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Akamai's Tom Leighton talks about the CEO role in driving innovation

"We're probably the biggest entity on the Web that regular people haven't heard of, but you're using us every day." That's Tom Leighton, co-founder and CEO of Internet content provider Akamai Technologies Inc. and professor of applied mathematics at MIT. Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., Akamai is indeed large, accounting for an estimated 20% of all Web traffic. With servers in more than 700 cities and 80 countries around the world, Akamai delivers content to the 60 top e-commerce sites, all 30 top media sites, nine of the 10 top banks and other major portals.

In this SearchCIO Innovator video filmed at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, Leighton -- a panel member for the session "The Use of Power and Influence during the Process of Innovation" -- talks with Executive Editor Linda Tucci about the CEO role in driving innovation. He outlines some of the structures Akamai has put in place to keep the creative sparks flying and management on its toes, including a Web site called "Ask Tom," where employees can anonymously ask him any question they fancy. Says Leighton, "There are sometimes some pretty rough questions that get asked."

There was a lot of discussion on your panel about the CEO role in driving innovation. You made some good points on the structures Akamai has put in place to encourage new ideas from the bottom up.

Tom Leighton: Innovation plays a critical role at Akamai. And as CEO, I have the ability to encourage innovation, fan the flames of innovation, to fund it and to celebrate it. I think that is really important to do. I think it's important for the CEO to set the target of where the company is going and make sure the team and the company is marching in one direction. But at the same time, you need to foster innovation.

For example -- ways I can do that --  at our quarterly meeting, where we get the entire company together either in person or virtually, we have an innovation showcase where we take the best three innovative ideas, and we put the teams that came up with the innovation on stage in front of the entire company. They explain their innovation and the impact that it is having on the company. 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 -- even if it is not a product but will inspire the imagination. That's one way you can celebrate innovation.

We also have part of our website -- my personal part of the internal website -- set up around innovation, where we can showcase other ideas that don't get up in front of the all-hands [quarterly meetings].

You know, innovation -- ideas -- are like sparks, and it is very easy to extinguish them. There's a lot of people who can say no and stomp it out. That's a dangerous thing. So we also put structures in place with a goal of encouraging those sparks, fanning the sparks, so you can try to catch fire with it, if it has a chance to do that.

One of the examples there is that we have something called the Product Innovation board, which has 15 of the gurus from the company across all departments, across all geographies. We get together every couple of weeks and talk about ideas that have come from the company. These people are known in the company, and so if you have an idea, if you know one of those folks, you can explain it to them.

We're also looking at other ways to try to get the ideas air time and oxygen, so that the ones that are really good can flourish. We look back at in our history and saw a couple of times we had good ideas years ahead of when we actually capitalized on them, because the spark got extinguished.

What was the roadblock in retrospect?

Leighton: Well, somebody, who was a smart person, maybe in a position of influence, said, "That is a bad idea. That idea won't work." And it happened at an early enough stage that the idea didn't circulate. If the idea had circulated, which years later it did, somebody else could say, "Whoa, that is a good idea! We need to flesh that out." As a result we were three years late on a couple of ideas that would have been nice to have done before.

Can you give me one example of one of your quarterly product showcases that actually had material results or at least some ROI for the company?

Leighton: Oh, sure. We did one just at the last all-hands [quarterly meeting]; it was a cost-saving measure in our operations. And we run at a scale where a good idea can save the company tens of millions of dollars. We carry a large fraction of the Internet on our platform, tremendous volume. We spend a ton of money in supporting the platform -- hundreds of millions of dollars go into that. And so if you can take 3% or 4% out of that, well that's a quick tens of millions of dollars.

So, we had an idea around what we call mapping, which is how end users are assigned to servers, based on the popularity of content. It was a better way to get the popular content out among more servers faster, and to put the not-so-popular content in a smaller number of locations and have the end user go straight to there.

That saved us the cost of moving content around as much as we were doing before, which resulted in tens of millions of dollars. So, it's the kind of thing that normally people don't talk about or get excited about, but it was a very innovative idea. They got up in front of the whole company, and I think it was a great role model.

You talked about encouraging people to criticize what the company was doing as a means of not only fixing the problem but maybe thinking of a better way to do things. How does the CEO role factor into that at Akamai?

Leighton: I think getting direct employee feedback on how we can make the company better, on what is wrong with a company, what isnot working -- because there is stuff that is wrong; there is always going to be stuff that is wrong when you can do better -- getting that direct feedback is really important for senior management.


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There's a variety of ways we go about doing that. So I hold a lunch every Friday with 15 employees where I give them a very nice lunch and we have a great discussion. But their job is to tell me what is wrong and what we can do better. I will also answer any questions they might have about the company.

When we get the sales leadership together, the best sales folks, once a year for a club trip, we have a session where for a few hours they get to complain about what is wrong. The senior management is up on the 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 got to go fix those things!

We have an anonymous website where anybody in the company can anonymously ask me any question they want. It's called Ask Tom. There are sometimes some pretty rough questions that get asked, and we answer them on the internal website.

When I travel I go see most of our offices, if not every year, every couple of years. And I will have a meeting with the people in the office or over drinks we'll do a social event, so employees can come and approach and say, "Hey, here's my idea, what do you think? or "Here's something that's not working well that you need to know."

The goal is to create a culture where people are honest about what's going on. And it is not 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 help ourselves get better.

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

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