Creating the Right Environment for Innovation

Chris Zeppa, CIO, Walker Engineering
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Chris Zeppa, CIO, Walker Engineering

The steps we can take are bolded

We have long been taught that people in management positions should ‘foster innovation’. To me, that’s as simple as getting out of the way of a good idea. Of course, the implication is that you can recognize a good idea when it pops up. It means you are actively looking and listening for it. And the only altruistic reason for looking for good ideas is because you want to make something better for the people you serve. 

  ‚ÄčWe need to provide an environment where innovation can happen, listen to ideas, identify and foster those people for whom change is a way of life  

I don’t think innovation happens, per se. Innovation is the result of more fundamental elements being in place; it’s the byproduct of professionally happy people who take a lot of pride in their work. If people in your company love what they do and are proud of where they work, they will improve the company’s product. 

As a CIO, I understand the leveraging effect of technology. When I hear about an innovative idea, I think to see if technology has any role to play in supporting – fostering – that idea. If adding technology to a good idea hinders the process of innovation, then, don’t use it.  It is nothing worse than seeing a good idea lying dead on the floor, killed by the crushing weight of needless technology.  For me, an example of a needless use of technology is fitness trackers. Who doesn’t know if they’re in good shape? Do we really need some device counting our steps and giving us some delusional sense of fitness? 

A fault that a lot of technologists have is confusing complexity with innovation. I find that real innovation in our field comes just from figuring out how to make a complex process, simple.  We recently upgraded a lot of our network infrastructure to cloud managed switches, routers, access points and security devices. We also moved our job site WAN connections to similar devices. As such, we added simplicity very quickly.. 

I like some of the more recent technical innovations, the ones that come from mashing together a few simple, off the shelf pieces of technology into something completely new. Early cell phones where great. So were early digital cameras. But when somebody thought to mash a cell phone and a camera together, it was true innovation. Complex things, like quantum computers, may also be considered innovative, but will they ever have any application? 

We do not necessarily recognize small improvements as innovation, but it is. We are conditioned to see innovation only as a fundamentally new way to do something. With this definition in our heads, it is easy to miss the small improvements that, viewed over a period of time, make one company stand out against its competitors. Likewise, lots of base hits can be better than a few home runs. 

If you like your innovation in larger doses, identify and cultivate relationships with the risk takers in your company. These people still need to love what they do, and be proud of where they work, but they also don’t really care for the status quo.  It goes same for people with short attention spans. These personality types innovate just to alleviate boredom. 

So, to foster innovation, we need to provide an environment where it can happen, listen to ideas, identify and foster those people for whom change is a way of life.   

Innovation lives or dies at the will of corporate culture. Innovative people generally do not hang around a culture that promotes the idea that ‘the way we’ve always done it is the best way’. In that culture, innovation serves no purpose, and innovative people find no encouragement, so they move on. It will be a real uphill battle to find, much less foster, innovation in such type of companies. 

Corporate philosophy generally encourages the pursuit of innovation. We want to foster innovation because it has the positive connotations of change. But innovation has a dark side – it’s disruptive. A little disruption is a good thing. A lot of it is counter-productive. It is easier to understand why we need to manage innovation when we see it as change. Corporate cultures have varying capacities for change, from near zero to continual change.  But even those cultures that thrive on near constant change can only do so for a limited period of time. It takes people time to accept and internalize change in their daily lives, even when it clearly makes their situation better. Managers, especially IT managers, need to be very conscious of reaching their company’s saturation point for change. 

One of the things I really love about my job is that people stop by to share their ideas with me.  I don’t think this happens in the Accounting or HR departments, so I wonder why this occurs in our department.  Is technology equated with innovation? Whatever it is, CIOs need to be aware of this attraction of ideas to technology and make it a priority to nurture it. 

So, bottom line for me is not going in search for innovation. As such it is more important to create the right environment where ideas have value and the innovation will take care of itself. 

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