Future CIOs will look a lot like entrepreneurs, Pt. II

Joel Dobbs.GIF

Joel H. Dobbs is the CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group LLC (CTMG), a consulting firm that assists organizations with the identification and development of key talent and with designing organizational strategies and structures to maximize their ability to compete in the business worlds of today and tomorrow. He is also an executive coach and serves as Executive in Residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business. Joel is also a popular and frequent contributor to the Enterprise CIO Forum where a version of this article was first published.

 

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100x times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” — Steve Jobs

 

In my previous post, I examined traits found in top entrepreneurs and explored the idea that adopting an “entrepreneurial spirit” can bring continued success to CIOs. In this second installment, I’ll delve into a trait most commonly associated with entrepreneurship: innovation.

 

Is innovation in your organization’s DNA?

Innovation is the process and outcome of creating something new, which is also of value. It involves the whole process from opportunity identification, ideation or invention to development, prototyping, production, marketing and sales. Innovation also includes the capacity to quickly adapt by adopting new innovations (products, processes, strategies, organization, business models, etc). Just having a good idea alone isn’t innovation; it is just a good idea. Innovators actually create something of value.

 

I teach an MBA course in managing innovation. One of the concepts I teach is that innovation in organizations is usually a team effort. We look at various ways to foster and reward innovation as well as the things that can kill it. We then look at how to structure and lead an organization that rewards and encourages innovation. For the CIO, the important thing to realize is that the ability to lead innovation is more important than being an all-star innovator yourself.

 

The model I use for teaching the basics of innovation is The Innovator’s DNA, based on the book by the same name, which we use as one of the texts. Authors Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton M. Christensen studied a large cross-section of executives and found that five “discovery skills” distinguished the most creative executives. Most of us will not have all of these although some may possess several. I believe that for most of us, the key is to develop a team that, collectively, excels in all of these. We will define them first, then we will look at how to assemble such a team.

 

The Five Discovery Skills

Associating: Innovators “connect the dots” to make unexpected connections. They combine what may seem to be disparate pieces of information until—surprise—you've got this innovative new idea. Some compare this skill to the “Medici effect,” which describes the creative explosion in Florence when the Medici family brought together people from a wide range of disciplines such as sculpture, science, philosophy, poetry and architecture. As these people connected and collaborated, new ideas emerged and led to the Renaissance, one of the most creative periods in history. In the university where I now teach, we are experimenting with a similar approach that combines students from widely differing disciplines to create a form of creative synergy.

 

A frequently cited example is Steve Jobs’ association of calligraphy fonts with potential of the graphical interface. Jobs had taken a calligraphy class in his past. When he first saw the graphical user interface at Xerox PARC research he realized that it would be possible to render various fonts visually on the screen and subsequently in printed documents. The drop down menus with a seemingly endless array of fonts present in all word processors today are a result of Jobs’ ability to associate.

 

Questioning: Innovators are consummate questioners who show a passion for inquiry. Their queries frequently challenge the status quo. Peter Drucker described the power of provocative questions this way, “The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right questions.” Three key questions are Why? Why not? What if?

 

During the early days of Apple, Jobs asked why computers had fans. They were noisy and took up a lot of space and, being both a perfectionist and a master of design, Jobs hated both. He was told that all computers had fans but he refused to accept the answer, continuously questioning why a computer could not be made without one. His questioning resulted in the development of the quietest and smallest personal computer ever made up until that time, the Apple II.

 

Observing: Innovators are intense observers. They fully watch the world around them—including customers, products, services, technologies and companies—and their observations help them gain insight into an ideas for new way of doing things.

Ratan Tata, chairman of India’s Tata Group, was riding through the crowded streets of one of India’s major cities on a rainy day when he observed large numbers of very wet families crowded on motor bikes. His observation led him to question why a small automobile that costs about the same as a motorbike could not be built. The result was the world’s least expensive car, the Tata Nano.

 

Experimenting: Good experimenters understand that although questioning, observing and networking provide data about the past (what was) and the present (what is), experimenting is best-suited for generating data on what might work in the future. Innovators experiment in three ways: They try out new experiences; they take apart products, processes and ideas to see how they work; and they test ideas through pilots and prototypes.

 

When Michael Dell received a new computer for his 16th birthday, he promptly took it apart to see how it worked. What he discovered was that the cost of the individual parts was far less than the cost of the computer. He reasoned that, because of the cost of maintaining a large inventory of many models with different features was very high, a “just-in-time” manufacturing approach where each computer was custom made to the customer’s order could greatly lower costs and provide customers with a greater variety of choices. Thus, the idea that launched Dell Computer was born.

 

Networking: Rather than simply doing social networking, innovators spend a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals who vary widely in their backgrounds and perspectives. Innovators network to gain new perspectives, get new ideas, and learn surprising new things. They seek out people who are not like them, both experts and non-experts, with different backgrounds and perspectives.

 

Michael Lazaridis, the founder of Research In Motion, says that the original inspiration for the BlackBerry came from a conference he attended in 1987 where a speaker described a wireless data system that had been developed for Coke which allowed vending machines to send out a notice when they needed refilling.

 

You probably possess one or more of these skills. You probably are not good at all five. The important thing is to recognize where you are good and where you are lacking and find people who are good at the things you are not.

 

I currently work closely with two other men on an initiative to foster entrepreneurial activity within the university system and the broader community here. We come from very different backgrounds but have been able to be remarkably effective in the few months we have been working together. We have been able to accomplish things and set others in motion that have been talked about for years but never done. How are we doing it? For starters, between the three of us we excel in all of the five discovery skills plus we have the ability to turn ideas into actions and actions into results. It is a true synergistic relationship: 1 + 1 = 3. You can do the same in your organization, but it will require being intentional, observant, self-aware and disciplined. How can you structure your leadership team to be more innovative?

 

One last thing. Peter Drucker once said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” What are the old things, old behaviors and old attitudes that you and your organization need to give up to be more innovative? Find these and be ruthless about eliminating them.

Labels: IT leadership
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