"We're looking to our vendors to come to us with four or five great ideas that could really change the industry, which we'll then consider pursuing." I've heard comments like that a half-dozen times over the last few months, particularly when talking to technology and business leaders. In many cases, there's an expectation that consulting and technology partners should be an "idea factory" of sorts, sitting in their ivory towers generating world-changing ideas for their prospects and clients for free, and then presenting them like contestants at the Westminster Dog Show, eagerly waiting for the client to award "best in show" with the hope of follow-on work in executing the idea.
While you might interpret that comment as griping from a service provider, it's a troubling and misguided assumption that's ultimately a risky move for IT leaders, for a few reasons:
- Generally the quality of "free" ideas is worth the price paid, and IT vendors are going to pursue concepts that play to their strengths rather than what will ultimately help the client succeed in the market.
- If an idea truly were revolutionary and could reshape an entire industry, would you happily hand it over in exchange merely for potential business? Do you really expect your vendor to do the same?
- Perhaps the most disturbing facet of this trend is that it makes the assumption that innovation is something you can give to someone else, to perform without any financial or mindshare "cost" on your part, and not a capability that should be nurtured and developed internally. It's a bit like saying to your doctor, "Call me when you think I might have cancer and I'll consider coming in for treatment" rather than taking active responsibility for your health and well-being.
The innovation muscle
Part of the problem is that innovation is often perceived as some sort of "special" activity that requires a complex methodology, a bunch of MBAs, or strange rituals that no mere mortal could ever perform. The fact is that you and your team possess a unique asset in your detailed knowledge of your company, its capabilities, and its customers. Teaching or buying facilitation of a process that leverages this knowledge is likely easier, faster, and more cost effective than looking solely to outsiders. Furthermore, if you create an environment that allows and encourages innovation, your organizational "innovation muscle" will grow and strengthen in a virtuous cycle. However, if this muscle is never used, you'll be forced to constantly rely on others for innovation.
"Bulking up" your innovation muscle need not be a painful or costly process. Merely giving employees permission to experiment and fail is the first step. Despite lots of heady talk of being an "innovation organization" many companies publicly punish failure and "coloring outside the lines," two key ingredients for innovation to take root and thrive.
Where do vendors fit?
If vendors should not be the primary source of innovation and new ideas, what role should they play? Much like a coach can't exercise for you, but can teach you proper movement and create workouts tailored to your current abilities, a good partner can help you create an internal innovation process that's tailored to your current organizational capabilities. Vendors can also provide a valuable rapid prototyping capability that's helpful during the innovation process, where ideas must be rapidly tested and improved.
These two capabilities need not come from the same partner, and you might find yourself sourcing physical prototypes from one partner, technology mockups from another, UX modeling from your design agency, and an innovation process from a consulting partner. Like many activities in modern organizations, your ability to select and manage a variety of partners, and ultimately play "traffic cop" to keep them all moving in the same direction, will prove critical.
Just as a variety of vendors and partners will likely be assisting in building your innovation muscle and helping create actual products, a variety of internal organizations will be participating and driving innovation efforts at various times. Rarely can true organization-wide innovation efforts be "owned" solely by IT or marketing, as there are strategic and operational considerations that must be taken into account. Ownership will likely shift depending on the nature of a particular innovation effort or the stage of product development. This necessitates a disciplined effort to track each innovation effort and its current stage of development, next activities, and potential for delivering a marketable product or service. IT leaders often have strong skills in portfolio management, and can play a key role in defining and managing the innovation portfolio.
At the end of the day, innovation is not something that can be done to you, delivered neatly by a vendor with minimal effort on your part. If you're serious about innovation, cultivate the internal conditions required for innovation, seek the right external and internal partners, and be ready to quickly learn, fail, and adapt.
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Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.