Friday, May 15, 2009

Musings about Innovation

Thus far I have focused primarily on aspects related to the corporate culture, the business requirements, and the funding considerations that serve as a foundation for an IT Transformation initiative. Soon I will be delving into the more technically focused steps required to provide the strategic technology framework for this transformation, such as the gathering of specific requirements, setting the program scope, and defining the high level architecture and technology transformation tenets. However, before I proceed with this technical nitty-gritty, I wanted to highlight one important element that I believe must be at the core of any IT transformation initiative: innovation.

Surely, one of the sweetest and most rewarding outcomes of a true renovation program is the introduction of truly innovative features, technologies, and processes. A transformation program that results in more of the same tired old solutions, except for the “we’re now running a more modern platform,” is bound to excite no one and is less likely to meet emerging requirements. Without Innovation, IT Transformation would be like pimping a Ford Pinto with velvet seats and a “La Cucaracha” horn.

Innovation can and should take place at each step of the transformation, from the identification of business processes suitable for improvement, to the manner in which you lay down the technology strategy, to the methods and processes you follow, and certainly to the specific elements and inventions of the solution.

Then again, this may be easier said than done. The creation of innovation is not the sort of thing that can be scheduled in a plan. Innovation is about the “how” we solve problems and not about the “what”. There are plenty of white papers attempting to formalize innovation processes as if innovation were something that can be created by simply following predefined methodologies: “Put processes here, structure this, add water, and bingo! Invention will happen!” Forgive my skepticism. It just doesn’t work that way.

After all, the genesis of innovation is perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of all human endeavors, and its appearance can often only be explained as the result of the combination of the right circumstances and a little bit of luck. Innovation is more about atmospherics than about process. Why? I don’t believe an innovation process can be formalized with the kind of structure and targeted predictability that is applied to other methodology-rich disciplines such as auditing or quality assurance.

The truth of the matter is that the one proven way to foster innovation is to secure resources with the smarts and ability to generate ideas, all the while ensuring they enjoy an environment that supports and encourages the emergence of their ideas. Even then, new ideas may or may not occur, depending upon the presence or absence of a third element: serendipity.

Serendipity matters. Think of the invention and use of the wheel. Depictions of Sumerians carriages pulled by horses confirm that the wheel was first invented at least 5,000 years ago. On the other hand, look at the Americas. The Aztecs never used the wheel for transportation, even though they had invented it and used it in children toys. Why? The most common explanation is that the wheel was impractical to them because they lacked horses, oxen, or any other animal capable of pulling a carriage. Fair enough, as far as explanations go this is not a bad one. It’s just that I don’t buy it. Even though the Aztecs did not have horses or oxen, they did have access to readily available beasts of burden: enemy prisoners and slaves. Given that human rights was not high on that society’s agenda, one would imagine that instead of extracting the hearts of thousands-upon-thousands of their war prisoners, the Aztecs could have put some of those folks to a more practical use by having them pull wheeled carriages. No, a simpler explanation is this: the idea to use carts with wheels as a form of transportation simply did not occur to them! In fact, it’s just possible that the one individual that might have come up with the revolutionary idea to use the wheel for transportation was one of the unlucky fellows whose heart was pulled out for the benefit of the gods! With their pervasive human-sacrifice program, the Aztecs definitely failed to provide the right innovation-fostering environment.

Now, before you begin to argue that perhaps the Aztecs were just not all that smart, think of wheeled-luggage. Why wasn’t the idea to attach wheels to luggage invented much sooner?

I’m amused every time I view a fifties movie classics with people carrying immense traveling trunks. Most of us old enough to have used vinyl records had to go around airports, train stations, and bus stations hauling heavy luggage. And yet something so seemly obvious and technologically viable, such as attaching wheels to luggage, did not occur until very recently!

Again, why is this?

It wasn’t that the technology to attach wheels to luggage didn’t exist, or that train stations lacked even terrain, or that travelers of yore had bigger muscles, but quite simply the idea had not occurred to anyone!

A caveat regarding innovation is this: beware of the gimmick. Gimmicks are to innovation what margarine is to butter. They only give the appearance of innovation but fail to provide real value and benefits. They shimmer with the glow of vanity that hides their ultimate banality, and quickly become anchors that usually add cost and obfuscation to the deliverables. Remember that annoying Windows paper clip “assistant”? Gimmicks often occur when there is an artificial pressure to innovate; to come up with “new stuff” no matter what. The potential for their embarrassing existence is another good reason to avoid the establishment of inane innovation quotas.

You don’t need gimmicks. Perhaps it is true that the best ideas are often the simplest ones—like the wheel. However, if you plan to develop a new system that includes a fair share of innovation, you could do more than simply hope for the best. A good environment for innovation is made of constructing appropriate facilities (offices, labs, and equipment), providing individual and team recognition, establishing open communications, instigating flexibility and, most importantly, ensuring the team is fully aware of the shared objectives and passionately committed to success.

Then again, a little bit of luck doesn’t ever hurt.

Serendipity awaits.