real progress was slow.  While a healthy dose of accountability makes for best results, there is a line somewhere between having a culture of accountability and having a culture of blame. If your organizational culture is one of blame -- you fail to find the real root cause for problems and simply look for a scapegoat-- you'll ensure that your team won't be willing to stick their neck out for, well, anything, and that goes double for suggesting an innovative process or change.

Scott Lowe is CIO of Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. Write to him at

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