Don't be afraid of innovation

In the IT world, we have our own Grand Canyon or Great Divide. It's the divide between those who know, understand, and implement innovative improvements and solutions—and those who don’t.
Written by Robert L. Boque, Contributor

In the IT world, we have our own Grand Canyon or Great Divide. It's the divide between those who know, understand, and implement innovative improvements and solutions—and those who don’t. Of the two categories in the software development world, the first includes those who are committed to doing the things they know are right. They read industry journals, books, and magazines to learn of new techniques. They retool their knowledge to reconsider the way it has always been done.

The other category is stuck in a time warp where they do things as they’ve always been done. They don’t join local user groups and they don’t seek outside assistance. They don’t buy prepackaged software to adapt and integrate. They hold on to the mistaken impression that their business is the only business on the planet that does what they do. For that reason, no off-the-shelf solution could ever come close to capturing their needs.

If your organization falls into the latter category, it’s time to break the mold. As members of the IT profession, we are all wounded by the poor results documented from organizations that fail to manage their IT departments with practices that lead to good and predictable outcomes.

Let’s look at a few ways you can help encourage your group to be more creative in its solutions and to drive everyone to seek out new best practices that can be integrated into the group.

1. Don't punish creative thinking
One of the true challenges in any organization is to support the discordant thought. The person who struggles to bring in creative ideas and techniques is often shot down with the words “but that’s not how we do it.” The seasoned creative thinker knows how to work around situations like this, but the budding creative thinker may not be able to overcome even a few situations where these new ideas are seen as creating trouble.

2. Make everyone feel safe
Bringing new ideas to a group takes courage and is done at some amount of personal risk. If the idea is not well received by the group, the creative thinker’s self-esteem and image are diminished. The safer you make your team feel, the more likely that team members will take personal risks, and this means more ideas will be brought to the group.

3. Encourage risk
In U.S. business, we manage out all of the risk we can. We take great pleasure in stomping out risks wherever they rear their ugly head. However, a calculated risk is a good thing. A calculated risk is one where failure does not substantially impact the ability to continue. Calculated risks are used to prevent the need for wild risks later in the organization’s future.

Encourage activities that require minimal investment in time or resources but have the potential to return great rewards. Even if only one in every 20 ideas proves to have merit, it may be more than worth it.

4. Be involved
Lead by example. Get involved in community events, particularly events such as user groups, conferences, and business groups in your area. It’s no accident that teams with leaders who are actively involved with community groups are also more involved with community groups themselves. Your example should show that you support, encourage, and need the kind of valuable information that only your peers have.

5. Remember process, not details
Truly powerful ideas are not new. They are new applications of the same ideas used in other lines of work, industries, or geographies. There’s great power in being able to adapt something from one line of work to another. The key is in the process or approach to the problem, not necessarily in the details of how the problem itself was solved.

When Intel was asked to create a set of chips for calculators, it adapted a principle used in manufacturing. Instead of creating specific chips to solve specific needs, Intel developed a single chip that could be adapted to the specific need. Manufacturers had long used generic machines with specific jigs that adapted the machine to the purpose needed for manufacturing a specific part. This flexibility improved manufacturing, and its adaptation to transistor technology has made Intel a pillar of the technology industry.

Bring out the creative side of your team
There’s no prescription for converting your organization into one that operates at the peak level for the industry. However, there are activities you can take on and attitudes you can foster to help you start moving down the right path. Encouraging innovation and creative problem-solving is a good place to start on this endeavor.

AMR Research originally published this article on 26 May 2003.

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