Technology is all about innovation, or at least it’s supposed to be since we live in an era of sweeping technological progress. Unfortunately, a lot of IT departments are so bogged down in maintaining old systems and keeping the world running that they spend very little time looking for a better way. As a result, a lot of IT leaders are increasingly feeling the heat to break out of that cycle and become innovation leaders.

We saw that on Tuesday at Gartner Symposium 2011 when Gartner analyst Diane Morello’s morning presentation on how CIOs can emulate “master innovators” turned into one of the most well-attended sessions of the conference.

Morello stated:

“Successful innovation is about mind-set and goals; it does not necessarily imply significant investments of money or time. Ultimately, all value creation and improvement in business depend on innovation and, hence, it is a critical capability for all enterprises, all business leaders, and all CIOs. Although the act of management is about keeping things running, the act of leadership is almost synonymous with innovation. The faster-moving and more competitive the environment, the more important innovation is. The challenge is that most businesses and public-sector agencies naturally evolve to a business-as-usual state that is hostile to innovation because it rejects disruptive change. Because of this, relatively few enterprises and IT organizations are consistently, successfully innovative.”

Morello gave us examples of three serial innovators (from outside the tech industry) who are worth emulating and then broke down some of the principles that make them different. Here’s a quick summary of both.

Three examples

Pete Goss – Yacht racer leads with his values of honest, authentic leadership. He once turned down a big sponsorship from a tobacco company (at a time when he really needed the money) because it didn’t fit with his values. Another time, he abandoned his big lead in a yacht race in order to rescue a competitor who got in trouble and needed help. As an innovator he took big risks to deliver big innovations and move his industry forward. He led 18 innovation projects that changed yacht racing including new equipment, new clothing, new sleep patterns, and new eating patterns.
Kiyoshi Amemiya – Founder and CEO of Yamanashi Hitachi Construction launched a corporate project driven by higher values — helping land mine victims in Cambodia — and it ended up turning into a successful international product that now makes up 10% of his company’s business. Rather than launching a non-profit, Amemiya did it as part of company so that it would have the resources to be more successful. He asked for volunteers among his staff and created a new team to work on solving the land mine problem. After financial difficulties, he got a grant from the Japanese government and eventually created an innovative land mine product — the world’s first land-mine disposal machine — that has now sold 70 machines in eight countries and helped save a lot of injuries and deaths.
Ferran Adria – One of the world’s most renowned chefs, Adria is a maniac about creativity and innovation. He makes sure his staff has the resources to innovate and regularly breaks the rules in order to buck the status quo and create opportunities for innovation. Adria’s Spanish restaurant elBulli, where he is the head chef, was named “Bet Restaurant in the World” six times between 2001 and 2009 and Restaurant Magazine named him “Best Chef of the Decade.” All of this is based on the fact that Adria and elBulli have introduced a series of culinary innovations including the the molecular gastronomy style.

Principles of “master innovators”

Here’s how Morello explained the way master innovators do things differently:

  • No matter what the pressures, they don’t divide their focus – Mainstream innovators divide their focus between higher purpose, leadership, and resources. Master innovators focus on a single driver and figure out the rest as they go.
  • Never compromise the destination but are flexible in how to get there – Mainstream innovators tolerate ambiguity in purpose, reject ambiguity in process. Master innovators encourage ambiguity in process, reject ambiguity in purpose.
  • Deeply understand the challenge before jumping to a solution – Mainstream innovators spend more time designing the solution, relatively less on understanding the problem. Master innovators spend more time understanding the problem, less time up front designing the solution.
  • Approach problems with a clean slate – Mainstream innovators start with “Here’s what we’ve got” and innovate from there. Master innovators start with “What do we want to achieve?” and remain unconstrained by current assumptions.

And here’s a slide that sums it up even more succinctly:

Final word

The one thing Morello drove home again and again was that the best innovators don’t try to do the best with what they’ve got. Instead, they figure out a really great goal to go after and find ways to move heaven and earth to get there.

That reminds me of a Steve Jobs quote that I used in my article Steve Jobs’ 100-year legacy: Humanizing technology:

“One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it… As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?’ [It’s] not starting with ‘Let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and how are we going to market that?'”