According to Vinnie Mirchandani’s new book, “The New Polymath”, most CIOs today are too focused on control and compliance and not enough on innovation.  I have not read Mirchandani’s new book but rather a synopsis of it written  by Larry Dignan in ZD Net called “IT today: Unsustainable, unhealthy and just plain screwed?”  Catchy title don’t you think? I happen to agree with most, if not all, of the recap points that the reporter and ultimately, Mirchandani make.   I think that many Enterprise IT departments have become a bit screwy. Obviously it wasn’t something they intentionally sought to do. 

I’ve often said that IT is a rare breed within the corporation.  If you think of any other discipline that exists – Marketing, Finance, HR, Sales, Strategy,etc. - none of them have as many critical sub-components underneath them as IT.  From the infrastructure to applications to security to the data itself and everything in between, IT encompasses a lot of critical territory within the corporation. It’s a lot to cover and on top of all that responsibility, they have to know the business as well.  Many times, what the business wants to do NOW and what IT can give them are at opposite ends of the spectrum or at least far away enough to cause friction. 

Over time I have seen IT become burdened with the role of corporate cop.   As technology has become more user friendly and corporate users have become more savvy, a lot of IT’s role has been to police them.  Then came the Sarbanes-Oxley ordeal and you can begin to see how IT is all about compliance and control.  A lot is at stake if they don’t get those things right.  Every CIOs worst nightmare is to see the name of their organization on the front page of a newspaper story on a breach of security.  Compliance and control are sadly roles thrust upon IT even when the role or responsibility should or could lie somewhere else.

Many IT groups are put in a reactive position for many reasons.  Some reactive situations are brought on by their own poor leadership and vision, others by senior management that often still does not understand what IT does, others by the unrelenting pace of change within technology and still others by their business units ,users or customers.  It is very difficult to innovate or think about innovating when you work in reactive mode.  Innovation rarely takes place at the top.  If it’s going to take place at all, it’s going to be at the ground level, in the hands of those staff members dealing with difficult situations and customers and trying to find a way around the problems. 

But you have to give them time away from their reactive activities to be able to think.  When was the last time you really stopped what you were doing and gave yourself time to think, to explore, to question, to try something new?  Chances are you haven’t done that  for a very long time especially in today’s cost cutting environment.  Even in the past, when company’s held retreats for their leadership teams, the days were so full of team building and other activities that you simply had no time to stop what you were doing and just think.

That’s why I think Innovation Labs are so great.  If you want your team to innovate or think differently, two key things need to happen.  You have to give them (and you)  the time to experiment and let ideas flow without the interruption of their day to day grind.  Secondly, let them work with others on ideas they may have.  Preferably, others in non-IT teams.  I have never seen more wonderful cross-pollination of ideas happen than when 2 or more people from different teams collaborate on a problem or idea they have that they want to test.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch and the benefits are many.  The biggest benefit is that new ideas are allowed to take root and flourish and they are nurtured by others that bring their own unique “soil” to the mix and enriches the process and the end result.

One of the big leadership lessons I learned is that you have to make room for innovation.  At least you do in IT.  The daily workload and all the other factors described by Mirchandani will certainly work against it.   You have to give people time to break away from their daily routines to experiment.   By letting them work with others you increase the chances of turbo-charging the experiment, the idea, the new solution.  If they fail, that’s ok.  That’s part of innovation.  The way to stifle innovation is by highlighting the failure.  If you celebrate it and let it take root, it will bear fruit.

The more IT leaders create a safe environment for experimentation and yes, for failure too, the more they will help fight what the catchy title of this article predicts: that IT will be unsustainable, unhealthy and screwed up.  Let innovation consume you and it will consume your team. That’s when ideas flourish and turn into products or solutions than have bottom line results.

So how about it?  When are you going to take some time to experiment? What new thing are you going to try today?