Big Thoughts, Innovation

Can predictability and IT innovation coexist?

Organizations that succeed in consistently converting ideas into value, and then profiting from them — the art and science of innovation — are often those that have balanced rigid process with agility. The reconciliation of predictability and innovation is at the heart of many IT transformations, even if it isn’t an overtly focused intent. In other words, leadership wants more value from IT and more contribution to the bottom line, but they want it without compromising the core business functions that technology supports.

Typically, IT transformations try to achieve two things:

  1. Improve existing services by increasing quality and capacity while finding ways to radically reduce cost.
  2. Spend less time managing and maintaining back-office systems and redirect resources and capacity in order to enable new business opportunities.

To address item 1 usually requires the implementation of optimal processes, and to support item 2 necessitates innovation. Unfortunately, in the effort to ensure the compliance of processes, an organization can stifle, or in the worst case, create high entry barriers to innovation.

As an example of rigorous process, IT project governance often requires a level of analysis and support that just isn’t available to risky new ideas. Since the absence of concrete evidence can be a showstopper for many decision-makers, ideators are deterred from proposing their ideas in the first place. After all, who would want to expend energy and enthusiasm championing an idea when there is a very good chance it won’t even be entertained?

An IT organization can overtly follow a path that is predictable (read: rigidly process driven) as it may be right for its profile. Think about financial organizations like banks and insurance companies, or the constraints of regulation in healthcare industries. These types of organizations lend themselves to a sharper focus on process.

Then there are businesses that make innovation their modus operandi. I think about technology-based start-ups and industries where complacency means certain obsolescence. For example: miss a beat in the fast moving mobile phone domain and you’re toast.

Lastly, there are a large percentage of businesses that want to be both predictable and innovative. Most importantly: they don’t want one aspect to trump the other.

Today, every IT leader needs to consider this dichotomy for the business domain in which their business competes: whether to run an IT organization that is equal parts predictable and innovative. Strategies that can reconcile these two agendas have positive observable and measurable results. At the same time, organizations that don’t reconcile these aspects often see lower levels of IT innovation. I’d bet that we each know the category in which our own organizations belong.

In O’Reilly IT, ensuring that we achieve the right degree of process while charting an innovative course is an important part of our transformation journey. As I’ve written before, it begins with winning over your IT staff and your internal customers. Then it’s about clearly defining the limits of process within your organization. What will the culture permit?

When process overrides its benefits, it couldn’t be clearer: your business stakeholders will reject it and it will fail. So tread slowly. Look for those organizational signals. Examples will include decreasing participation in process-based meetings; non-responded emails; and missed deadlines. Above all, when you begin to find the right balance, loudly communicate the benefits of the process. It needs to resonate with the participants. When it does, you know you’re headed in the right direction.

If you’re unsure whether your IT organization reconciles predictability with IT innovation, test it. One of the simplest ways to do this is to ask. You might be surprised at what you hear.

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