How IT leaders can define and drive IT innovation

While innovation is a goal of most organizations, many IT leaders are hard-pressed to define what innovation is. The CIO Executive Council outlines four essential principles for IT leaders to keep in mind as they develop or hone their strategies.

Many intrinsic tensions manifest themselves when IT leaders seek to become more innovative. There is, for example, the question of economy: How long will management tolerate endless whiteboard-wielding brainstorming sessions until the realities of opportunity cost come to the fore? And there are also the inherent problems that arise in trying to create an “innovation culture” when the terms innovation and culture seem so indefinable and subjective on their own.

Although innovation is the goal of nearly every organization, a majority of IT leaders (56 percent) believe that there is no fixed definition for innovation whatsoever, and that malleable definitions change based on the situation, according to the results of the CIO Executive Council (CEC) 2016 IT Innovation Survey (see Figure 1). If innovation is a constantly moving target, as three out of five IT leaders claim, then IT organizations must prove themselves slightly acrobatic to compensate. In other words, to capture lightning in a bottle, IT leaders must change bottles frequently.

Additionally, 24 percent of IT leaders assert that there is no specific definition for innovation at all, and that it can be observed only through its impact and delivered value. They believe that innovation reveals itself only through reactive observation and “Eureka!” moments, not predetermined strategy. Only one out of five (20 percent) IT leaders claim that innovation has a firm definition that can be applied universally, according to the CEC survey.

The CEC survey is intended to guide IT leaders by providing a summary of peer attitudes towards innovation; concrete action steps they have taken (and avoided) in the pursuit of success; and impediments holding them back. The data presented herein represents a cross-industry view on the state of IT innovation efforts, helping IT leaders to analyze opportunities and pitfalls as they craft their own innovation strategies.

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FIGURE 1: IT leaders are ambivalent about the definition of innovation

The definition dilemma: Identifying IT innovation

IT leaders’ ambivalence about innovation’s definition has translated into a scattershot approach when it comes to execution and implementation. Survey respondents were asked to rate the efficacy of the 10 most common innovative behaviors, as determined by the CIO Executive Council Research Board (see Figure 2).

No individual behavior is seen as either “extremely effective” or “very effective” – the top two response options – by a majority of IT leaders. When these two response options are combined, the three most effectual practices are having “creative brainstorming sessions” (48 percent); seeing “leadership providing and advancing an innovative vision” (45 percent); and having “leadership ‘mentors’ within the organization to drive change” (42 percent), respectively.

[ Related: 5 ways to cultivate a culture of IT innovation ]

These top innovation behaviors don’t cost anything on their own. They are manifestations of culture and vision. On one level, it is reassuring to see how democratic and cost-effective innovation can actually be – but, seen another way, this result is almost certainly a reflection of how many other practices are left untested and untried. Seven of the 10 behaviors had adoption rates lower than 60 percent. Even hackathons, the lauded pet projects of Silicon Valley and beyond, were employed less than half the time.

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Figure 2: The effectiveness of innovation behaviors

Despite all this, IT leaders take innovation – or, at least, the idea of innovation – seriously. In an industry that seems to generate buzzwords spontaneously, the vast majority of IT leaders (68 percent) contend that ‘innovation’ is not a buzzword at all (see Figure 3). Yet three-quarters (72 percent) of IT leaders also agree with the statement, ‘Very few companies are really innovative,’ and only one-quarter (23 percent) actually have a concrete process for measuring the potential for innovation efforts, as well as ROI.

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Figure 3: Attitudinal statements on IT innovation

Naturally, it is essential to unearth the specific impediments that IT leaders claim hold them back. And while it is too facile to summarize the responses as “time, money, and other people,” that would not be terribly far off, either. Two-thirds of IT leaders (63 percent) claim that they simply don’t have time to innovate given day-to-day tasks, and half (50 percent) state that their leadership does not allocate sufficient funds for innovation efforts (see Figure 4). Nearly half (48 percent) registered that their culture was simply not change-oriented.

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Figure 4: Barriers to IT innovation

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Brendan Mcgowan

CIO (US)
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