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Technology Leaders Can’t Afford to Let Innovation Slip Away

In 2013, Daniel Burrus argued for the Harvard Business Review that, “the CIO position needs to transform into the Chief Innovation Officer.” His reasoning was simple: new technologies open doors to improve business opportunities, and IT leaders should always poise themselves to take advantage of such situations. Even if the “I” in “CIO” nearly always still stands for “information,” the importance of efforts at innovation and transformation in IT leadership positions has only increased in the last six years. The argument that innovation is a central part of job responsibilities for technology leaders is sound.

Of course, for every tool that leaders have access to for innovation and every transformational strategy they pursue, there are obstacles that stand in the way. For example, a CIO or CTO who wants to move his or her organization to a cloud-based storage model may run into security concerns, or a leader who wants to pursue new infrastructure solutions may contend with budget or talent constraints. In many other cases, leaders are simply too bogged down with day-to-day IT tasks to implement long-term innovations that best serve the needs of the entire business.  

As the role of CIOs and CTOs continues to grow and evolve – and these officers embrace more responsibility for business success – the ability to pursue and implement transformational change has become an important criterion for success. We have seen many examples of innovative success stories from the leaders who spoke to the National CIO Review, objectives and approaches that showcase the importance of IT functions to operational success. At the same time, obstacles to innovation pose real challenges for many technology leaders, and the ability to manage competing demands on the road to the most important objectives is a vital leadership trait. As time passes and the rapid pace of technological change continues, the ability to overcome obstacles and pursue innovation will continue to be an important metric for CIOs and CTOs.

The Value of Innovation

Before analyzing barriers to successful innovation, it’s important to define what innovation in IT means. Simply put, innovation in technology leadership means evaluating and adopting new techniques, approaches or technologies to drive business success. For example, pursuing a new, enterprise-wide infrastructure, upgraded storage networks, or new security solutions all fall under this umbrella. Often, innovation means the removal of all possible obstacles to organizational success. “If you are trying to change the world, the role of the IT leader is to eliminate all the roadblocks in your path to success,” according to Curt Carver, CIO for the University of Alabama. “Too many email messages? We’ll move to unlimited email. Storage issues? We’ll solve that too.” Any attempt to adopt a new and significantly different approach for business success qualifies as innovation.

One of the best ways to understand the value of innovation is through example. Technology leaders who spoke with the National CIO Review shared many successful stories of leadership innovations with us, particularly in the government sector. Calvin Rhodes, CIO for the state of Georgia, told us about some of his most important long-term goals. The Georgia Cyber Center, which Rhodes called, “an ecosystem that brings together technology, government, education and the private sector,” ranks at the top of his list. With this program, Rhodes created important avenues for technology training and valuable partnerships. In addition, he told us that his office is focusing on creating internet access for communities in rural Georgia that traditionally don’t have internet options. Rhodes’ efforts are focused at helping the citizens and government of Georgia, and his commitment to new initiatives shows the value of innovation in the government sector.

In a nod to Burrus’ article on the title of top technology leaders in organizations, some companies often hire for positions that include ‘innovation’ in the title. These roles don’t always reside at the executive levels of leadership, but jobs in the VP or Director tier that focus on innovation show how important this goal is to nearly every organization. Even if titles don’t specifically mention innovation though, nearly every business expects it from its leaders. Rhodes’ examples are some of many that we have seen at the National CIO Review, underscoring the fact that change for the better is now an expected outcome for the best IT departments and leaders.

Barriers to Innovation

The benefits of innovation are clear, but achieving this goal is often difficult. One common barrier is the sheer volume of day-to-day tasks that demand attention from CIOs and CTOs.  Many of these daily concerns are important and vital to organizational success, but they can hold back long-term goals if technology leaders don’t manage their time and objectives well enough. Indeed, CIOs who clear the time for transformational change showcase the value of good leadership. Carver wrote, “We want our people to have the freedom to solve the problems worthy of solving, not focus on mundane tasks.” In a field dominated by technical skills, sometimes organizational and planning skills often separate the best leaders.

Another obstacle, one that technology leaders are all too familiar with, is a lack of talented team members. No matter how much an organization wants to pursue long-term projects and big-picture objectives, a lack of the right people to actually carry out the work is crippling. We have written before on tactics for avoiding IT talent shortages and hiring the best available people, and many of the leaders who spoke with us have shown innovative ways to sidestep these challenges. Rhodes, for example, spoke at length on “Shared Services” programs that help state agencies hire the people they need at competitive salaries in Georgia. For nearly every organization, hiring strategies are an integral part of enabling transformational change.

While day-to-day demands and talent shortages pose obstacles to innovation and transformation, these two challenges are far from an inclusive list. Many IT departments lack the budgets they need, the attention from the highest levels of leadership, or even the technology solutions their plans require. In many cases, the solutions to these challenges vary considerably by region or company. As with many other IT functions, the best ways to tackle each problem often require significant tailoring by the leaders in charge to fit their industry and team size.

Overcoming Obstacles

The CIOs and CTOs who push past obstacles to bring about innovation and transformational change showcase valuable examples that help define their success. Rhodes’ story – to return to this example – shows the value of prioritizing both day-to-day tasks and long-term goals with the citizens and the state of Georgia in mind. He spoke at length on the importance of tailoring approaches to the agencies his office works with. “There are 85 Executive Branch agencies that we support and each of those has employees with different skill levels,” he told us. “Some people are more comfortable on their own, but others we want to assist as much as possible.”

There many other stories of how CIOs and CTOs have improved important business and technology functions at their organizations. Dennis Yang of the Motion Picture Association told us that, “We’re eight months into an 18-month plan, and we’ve already seen lots of success. In a year, we’ll be in an even stronger position in terms of security, technology, and automation.”

In many ways, attempts at innovation have become a standard by which businesses evaluate their top leaders. This standard affects hiring as well. In a Q&A on technology hiring, Mike Burgett, Founder of CIO Partners, said, “People who can quickly assess the business process and determine how technology can support or further innovate are quite valuable in their respective organization,” while speaking on the most important characteristics for technology leadership roles. The ability to innovate has become one of the most important leadership qualities for technology executives, both in job performance and hiring qualifications.

Looking Forward

It’s vital to assess what the future of innovation might look like when considering its importance and functionality within IT teams in the present. It seems almost certain that there is some new technology hidden around a corner, waiting for the right moment to assert itself. In addition, there is no shortage of known, evolving technologies and innovations that every forward-thinking leader must be aware of. While it may be impossible to fully prepare teams for new programs or approaches that don’t exist yet, constantly improving and evaluating processes allows technology leaders to field flexible, adaptable teams with an eye toward the future.

Innovation and transformation are industry buzzwords, but they represent important leadership qualities for technology executives. As long as the end goal is business success, innovation is an important way for leaders to demonstrate their long-term and high-level awareness of their organizational operations and goals. In addition, they must show that the path to innovation can successfully go through the myriad of challenges and obstacles that face IT teams. As much as day-to-day operations can distract from long-term goals, and even as organizational obstacles continue to face even the best teams, the benefits of true transformational change are too great to ignore.

As success stories, the efforts of CIOs and CTOs who have brought innovation to their organizations are worth celebrating. The value of leadership that always focuses on long-term success and coaches teams to think the same way is difficult to overstate, and efforts like improving security networks, creating rural access to internet and any of the other initiatives discussed here are all testaments to strong leadership. The best leaders always set themselves apart, and innovative efforts are another specific way that these individuals prove their value.

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