CIO Corner: Obstacles to Innovation in Business and Technology

CIO Corner: Obstacles to Innovation in Business and Technology

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Gunnar Branson: I’m glad you’re able to tune in to CIO Corner; we’re having a conversation today with a couple of preeminent CIOs about some of the principles for success in IT, in innovation technology, and looking at some of the guiding principles that are helping CIOs really make a difference in their businesses and their organizations. I’m Gunnar Branson| . I’m the CEO of the National Association of Real Estate Investment Managers, and I’ve been a consultant in the innovation space for about 10 years.

With me is Dave Patzwald| , who’s the CEO of Coach America; we also have Tim Mather| , the Chief Technical Officer of PMA Consultants, along with Brandies Dunagan| , who’s the social media specialist at i.c.stars and Ronald Coleman| , a resident at i.c.stars. So now that we’ve done a quick introduction, we can actually start talking and get listening from someone else other than me. But at this point what I wanted to start with is talking a little bit about innovation and about the disconnect between innovation in terms of inventing things or coming up with new technology and actually getting an organization and getting an industry to embrace a new way of doing things.

Gunnar Branson: So we all talk about it. Many companies have Chief Innovation Officers, not to be confused with Chief Information Officers, and those of us that are working in IT are usually tasked with making innovation happen. But more often than not, nothing does. Or we do a lot of work and it doesn’t get incorporated. So I think the question here, more than what is it that people can do to do a better job of innovation, I’d like to flip that question a little bit with all of us and try to think about or talk about the question of what is it that leaders and organizations do wrong with innovation, how do they get tripped up and why is it that innovation doesn’t happen? I wanted to start maybe with our two CIOs Dave and Tim—when you think about innovation, what do you think leaders are doing wrong? Tim, do you want to take this first?

Tim Mather: Sure. To me, I heard this phrase or saw it in a magazine a while ago, and it’s ‘start small, scale fast,’ and to me the overarching plans for change or the overarching plans for innovation within an organization tend to kill it at the start. If you can start small, prove your model and then roll it out increasingly over time. To me, that is a much better approach to innovation, even though it’s not the big kill all at once.

Gunnar Branson: Dave, is that something you might agree with?

Dave Patzwald: I agree to that, that starting small is always helpful. I think what you’re asking for is, what do leaders get wrong about innovation? It is a fascinating way to look at it because I think what often leads to—IT often reflects business decisions so if we have clutter in our systems or if we have disconnected information, it’s typically because we didn’t start out that way, right? Nobody wanted to start out that way. It’s the summation of a bunch of disconnected decisions that were made. And I think one of the things that failure of leadership, whether it’s IT or business is that we start our path of innovation and then we abandon it for another path of innovation which is inconsistent with the path of innovation that was two years ago. It’s not that we were never not innovative. It’s that the ability to commit to a particular path, whatever the buzzword is, whether it was quality or whether it was innovation or whether it was integration, all the buzzwords that IT has dealt with over the last 20 years, I think the failure is that we don’t stick with something long enough to actually complete it. And then we end of with a mishmash off stuff, and then we now say we now need to innovate. And I’m like I think we’ve been through this cycle before. So I think one of the things is we have to—we’re always trying to be innovative. It’s not like we wake up and try to do that. I think commitment to a particular approach long enough to either complete it or abandon it and erase it from our memory. And I again I think we’re such a collection of half started projects that were never quite finished and I think that is part of the vicious cycle that leads to even more innovation which adds to another unfinished project; so I think we’ve got to focus more on completion of whatever it is we choose to do.

Tim Mather: And completion could be, as he said, learning enough to know this isn’t something we want to pursue any further.

Dave Patzwald: I think, in fact, if we’ve stumbled on something, it’s that innovation also means stopping something that you did before, not just layering on another activity. And I think that is something to Tim’s point before is let’s abandon it fully then. And I imagine—he’s Technical Officer—so I can only imagine how many half started initiatives that are probably still out there somewhere that somebody now can’t live without and I think we’ve got to somehow stop that cycle to say you know that product or service didn’t work. Let’s replace it with either this new innovation project. But we cannot just add to the clutter.

Gunnar Branson: I think you couldn’t be more right. That is often the barnacles that are dragging us all down. One of the things I think that people don’t realize when they talk about innovation is that for someone to embrace something new, by definition, they have to give up something they’re doing right now in order to make room for it. And the reluctance to give stuff up is something that really has to be addressed directly either through making it so compelling so people no longer feel the need to do the old or somehow regulating or making it impossible for people to do the old way of doing things. Would you guys agree?

Tim Mather: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I’ve notice over time that implementing new systems, if someone hangs on to their old system, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the new system isn’t going to be successful because they’re still relying on the old system. And therefore the information in the new system isn’t up-to-date because they’re relying on the old system, and it just compounds on itself.

Dave Patzwald: I think you kind of have—whether it’s in politics, you’re looking at new laws, or in business looking at new products, product proliferation. It’s almost like if we add something new what are we going to take away? And the reason I say that as the CIO is that often we then end up with constrained resources. How do we continue to support? Because eventually they’ll say, ‘Why do you have so many people supporting IT?’ And then, ‘Why are we doing those systems?’ Like that’s something I think we could do better. So as much as I say that the business needs to understand, we need to push back in IT a little more and be a little more, to say I’d be glad to do that. Tell me what you want me to reduce, because I want a net 0 increase or negative increase in the number of systems we have in this business.

Gunnar Branson: So Dave, what it sounds like what you’re saying, to a great extent, part of the innovation process has to be very up front, saying this is a process of elimination. We have to eliminate things. That it has to be more at the beginning of the process.

Dave Patzwald: Exactly. So what I guess the question would say, I’m sure Tim would say the same way, the CEO or someone sees a magazine article or talks to a vendor on a plane, ‘Oh my God. This would be the greatest thing that we need to do. Great.’ So it’s a delicate dance between being responsive, but also saying so what are we going to—what does this mean for this particular process? Are we going to continue this process? Because innovation can be product, process or whatever. So we have to say, what are we going to change as a result of that? And how do I fund that innovation through efficiencies in something that I’m either eliminating or I’m doing better?

Tim Mather: Well, and maybe we can introduce the word discipline into this because a lack of discipline around innovation almost always leads to problems. And it’s being honest up front about the use of resources it’ll take to get it done, the commitment to get it done, what you’re going to be dropping when you do get the innovation in place. I read a book a few years ago called “Get Back in the Box.” And it was a really interesting study of innovation and how companies almost use an escape fantasy to say, ‘I’m going to innovate in this other field that I don’t know anything about because I’m bored with my field.’ And the point of the book was, you really have to understand everything about a product or a service or an application before you can start innovating.

Gunnar Branson: One thing that’s related to that, and I think you’re absolutely right, that too many people look at innovation as kind of a Disney land of fun and everything’s great and easy, but actually it’s a real discipline. It’s something that’s difficult, that means giving up things as much as anything else. But I would love two of you and possibly even have Brandies’s comment on this as well since she’s very much involved in the development of process over at i.c.stars, is the tendency for firms to look to their technology and to their IT to fix a broken process or to replicate a broken process as opposed to looking at a process itself and fixing that. Is that something that—Tim, Dave—that you’ve had experienced frustration with?

Tim Mather: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean automating a broken process only speeds up the disaster so, and I’ve said that to clients and my own company as well, that if we automate this the way it’s currently set up as a business process, you’re going to end up having a much faster failure. Is that really what you want?

Dave Patzwald: I think that was the reason I was late for this session. Because I was having that exact point. Often in IT, you’re engaged in a business and they’re saying, ‘Wow! It would be great if we had a system for this.’ And then all eyes in the room turn towards you. And I said, ‘Great. You know what? I’ve got this magic potion and boom! You can have that. Who’s going to look at this data that I just gave you? I will give you now. Start to just crank out a report that gives you thousands of data points per employee now every day. Who’s going to look at that?’ And they look back and say ‘Well, we’re not really ready for that.’ So I think the idea of saying yes we can, but are you ready for—be careful of the dog that catches the car, right? What are you going to do with that? And that’s I think the thing we have to push back a little bit to say, it’s not a magic solution, right? We can do it but are you ready for that capability and that’s exactly why I was late. Because we were having this—we have a particular issue in our company right now and they think that technology will magically solve it. And I’m like to my earlier points, we have 10 other systems that do very similar things and we haven’t solved it with that yet either.

Brandies Dunagan: I think that’s one of those things that I face in trying to move from processes or systems of things that we have in place that aren’t working the best, is they share our vulnerability. Having to verbalize that this is not working and what that means for current clients and future clients in cost and change, so what are we presenting? Are we presenting—we need to present a whole new process, and the man hours and the cost associated with developing that new process or am I talking about a ‘yes, and…’ am I just adding to the process in order to make corrections and how exactly does that make an impact? Like, what’s the ripple effect? And so on the IT side, it’s almost like it’s a must have. And then on the business side, it’s trying to mitigate the risk and how clients feel about the change.

Gunnar Branson: You make a very good point, Brandies. As part of one of the frustrations I think I see sometimes, is that when companies get to the point of saying we can’t—we know the process is too broken to put a system on top of it. Now what? And then sometimes they go to a process person or a process expert but I have long wondered, because I’ve worked with IT colleagues for many years closely on projects, that the processes that one learns in order to become a professional in IT are basically very well structured for building better process. I mean if you ever do any programming, if you’re ever trying to put a system together, they’re having to think through process. I’ve always wondered how to bring that kind of methodology and process to business partners through the IT department. Dave and Tim, have you ever had the experience of being able to kind of open up the way people kind of think about their jobs based on the way you think about your jobs?

Tim Mather: I have tried but failed I think, almost universally. It’s just the idea of getting someone to open up to new possibilities and changing their way of being. Just as an example, in the last year at PMA, we put in a nationwide voiceover IP system. And in the past it had always been very old PBXs in each of our 14 offices. And the capabilities of our new system are so tremendous. But getting people to actually try them and use them has been an uphill climb.

Gunnar Branson: What has worked when they have tried things new? What have you tried to get people to kind of think differently?

Tim Mather: Well, it’s almost one on one seeing a problem—being in the room with a person and seeing a problem and explaining to them how you know, ‘You can set your phone up so it will send you your voicemail in an email and you could have responded to this.’ Oh really? How do you do that? Even though they’ve been through the training, even though we set up the classes in every office around the country, it just, it’s almost got to be we were talking before the recording started about pain points. That is definitely, you have to find that one moment when somebody is open to having their process changed.

Gunnar Branson: It’s almost as if you have to have the lesson in the moment that you need it, not necessarily all at once in a training session. Do you still find training useful though? Do you get some mileage in doing a large training rollout? Or is there maybe another way to think about training?

Tim Mather: I would be open to another way of thinking about training. It seems to me like you’re going to have some percentage of the group that gets trained that’s going to embrace it and those people are way ahead of the curve. And to a certain extent, it’s honestly, it’s insurance because if you don’t do training, then people will say ‘I don’t know how to use this system. Nobody trained me.’

Gunnar Branson: I’ve always been fascinated by companies that have done away with training and are making it much more self serve. I mean, on the consumer side, you have Apple essentially not giving you training up front, but saying if you want it you can come to us. And really kind of getting rid of the training you kind of go through half asleep and focusing more on the training when people are going, ‘I need to know this now. Tell me what this does.’ I don’t know. Dave, you were saying something?

Dave Patzwald: No, I’ve actually had, I would say, a tremendous amount of success in bringing process, driving a process change from IT. There’s a specific example actually, from this morning.Coach America is a transportation company. We have thousands of motor coaches and shuttles and things. We do Google’s employee transport. We do a tremendous amount of charter work, but we have had some very bad safety accidents in the last year. And so we put together a safety council. I kind of got myself onto that council. But now actually, IT is driving that whole entire safety improvement process, so there’s a bunch of examples. But the way you get into that process is not by introducing that process terminology. The way you bring into that, if you use, we have the information and the technology to support this process. Let me kind of throw together a few slides that might help us attack this very complicated problem. So I got first onto the council. Then I said, ‘Well, let me create a couple of slides for the framework.’ And that eventually actually became the entire focus of the last three hours. So I think there’s sometimes, IT has to beware of how we present—IT has some tremendous amount of tools and experience, to your point. How we market those tools is where our Achilles heel. We tend to use obscure jargon and technology and [DMAIC] processes and all this stuff that doesn’t make any sense to the business. If we put it in their language, they will welcome, and in fact embrace, that leadership. So we have to be very—I’m a marketing guy, just by background, I think we just have to be—change our pitch in how we explain what services we can offer. As I said, we’ve had a number of examples where you can insert and engage and bring process into it. It’s almost like sneaking the medicine in their cereal or something. You don’t lead with it, but you introduce it in a very non-threatening way.

Gunnar Branson: It’s almost like you want to create a slippery slope for people where they, instead of contemplating the entire change, you almost want to try to lead them down with bits and pieces of, ‘Hey, you like this? Oh great! Come closer.’

Dave Patzwald: Exactly. And then before they know it, they’re talking process terminology and all these other things in metrics. And so you help them be successful. You don’t lecture. You don’t preach. You go in and you don’t demand. And you say, ‘I’d really like to help.’ Because the one attribute that we have in IT is, typically, people trust us and they know that we’re service oriented. They may not think we’re the most brilliant or strategic or market oriented people. But they trust us. And they know that we usually do work very hard to accomplish what they want. So we build from that kind of respect and add a little more value on the strategic chain.

Gunnar Branson: There was a case study done many, many years ago on the illegal New York narcotic trade as a marketing model and this idea of really kind of pulling people into something that becomes more and more addictive by giving a free sample of something that they find exciting and getting them hooked on this whatever it is. If you apply that to marketing of IT, well, think about the iPhone and the addictive nature of devices like this that really draw you in. It’s not that you immediately embrace every single app that you can use on an iPhone, but the more you use it, the more addictive it becomes. And to a certain extent, IT, to a certain organization, if what you’re saying holds true, Dave, you guys can be more in the position of drug pusher than salesman. In other words, you’re giving people a little something that they like that draws them in even deeper.

Dave Patzwald: As Brandies will know, I’m into healthy addictions, so I think there’s a way to do that where it’s the right thing to do as well.

Gunnar Branson: Agreed.

Dave Patzwald: And again, I think that people to this day, even in 2012, I still don’t think they understand exactly what we do in IT. And I think we actually own that challenge. And this is a good way to say, ‘Oh, by the way,’—and I always use things like, ‘if you use this terminology.’ They say, ‘Wow! You’re an IT guy, ready to come over to the dark side?’ And they kind of disarm people to say, to just let people know that it’s not so bad and what people do is kind of fun. And again, there’s a way to push something, and your analogy is good. I think there’s a healthy way to push it.

Gunnar Branson: Excellent.

Ronald Coleman: I totally agree. That kind of goes back to how I came into i.c.stars and just learning about IT. I didn’t know anything about it. But just being introduced to bits and pieces and getting not the whole meal but maybe just a little dessert or a snack, it makes you want to go back and find out more and investigate on your own. That’s really what IT is about to me.

Gunnar Branson: I think you’re right, and Tim, it seems like, to a certain extent, you’re talking about the voiceover Internet protocol phone issue and getting people to learn what’s in there. It sounds like you’re having to introduce them to it much the same way. Would you say that’s true?

Tim Mather: Oh, absolutely. That little dopamine snap when they get the problem solved. The next thing you know, they want more.

Gunnar Branson: We’re coming to the end of our time frame here for the CIO Corner, but if there’s one thing that seems to be said loud and clear here in terms of lessons learned for those of us going back to our organizations, is for us to think maybe in terms of how are we going to give those little dopamine hits that get people closer and closer to IT?

Dave Patzwald: I think to de-mystify IT to some extent, and to help them understand what we like doing. Typically, people in IT like what we do. We like solving problems. We like being service oriented. We like playing around with the gadgets and stuff. And I think that’s something that we sometimes are not good at communicating, just as a group. And I think that we have to own that communication. I think we have to—it’s easier for people to deal with us, not expect people to deal with us on their terms. We have to own the quality of that relationship. And I think, to Tim’s point, there’s a lot of tools we have to give them that dopamine rush like, ‘Hey, have you seen the new gadget? Would you like to do that’? Or, ‘Do you need some help on a particular application? Are you frustrated?’ I think the more that we can own that relationship, knowing that we have some of these tools at our disposal, some addictive type of tools to help them and that I think will help the overall relationship.

Ronald Coleman: I think the best way to help people to understand what IT is and how it can affect them and grow business is to let them know that IT is not just an industry, but a bridge through many different industries where it helps and grows other industries such as healthcare automation and things like that. It’s not just an industry by itself, it’s a collection of industries that works together in order to make processes and projects run much more smoothly.

Gunnar Branson: Excellent point.

Brandies Dunagan: A big takeaway for me through this chat was really about the issues around innovations that companies face and those types of challenges. I think one of the biggest takeaways that I got was that when trying to innovate or when you want to introduce technologies, you have to think about the overall systems that you have in place in order to prevent, essentially, hoarding technologies that are no good. And that will fester and drive cost up in your organizations. And taking the time to address the issues as a whole and not just continuously adding technologies or adding innovative items just for the sake of innovation, and just to continuing to move it forward because part of moving forward is cleaning up along the way.

Tim Mather: You don’t want to end up on Lifetime network as an IT hoarder.

Brandies Dunagan: I think A&E and TLC will also cover your hoarding problems with innovation.

Dave Patzwald: You know, it’s funny. I think visually, it’s a good point that because this is all off in the ether, or in the cloud, whatever, people don’t understand this clutter of systems. So visually, if you can remind people, because people typically underestimate the number of systems that you have, or the number of things that they have and they also underestimate how much work it could be to add another one. And there’s the one philosophy that’s like a single raindrop does not believe it’s responsible for the storm. And there’s that attitude with systems. I think we want to innovate but it doesn’t mean that everything we were doing before that point wasn’t intending to be innovative. It’s kind of all these well-intentioned projects are cluttering up our space. So I love the idea of innovation, but it’s also clean up, as Brandies says. Let’s take the time to make sure that we’re not just layering on something new, but we’re actually getting rid of something. Typically when you ask somebody, you say ‘Okay, give me—volunteer one thing. What are you going to give up?’ And that’s a more difficult question.

Gunnar Branson: Well, I think it’s a very good point. Well, we’ve come to the end of our time here. I want to thank all of you for participating in this CIO Corner, our first ever. Just incredible insight coming from this. Everything from innovation to learning how to let go of things and not hoarding to how do we work better and more closely on process with our business partners in terms of understanding how to pull them in and how to get them excited about learning more and more about the things we can do together. This has been a very exciting meeting. So thank you everyone for participating. And I look forward to speaking with you again sometime soon.

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