Masters of Innovation


With chief information officers increasingly under pressure to deliver business value to company, many are feeling the heat. Gartner’s Linda Price offers some suggestions around how they can sharpen their innovation instincts. 

During a recent tour of Sydney, Mumbai, Seoul and Beijing, I was fascinated to note that a consistent theme that came up in discussion with CIOs was innovation.   In each of these very different cities, across a range of commercial or government-owned enterprises, in a wide variety of segments, innovation was of major interest – whether innovation for its application in the continuing theme of “doing more with less”, or whether as a lever to demonstrate the value of IT, or as a platform for reuse of data, systems and processes to achieve efficiency and lower time to market, it was obvious that many Asia Pacific CIOs retain a laser focus on innovation.

In a recent Gartner Executive Programs research report, analysts Dave Aron, Mary Mesaglio and Cristina Lazaro outline how master innovators tackle innovation in a deeply different way from most mainstream innovation efforts.  They also identify four behaviours that distinguish the approach of the master innovator: how they focus, how they treat ambiguity, where they spend their time and where they start. The master innovators highlighted in the report are individuals who, together with their teams, have created breakthrough results from serial innovation.  And the authors went well outside of the normal world of IT to identify master innovators. The master innovators include Paul Goss whose multiple innovations have been adopted by the sailing and yacht racing; Kiyoshi Amemiya, who with a team, created a system for remote removal of land mines; Ferran Adria, one of the most celebrated chefs in the world; and, finally, Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business general manager of incubation, Alex Kipman.  Each of these extraordinary individuals is a master innovator because they have created breakthrough results through serial innovation – quite unlike the way in which most enterprises approach innovation in a corporate setting.

Master innovators exhibit behaviours that all CIOs can adopt.  CIOs who understand the differences in behaviour between a master innovator and a mainstream innovator will be able to learn and adapt the practices of the master innovator to their own IT environment.

Change Four Behaviours to Become a Master Innovator

The first distinguishing behaviour is focus.  For the master innovator, innovation is not an afterthought, the role of a committee or a meeting, or an item to be considered for a half-day each week.  Master innovators pursue innovation at all levels, in all directions and all the time.  They innovate what they produce (recipes, products, customer experiences, etc) and how they produce (processes, management practices, communication methods, etc).  They also innovate for all stakeholders – customers, employees, the community, etc.  By comparison, mainstream innovators tend to divide their focus and concentrate only on one aspect of innovation eg product innovation.

Ambiguity of purpose is not tolerated by master innovators.  They may be comfortable with a multitude of ways to achieve their end goal.  However they stay firmly focussed on a well-defined outcome.  Mainstream innovators are more likely to be guilty of ambiguity of purpose.  An extreme but too common example is “increase innovation in the enterprise”.

The time spent at different parts of the innovation process is the third distinguishing behaviour.  Mainstream Innovators spend more time designing a solution, and relatively less on understanding the problem beforehand.  Master innovators spend far more time, resource and energy understanding the problem – and less time jumping right in to design a solution.  Master innovators are less likely to succumb to the pressures of finding a quick solution.  They will spend considerably more time exploring the problem’s drivers and context before envisaging a solution.

The fourth distinguishing behaviour pertained to where each class of innovator chose to start their innovation examination and design.  The mainstream innovator was prone to use the current state as their starting point.  Whereas the master innovator looks at what needs to be achieved and does not allow the current state to be a constraint.  Even when master innovators lack resources, like time and money, they still explicitly reject current assumptions.  This helps them to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems, often changing the rules as they go.

Contrary to popular belief, master innovators do not always draw on innate skills or the unlearnable.  CIOs have the power to alter their behaviour in all four areas to become superior (if not indeed master) innovators – regardless of the corporate context in which they operate.

The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

Photo credit: Flickr users Walter Benson

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