Innovation isn't Easy
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Innovation isn't Easy

By Rowan Dollar, CIO, Information and Technology, Department of Primary Industry and Services, Northern Territory Government

Rowan Dollar, CIO, Information and Technology, Department of Primary Industry and Services, Northern Territory Government

Those of us who have enjoyed leaping out of perfectly good aircraft at very great heights are seen as a breed apart by those for whom daily life is enough without the extra rush of adrenalin to get things going. As the signs at many airports state clearly; some things were not meant to fly! Whilst it’s easy to be flippant about the dangers of skydiving, and they are very real, the sport is fundamentally about the management of risk through close adherence to process.

"To minimise the amount of hard work it is probably best to learn from others"

When you take your first tandem jump you will be putting your life in the hands of someone who is very skilled with hundreds of jumps to their name. For many it is a lifelong memory created during a family holiday to some idyllic sand covered island followed up by celebratory cocktails. For all in that first jump group the leap is taken without any real understanding of the work going on behind the scenes to make it safe and the thousands of hour’s effort it has taken to get you the jump.

The much touted concept of Innovation is a lot like that. Despite the ardent headlines crossing our social media timelines every hour, imploring us to innovate or perish, innovation is hard work.

To minimise the amount of hard work it is probably best to learn from others. Here follow some of the things I’ve learned the hard way so you might not have to.

To be innovative you must be a start-up. Simply not true. Some large government departments hold some of the most innovative people and solutions I know. Innovation isn’t the domain of private industry or government or start-ups. Innovation is the result of necessity.

Solving the problem rather than building a solution is the secret. Although it sounds counter intuitive, a deep focus on solving the client problem has allowed my team to achieve the success they have. In areas as diverse as satellite communications and Artificial Intelligence, my team has kept their focus on solving the problem and iteratively working towards a complete solution to the problem. This is how innovation is achieved.

An Agile culture seems to be a precursor of successful innovation outcomes. It’s likely this is a result of the Agile culture’s ability to pivot or even cease work on a project. Thinking about it for a moment, you’ll realise that Waterfall isn’t always going to be a good match for Innovation mostly because a Waterfall approach begins with the end in mind. Waterfall forgets the first tenet of Innovation. Waterfall is always trying to build a solution rather than focus on solving a problem. Agile is well, more agile.

Innovation is about technology. Not always. Innovation is about solving problems and the best solution may not be a technology one. A difficult concept because CIOs are used to being the problem solvers for the Business – we have an app for that! Help solve the problems by all means but don’t fall into the trap of it always being a technology solution.

Innovation needs large budgets. In most cases the opposite is actually true. My team solved one of the biggest communication problems across remote Australia, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, and spent less than $50,000 doing it.

Experts are the best innovators. Again, my experience shows that this is not the case. In some cases experts are required to solve some prickly technical problem but most often the solution comes about through iterative and design led projects with a customer focus. All too often, experts are focussed on their areas of expertise. Thinking outside the square is not something that experts are well known for. As a senior executive resist the urge to become the expert.

Collaboration is essential but not just with the team. Collaboration is a net best served wide and far. Amazingly, at least for some executives, great ideas and deep domain knowledge aren’t limited to the executive floors. In fact, staff will often have a much better idea on what is actually happening in the workplace and are easily positioned to better solve the problems arising. Give them the space to innovate and collaborate.

Share wins. Especially the small ones. If you have ever worked in a company area “outside core business” then you will already know how critical it is to share the wins. Not only does this improve morale of the staff working innovatively but it also shows the rest of the company that innovation is rewarded.

Leverage agreements already in place. You probably already have enterprise wide agreements with most of your vendors so use them! Work out the best way to keep your intellectual property but get your vendors more involved in actually solving your problems not just selling more product. Train your vendors to work in ways to suit you, don’t let your teams morph into an extension of the vendor.

Trust your staff. Remember you hired them. A major issue facing most organisations is their “Process”. It inhibits growth, it inhibits innovation and inhibits the flexibility that allows good staff to thrive. Let staff do their job and encourage them to raise and fix problems they face daily. Yes, really!

Learn fast. Embrace Diversity. Become a learning organisation regardless of your industry. Ensure that your organisation is enabled to learn and teach each other. Cultivate an environment that requires rather than just allows diversity of thought. If you do nothing else your organisation will be better off.

I recently heard that the best place to look for problems in your organisation is to look at the noticeboards – it’s where those items that your organisation aren’t so good at tend to be focused upon. Your first steps into the innovation space might best be focussed on these things. Making life better for your staff daily will only help with improvements for your customers.

Finally, think of innovation as a bet, not an investment.

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