Eight traps to sidestep when you're an IT innovation leader

As chief innovation officer, enthusiasm and optimism are wonderful traits, but beware of these potential hurdles.
Written by Mary Shacklett, Contributor
Image: iStock
For innovative IT pros, there are few jobs more exciting than being asked by the CIO to be a chief innovation officer. But with the job come certain traps that are easy to fall into if you aren't careful. Here are eight of the most common traps, and how you can avoid them.

1: Assuming support for innovation

Most IT leaders embrace innovation because they understand that advancement in IT depends upon it. IT innovators are inclined to think that everyone embraces innovation, but everyone doesn't.

In the C-level tier of the company, CFOs tend to be the most averse to innovation because they see risk and financial loss in it. Line managers may also resist innovation, because it means that business processes they are comfortable with could be disrupted. There are even likely to be individuals within IT who oppose innovation because they perceive it as a threat to their jobs and how they are used to working.

Fortunately, these obstacles become easier to manage if you first take stock of your corporate culture, and identify your champions and recognize the strength of their influence and continued support. Innovation must have enthusiastic internal support for it to thrive.

2: Gauging the rewards but not the risks

When a company actively embraces innovation, the door should not be shut on any possibility. However, this doesn't mean that projects shouldn't be vetted first for both their likelihood of success and their risk factors.

For instance, IT might want to turbo-charge the performance of an application or even an operating system by innovating code changes that create breakthroughs in the company's business. If the risk is modifying an underlying platform to the point to where the original vendor will no longer support it, the risk might be too great.

3: Trying to make everyone an innovator or putting the wrong people on projects

Like most projects, innovation ventures succeed when you have the right people assigned to them. You can position yourself for success by identifying upfront those individuals who aren't innovators, or people in IT who might be innovators and experts, but not for the particular projects that you're looking to staff.

4: Not pulling the plug on wayward projects

Innovation projects are experimental and often unpredictable, so a major challenge is knowing when a project takes an unexpected turn that will yield even greater results than were originally expected -- or conversely, when that turn generates strong indicators that the project will not succeed. When you reach a turn in an innovation project, the best thing to do is to pull together project participants (and possibly even outside stakeholders) to review and discuss what has happened and to make a decision.

If you have considered every possibility for getting the project back on track and the decision is still to pull the plug, do it quickly and move on. Pulling the plug is difficult for innovative personalities because innovators never like to give up.

5: Walking into resource crunches

Innovative projects are often back-room efforts that start with research and only get rolled out onto the IT central project stage when IT and other stakeholders know the project will work. For the very same reason, it's easy to not make the right IT experts available to work on innovation projects when you're competing for the same people with IT production.

When resource crunches adversely impact innovation, the projects lose momentum and even risk falling into an inert state. If your projects fail to make progress, they could be perceived as inert and unproductive -- even if everyone understands that you don't have the necessary resources. Avoid this.

Step one is to always include innovation in the IT strategic plan as a headline item. Step two is to secure support at the highest level of the business. Step three is to secure the people resources that you need with the commitment that they will not be pulled off your projects. The latter is best achieved by a formal assignment to your area of key IT resource people on a full-time or a minimum half-time level.

6: Starting too big

It's great to hit home runs, but when you're innovating and navigating through many uncertainties in the process, your goal should simply be getting on base. This is why manufacturers with grandiose goals of completely automating their production floors with IoT sensors start small (monitoring and controlling all of their building thermostats from a single point, for example).

7: Not controlling and channeling the innovation process

Just because innovation engages creative thinking doesn't mean that it should be undisciplined. Innovation projects, like other projects, should be tightly defined, controlled, and channeled. There should be room for creativity and experimentation, but staff on these projects should also understand the technology and business goals they are striving for, so that their projects stay on course.

8: Limiting innovation to the usual areas and people

Innovation can occur anywhere. It can be the development of a new system or business process, a methodology breakthrough, or even a revision to a budgeting or quality assurance procedure. Because the range of innovation is vast, almost anyone from any discipline can come up with a new idea that brings value to the business. IT innovation leaders should keep their eyes and ears open to all possibilities.

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