IT often has a complex from being considered a non-strategic business unit, or a necessary evil. In response, many IT professionals try to prove the cynics wrong. They think, “We’ll show them….”, and put a lot of pressure on themselves to come up with game-changing ideas. This overcompensating mindset within IT is counterproductive.
Every time I attend an IT conference I visit technology vendors’ booths. Vendors have gotten really elaborate with their sales techniques. Many offer ROI templates or business case building tools to help IT professionals demonstrate the value of purchasing one product or another. These vendors are enabling the exact behavior that is so self-detrimental.
Let’s admit it: ideas born in IT have little chance of securing participation from the business, let alone budget for developing a prototype. IT-generated innovations don’t get much support because they tend to be technology-based.
Reach Outside of IT
When an idea is purely about using some type of technology, it has no chance of being accepted.
To ensure your innovative ideas are heard and accepted, this simple process works every time:
- Ideate with your network
- Convince a business executive to champion your idea
Of course, IT can successfully lead an implementation, but it shouldn’t own the ideation. Rising above the sense of ownership is a trait of good leaders.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that IT professionals lack good ideas. Just the opposite. IT folks can be very creative and see the big picture—sometimes better than the business because they are removed from the day-to-day transactional distractions.
What I am saying is: IT alone has no case.
1. Ideate with Your Network
Hands down, the most effective way for IT professionals to generate ideas is to talk with:
- Business counterparts
- External partners such as vendors or distributors
(Note: Collaborating with customers is ideal, but in reality, IT rarely gets a chance to talk directly to them.)
Ideation is only effective when there is a positive vibe among participants. Genuine care, natural curiosity, and strong people skills are critical for building a positive environment. When IT folks stick to business at hand in all communications, they only support their stereotype as robots—and robots can’t innovate. Just like sales, IT folks need to build a rapport with their network. The next step is to exchange ideas.
Conversations with business counterparts starts with curiosity but can quickly lead to further exploration. Here is a conversation I heard recently:
|How are things going in sales?
|Great, sales are up.
|That is fantastic. Do you think this is sustainable going forward?
|Not sure. New equipment sales are up, but maintenance revenue forecast is declining.
|Are we losing maintenance business because of pricing?
|Actually, our pricing is very competitive when customers pre-buy maintenance packages.
|What is holding us back from selling more packages?
|Our sales application can’t process pre-buy packages well.
|I’d like to better understand what functionality is required from our systems to support growth of maintenance revenue.
IT folks may not get a lot of exposure to partners, but they sure talk to their IT counterparts once in awhile. I was once a part of a conversation that went something like this:
|Thank you for your help in testing this new automatic fund transfer process.
|Bank IT Manager
|You are welcome.
|Just out of curiosity, how outdated are our systems that you interface with, compared to other organizations you come across?
|Bank IT Manager
|Actually, you guys are on par. The only issue we have with you is that we can’t seem to electronically process the checks you print in-house.
|What's the issue with the checks?
|Bank IT Manager
|As a part of our digital transformation we have implemented software that processes checks automatically. When it fails to read the checks we have to process them manually. We actually charge you a fee for each check we process manually.
|Interesting. Is the fee significant? A/P never mentioned anything to us.
|Bank IT Manager
|The fees add up to thousands of dollars a month and we charge them automatically. So A/P doesn’t see the charges. Perhaps treasury people do, but they may not care.
|Let me talk to folks in treasury and see if there is interest to upgrade our check printing software, make check processing easier for you, and save us from those fees.
IT leaders don’t usually see an interaction with a competitor as a natural opportunity to innovate, but staying abreast of what your competitors are doing is critical. When an IT manager runs into a competitor’s representative they could easily learn many tactical details, such as in this example:
|Are you finding content of this conference useful to you and your organization?
|Yes, but the devil is in the details. The presentations are directionally correct, but when it comes to execution, a lot of things can go wrong.
|If you were to do a presentation that laid out practical advice, what would you talk about?
|Well, I am not too much of a public speaker. But if I had to, I would talk about our mobile app fiasco.
|What happened with your mobile app project?
|As a part of our digital transformation we developed a great new mobile app, but didn’t get marketing involved early enough. So the app works well, but is it hardly used.
|So is there a lesson learned? Had you had the marketing team involved early, would you have seen better adoption from customers?
|Totally. Even now, marketing is not fully bought into the app. So their efforts to get customers and prospects to use it are half-hearted.
|Thank you for a great tip. Sometimes I learn more at these conferences from good folks like yourself than from big name speakers…
2. Convince a Business Executive to Champion Your Idea
All the conversations above are good ways to come up with innovations and methods to better implement them. Now let’s talk about actually getting these ideas accepted—and funded.
Perhaps for all the wrong reasons, IT departments don’t carry enough credibility in the area of innovation today. To make a positive effect, IT managers shouldn’t directly fight this misconception, but follow a recipe that works.
Secure support for an IT-born idea by channeling it through the business. Let marketing, sales, operations, or finance folks own an innovation idea. If it works, everybody wins.
On a tactical level, this means IT managers need to find a champion in the business to promote their idea.
One very effective way to secure a champion is by presenting all the facts to a business counterpart and have them “come up” with the same idea that you had. In most cases, business folks are able to put a spin on the idea that will help catch greater attention from executives.
As a consultant, I am often faced with a similar challenge. While I may have the answer, I often encounter resistance if I just put it on the table. To help a client organization recognize a good idea, I try to find a business executive who could make it their own. (More often than not, I go after the most resistant person, as this helps with the inevitable change management challenges coming down the line.)
Innovate Without Seeking Credit for the Idea
IT has plenty of innovative ideas, but getting traction on these ideas is an uphill battle. The cornerstone is ownership of the ideas.
Effective IT leaders ideate using their network of business counterparts, external business partners, and competitors. Then they rise above ownership by letting the business take credit for ideas, in order to get them accepted and funded.