Are We Being Innovative Yet?


Are IT and business people from different planets? IT project leader Ryan McClish and his business counterpart Kenton Bohn take time to work through their issues and get their teams on the same page.


While becoming a more innovative organization is not complicated, it requires more than brainstorming sessions and creativity exercises. It’s about putting ideas into action. Kenton Bohn and Ryan McClish discuss how to build a workplace culture that empowers employees to try on new ways of thinking and follow their creative instincts.

It doesn’t matter what kind of business you are in; your customers want to interact with you through relevant, seamless applications.

The application economy is here, and your IT team is going to be stretched in new and different ways. Software now plays a much bigger role in business development, and customer engagement and operational activities are taking a back seat to the creation of software products that deliver business value to customers.

While keeping the lights on might not require the IT team to be in constant contact with their inner innovators, delivering elegant, customer-facing products certainly does. Whether this seismic change is perceived as a welcome opportunity or worrisome challenge depends on if an organization has the vision and culture to support the creation of innovative software products.

The Situation

Kenton, a product manager for a midsize health insurance company, is getting accustomed to hearing his customers ask for applications with features that are more responsive to their needs.

It’s obvious to Kenton what has to happen next: IT needs to step up, prepare, and embrace this changing market. Along with their marketing and product development peers, they need to learn to think like software innovators—in other words, connect with their inner Steve Jobs and seize the digital moment.

Anxious to share his thoughts and begin a dialog with IT, Kenton heads to Ryan’s office. He wants Ryan, the company’s technology leader, to weigh in on just how prepared the IT team is for the challenges ahead.

The Face-Off

Kenton: You know, Ryan, the more I talk to our customers, the more I realize we need to start thinking about ways to provide users with software features. I’m talking about a lot more than just adding some social or mobile capabilities. Learning to think and act like software product innovators is going to be essential to our revenue and profitability growth.

Ryan: I’ve been thinking about this a lot as well, and I agree with you—especially in the health care market. I don’t think we can survive without this kind of innovation. Which is why, Kenton, I’m worried. I’ve been at this company for over two years now, and I honestly don’t think we are prepared to drive the kind of change you’re thinking about.

Kenton: That’s not the answer I was hoping to hear. Why?

Ryan: Our company really isn’t designed for product innovation. We have so much process that creative thinking just gets stifled. We have some very talented folks here, but we hired them to do something completely different. Although they have the capability and desire to develop cool things, management is so focused on maintaining order and efficiency, everyone is content to just follow process, hit their metric, and call it a day.

Kenton: Interesting perspective, Ryan. I’ve also noticed that using process is a reflex response around here. There’s a problem, and right away we come up with another long process to fix it. But I never really thought about the toll that can take on creativity. So, what do we do about it? I mean, this is going to affect revenue, growth, strategy . . . The impact is huge.

Ryan: I’ve worked in other companies with similar problems, and I can tell you that process is a hard habit to break. It takes serious commitment from top management.

The Resolution

Kenton: I think we need to come up with suggestions and concrete ideas about how to infuse the creative spirit back in our culture, then take it to the executive team. While they’re going to have to do some introspection, if we demonstrate how the effort supports our growth strategy, I think it will be well worth it.

Ryan: I think an important first step in reducing reliance on process is recognizing why we have so much of it in the first place. If we’re using process to achieve a specific objective, that’s OK. It only becomes a problem when following a process becomes more important than doing the right thing.

Kenton: That’s hard to argue with. We also need to be clear that we’re not recommending the elimination of all process. That would create chaos. We’re simply recognizing that while process serves a purpose, we need to be able to make adjustments if that process interferes with our ability to be creative and serve our customers.

Ryan: Good point. We should also think about creating an innovation charter that includes ways we can make this a company-wide initiative. For example, management can pledge to support the effort by giving developers the time to just be creative. We’ll need a special time code and the space and tools. We can convert that big empty office into an innovation lab. We can hold events and invite someone from the local innovation incubator to speak with the team. Then there are innovation fairs. . . . We can even do our own version of a Shark Tank contest.

Kenton: Those are all good ideas, Ryan, but nothing is going to really change unless we have the talent to actualize our ideas and extract the value. Right now, I’m not so sure that we do.

Ryan: I couldn’t agree more. We’re going to have to take a hard look at our teams and ask some tough questions: Can we be clear and specific about where we are going? What do we need from everyone to get there? Also, do we have the right skill sets and roles to define, launch, and support innovation? Are we collaborative enough? Are we comfortable enough with the newest digital technologies? Do we know how to evaluate the potential of new ideas and communicate with users?

Ryan: We have our work cut out for us, but I’m so glad we had this discussion. I’ll schedule that meeting for next week. If we get started on this now, I think it will make a huge impact on how we respond to customer needs. I’m feeling better already!

The Wrap-Up

Building a workplace culture that empowers employees to try on new ways of thinking and follow their creative instincts is basic to company growth. For many organizations, this often means taking stock of the rules and procedures that bring order but tend to inhibit out-of-the-box thinking. It also means making sure your organization has the skills and talent to realize the benefit of your commitment to innovation.

While becoming a more innovative organization is not complicated, it requires more than brainstorming sessions and creativity exercises. It’s about putting ideas into action. To be successful, it’s an initiative that needs to be embraced at the top and supported by the entire organization.

About the author

About the author

StickyMinds is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.