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How to foster innovation while keeping the lights on

May 14, 2015

Lynne Chernow   

IT expert

Much has been written about innovation as a means to transform, stay relevant, and expand business. Today’s CIO must not only deliver IT services to support business clients, but also be poised for innovation. Technology departments must therefore organise the workforce to best develop and provide these two critical capabilities: innovation and business support. Business support, also known as business as usual (BAU) or keeping the lights on (KTLO), includes the day-to-day work required to run IT reliably, securely, and predictably. There are many ways to organise, and the culture, appetite for change, and current business imperatives will drive how roles and hierarchies are structured.

To foster innovation, some organisations create a distinct innovation group, and assign IT personnel into either the innovation group or the BAU group. Other companies seek to encourage innovation by setting up lounges or other types of unstructured spaces where anyone with a laptop can drift in, but with all personnel still having BAU responsibilities and everyone encouraged to innovate. In this model, the organisation is “flat” and workers with different skills may not report to different functional managers.

The thinking here is that casual workspaces and minimal hierarchy nurture creative thought, allowing innovation to occur organically. Other entities take a hybrid approach and seed “innovators” into their established IT groups. As with the classic centralised vs. decentralised debate, all of these variations can be successful if challenges are acknowledged and risks are identified and mitigated. If operating models for innovation are implemented poorly, an IT department can lose productivity, and innovation efforts and morale may suffer.

Successful innovation requires more than creative mavericks with a good idea and a comfortable couch, it also demands a defined process, a clear strategy and sponsorship. A technology department may need to change its governance policies, approach to education and professional development, project portfolio management, and talent sourcing practices and/or vendors. More importantly, an organisation must look at all of their available human resources and follow these best practices to get the best out of each participant.

Best Practices:

1. Reward both teams
Too often kudos is showered on the innovators while those successfully completing a payroll system upgrade are not acknowledged for their critical efforts. BAU teams whose work may be perceived as less strategic or less directly tied to the enterprise’s competitive positioning may feel “second class” compared to their innovator colleagues when their critical contributions go overlooked.

2. Showcase both teams
Sponsor frequent show and tell (lunch and learn) sessions to review active projects and recently completed projects. Remind everyone that BAU projects require exploration and creativity. Highlight thorny challenges faced by both teams. Step back and allow support and collaboration to take hold.

3. Manage
Place proven project managers on Innovation teams. Innovation projects inherently contemplate risk they should not be where you try out new PM talent. Innovators are being asked to experiment and may feel that established policies do not apply to them, leading to department disorder

4. Refine

Hold frequent retrospectives to provide feedback for process and organisational refinement. Some talent may need to be “recategorised” and reassigned.

Not everyone is wired for innovation just as not all tech workers will be able to maintain focus through longer development cycles. Regardless of the model used, technology workers and their managers must collaborate, maintain transparency and agility, and manage risk. The decor and the org chart may look different, but the technology department’s mission remains unchanged and its output must continue provide value to business stakeholders both in introducing new technology and in maintaining BAU.

How do you manage innovation projects alongside daily business operations? Leave your comments below.