Learning the art of driving innovation
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Learning the art of driving innovation

David Weldon — March 2016
As digital technologies disrupt businesses everywhere, IT chiefs are increasingly drawn to academic programs that promise to hone their abilities to lead business-changing innovation.

According to a string of CIO polls and studies released during 2015, digital transformation and business innovation are set to be the top items on the strategic agenda of IT leaders until the end of the decade and beyond. But mastering these strategies is no easy task — indeed, many CEOs have gone on record to say they don’t think their IT executives are up to the task.

Bill Fischer, IMD
IMD and MIT professor, Bill Fischer
That might explain why the marriage of information technology and business innovation has emerged as a top management education focus at several of the world’s leading business schools and universities in recent years.

A case in point is Driving Strategic Innovation: Achieving High Performance Throughout the Value Chain, a week-long program offered by the IMD (International Institute for Management Development) in Lausanne, Switzerland and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA  (in March and September respectively).

Such programs are intended to offer an emersion into the nature of innovation, the common characteristics of truly breakthrough companies, and how executives can lead the innovation charge. Some of the questions explored include: How do the most successful innovators generate more than their fair share of smart ideas? How do they unleash the creative talent of their people? How do they move ideas through their organizations and supply chains that are not only creative but fast to market too?.

The promise is that participants will leave such courses equipped with the knowledge of how to influence corporate culture, alter the way their organizations respond to the challenges of innovation and strengthen relationships with partners along the value chain. Those who sign up are usually at a specific juncture in their career and, in many cases, believe that the digital era offers a springboard to wider business influence.

“Business leaders are often frightened by innovation. The thought of being responsible for ideas that change entire organizations can be overwhelming.”

“The typical student is in their early 40s and has a job of appreciable significance — they could be the CIO, the CTO or the CEO,” explains Bill Fischer, professor of innovation management at IMD and visiting professor of operations management at MIT Sloan School of Management, who co-founded and co-directs the joint Driving Strategic Innovation program. “We have marketing people, manufacturing people, process people and services people. It’s a consciously diverse group, which makes for better conversations.”

IMD and MIT have been running the program for almost a decade but it has been especially important in recent years, says Fischer. “The reality is that we live in a time when innovation is accelerating. The threat of disruption seems to be facing nearly everybody we talk to so there is a great deal of awareness about the need to be more comfortable and familiar with innovation.”

Driving innovation is also not just the latest mandate for CIOs in the US or Switzerland, it is worldwide. Organizations in every country, industry and market are challenged to do more with less, to better anticipate and serve customer needs, to stay ahead of the competition and to find new efficiencies that drive either cost savings or new profits,” says Fischer. “But the very thought of all this is scary stuff to many CIOs, as some recent studies have confirmed

“The truth is that a lot of the people that we deal with are intimidated – frightened – by innovation. The thought of being responsible for the ideas that can change the entire organization can be overwhelming,” he says.

As an example of that you need look no further than a 2015 a study by open source software company Red Hat and the Harvard Business Review, ‘Driving Digital Transformation: New Skills for Leaders, New Role for the CIO.’ The study revealed that less than a quarter of business leaders believed CIOs are adequately preparing their organizations for a digital, technology-led future.

Just as the needs driving innovation are changing, so are the approaches to teaching it at the leading business and technology schools, Fischer explains. “If we look at the way innovation courses were taught at most business schools 10 years ago — including MIT and IMD – those were programs largely taught to accelerate commercialization. Basically, they involved models where you look at ‘how do you make choices about different types of innovation investments?’, or ‘how do you move to market faster?’”

“What we’re seeing now is more of: ‘How do you get good ideas from outside of your industry?’ ‘How do you bring them into the firm?’ and ‘How can you tell if a solution is legitimate or not?’ It’s much more externally focused than it was a decade ago.”
CIOs’ innovation challenges
So what does the new focus on innovation mean to the CIO? “We often have CIOs in the group who are wrestling with rapid change around both technology and the business or they’re interested in business modeling around big data,” says Fischer. “It could be coping with a shortening of product lifecycles or that a market phenomenon that used to be a ‘once in a lifetime event’ has become a ‘once every couple of years event.’” Whatever the challenge, the battle for repeatable, rapid innovation racks up some casualties.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen this pace of change, some of which is undoubtedly being driven by digital convergence. We see a lot of very successful market leaders falling by the wayside because they can’t keep up,” Fischer warns. “And that can be personally overwhelming [for CXOs].”

In that respect, the program run by Fischer acts as a support group for senior executives facing the perils of innovation. “Part of what they’re looking for is a confirmation that this is a more general phenomenon — that it’s not just happening to them,” Fischer says. “It’s usually liberating to be sitting in a room with 40 other people and learn that you’re not the only person that is being challenged in this way.”
Learnable behaviors
“Part of what they’re looking for are answers from other people who have tried things and have either succeeded or failed. What we’re trying to do is engage the group in such a way that they share experiences. The idea is to try to create a conversation where people have a chance to test ideas, to be experimental, to make small bets, to focus on managerial choices — to be innovative — looking at the choices that they’re making or not making.”

Fischer gives some examples. “One of the exercises in the IMD/MIT program involves analyzing the environment in which innovation is taking place at an industry level and what the fundamental challenges are in that market. A second is how you go about assessing possible opportunities to see if they in fact have legs.”

“One last one I would say is that one of the things we see is that the hunt for new ideas — and now I’m talking about it at a personal level — is really a function of behavior rather than brain-power,” Fischer says. “The people we work with are really quite agile in finding new ideas — new ideas about products, about customers, about how to work. Those people have different behaviors. It’s not that they’re smarter than others, it’s just that they’ve figured out what they want to learn and how to go about doing it, and we think that is a learnable skill,” Fischer concludes.

First published March 2016
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