Today's IT managers are faced with no shortage of competing priorities, each demanding their time and attention. Unfortunately when the pressures begin to stack up, innovation can often be seen as an unaffordable luxury.
However, the need for innovation is no longer an option. The alternative can be to continue on a dismal, savings driven race to the bottom. Faced with these stark realities, a well-managed innovation agenda is becoming an important part of the savvy manager's toolkit.
Increasingly, managers are discovering that an innovation agenda might not only make way for better opportunities, but also act as a catalyst to challenge out of control systems, springing up in other parts of the enterprise.
Potential rewards need to be measured in the context of each particular enterprise. History is littered with good ideas delivered in the wrong organisation.
The challenge of Groundhog Day projects needing some innovation
In their more despairing moments, experienced project managers may puzzle over similar challenges that continue to emerge over and over. It is as if drawn by some invisible force, complex and unwieldy legacy systems are replaced by even more complex and wieldy systems.
Many organisations are captive to their past, with processes that entrap decision makers into a cycle that keeps on delivering the very outcomes they originally set out to change.
Consider the following example: A large enterprise recently completed a big redevelopment project for one of its core IT systems. Determined to make a break with the past, the enterprise chose a commercial off the shelf (COTS) solution as their starting point for redevelopment. However as work on the project continued, business requirements began to bear an uncanny resemblance to the old system.
Little by little, each set of change requests dragged the system specifications back to something that looked exactly like the old, unpopular system. The result was an industry standard COTS solution, with complex customisations to make it look exactly like the old bespoke system that everybody disliked.
Innovation is about outcomes, not the size of the project
Most organisations can point to a point in time when they achieved something really innovative. Unfortunately for many, all this happened a long time ago. Innovation was seen as a tick on the management scorecard, rather than a longer requirement to keep on pushing the boundaries. Innovation is sometimes seen as too expensive and too risky in a cash strapped IT environment.
Xerox invented the mouse and the graphical user interface. However, these ideas added little value for a document company. Microsoft and Apple quickly recognised the synergy of these ideas with their own core business.
Today, big high profile change programs are no longer a requirement for success. Cloud services, mobile technology and analytics have become the three pillars of agile innovation. Good ideas can be tested quickly and at low cost. Indeed, a number of organisations are having significant success by reusing existing systems and data to inexpensively deliver new innovative services. Big projects can mean big risk, particularly in industry sectors sensitive to public opinion such as government, healthcare and education.
Choosing the right candidate projects
Innovation is not the answer to all problems. Indeed, choosing the right candidate projects can be one of the most significant success factors. Some organisations are achieving significant outcomes by following three simple guidelines:
Find common solutions for common problems. Much has already been written about the commoditisation of IT, and the savings available through commonly available solutions. Commoditisation is inevitable. It offers faster solutions that are frequently better value for money. However, the really big value is that common solutions create more space so IT can direct precious time and effort to bigger issues.
Find uncommon solutions for uncommon problems. There will always be a requirement for bespoke systems, but there is a need to critically challenge and re-evaluate their business case.
Every dog is someone's pet. Even with the worst IT systems, there is sure to be somebody in the enterprise who still loves it, and fights for its survival. However, the big challenge is still to create more space for innovation, so there is a need to confront these tough decisions.
Find innovative solutions but consider the risks and rewards The big challenge is to focus corporate efforts on innovation that offers solid opportunities. Disregard the rest. Big, high profile projects are giving way to innovation in much smaller increments. There is nothing wrong with baby steps, particularly where the risk/reward equation is favourable.
Potential rewards need to be measured in the context of each particular enterprise. History is littered with good ideas delivered in the wrong organisation. For example, some decades ago, Xerox invented the mouse and the graphical user interface.
However, these ideas added little value for a document company. Microsoft and Apple quickly recognised the synergy of these ideas with their own core business. The rest is history.
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Kevin Noonan is research director, public sector, at Ovum. Reach him at [email protected]