brain-20424_640A couple of years ago, I was asked to be on a panel discussion at a local SIM (Society for Information Management) conference. The topic of the panel was Can IT Become The Engine of Enterprise Innovation: The CEO and CIO Perspective. As the title suggests, the panel consisted of a CEO and a couple of CIOs and we answered questions served up by a CTO moderator from a large IT hardware/software provider. The core discussion was around the concept of how IT can become more strategic versus dealing with tactical day-to-day issues.

While the CEO certainly hoped and looked to IT for help with strategic direction, the CIOs agreed that while that would be a welcomed opportunity, the fact of the matter was that too often the resources that we have at our disposal, coupled with the usual backlog of work to accomplish, unfortunately puts us in reactive rather than proactive mode.

Near the end, the floor was opened for questions. One of the questions was “If you could wave your magic wand, what would you do differently?” My answer to that question was that I’d allow my team to spend 10 – 15 percent of their time just playing. What I meant by “playing” was either learning a new technology that they were interested in or using a technology they knew or were learning in an experimental way – with the focus on ideas and solutions that could be implemented to solve current (or future) business problems. I likened it to the way 3M developed the Post-It® note by allowing one of their engineers to experiment which led to a solution for making a non-destructive page mark for his choir hymnal.

New ideas come mainly from times when we allow our brains to “idle” and process things “in the background.” Think of the times that you’ve solved a nagging problem while in the shower or in a dream. So, then, why do we not encourage more “skunk works” or “playtime” experimenting from our teams? Some companies, like 3M or Google, have come to understand and embrace the value of allowing their employees the time to experiment. In Google’s case, they create entire departments to do nothing but experiment. Yet it is understandable that smaller companies, or those plagued by extremely thin margins do not have the luxury of overfunding their IT departments.

In the entrepreneurial start-up world there is a concept of “failing fast.” That is, try something and see what happens – if it fails, adjust and try again – if that doesn’t work, pivot. It’s the “ready, fire, aim, fire, aim, fire, aim” approach – see where the mark hits and adjust. Failure is more often than not, a part of success.

The oft-sited example is Thomas Edison’s 1000 (or 10,000) attempts at making the first light bulb before he found the combination of materials that worked. And his response to the questions about how he felt after he had failed so many times — he replied that it wasn’t 1000 failures, it was a 1000-step process to get to what worked.

Or, the popular spray lubricant WD-40®. Many may not know that the name actually stands for “water displacement #40” – which means – you guessed it – there were 39 other failed attempts before hitting on the right formula.

So the question may arise: why do many in-house IT teams focus more on tactical, day-to-day issues rather than becoming more strategic and/or experimental. The obvious answer is that most in-house teams are maxed out with keeping the existing technologies running; fixing things that break due to brittle, old technology or poor design; keeping up with regulatory changes such as features required by new wrinkles such as the Affordable Care Act; updating systems to handle new minimum wage increases, or supporting a new effort from the marketing department.

Many times in-house IT teams take a lot of flack for not moving fast enough to keep up. In reality, the amount of technology that most teams have become responsible for maintaining has increased to the point that maintenance is about the only task they have the time to do.

It’s at this point that you hope the IT leader is a respected part of the executive leadership team and are skilled in selling the need to correctly prioritize the existing workload, and, ideally, gaining buy-in from the leadership team on the importance of skunk works and experimentation time to allow for the breakthroughs that will give an organization the ability to improve their service to their customers, differentiate their product or service, or leapfrog their competition.

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