How to Innovate in a Bureaucratic Culture

Ann All
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Five Innovations that Could Change the Way We Live, Work and Play

A few months ago I wrote a post on getting everyone involved in innovation initiatives, assuming that was something many, if not most, organizations wanted to do. Yet many organizations are more comfortable with maintaining the status quo than with converting promising ideas into new products or services or using them to improve internal processes. In particular, the public sector often discourages efforts to innovate.


I made that point way back in 2008, citing an interview with Minnesota's CIO and an Info-Tech report of IT spending trends that seemed to indicate the public sector was less committed to innovation than most private industries. Things don't appear to have changed much in the few years, based on the experiences of a National Library of Medicine employee who led a project to create an online application that allows users to identify thousands of pills with visual images despite discouraging signals from his supervisor.


As a Federal Computer Week story relates, David Hale initially got a "slap on the wrist" for working with colleagues from other agencies and peers from the private sector to develop the idea. Despite the slap, Hale was allowed to proceed, largely because the idea had gotten an enthusiastic endorsement from the CTO of the Health and Human Services Department.


Work on the application, called Pillbox, later stalled for nine months while compliance and regulatory requirements were met. Hale described a sometimes-frustrating environment in which it's tough to find a balance between working through the usual channels and trying to trim organizational red tape. Sometimes (even in the private sector) abandoning the standard policies and processes is the best way to get anything done, as IT Business Edge contributor Rob Enderle illustrated with his post on a top-secret development at EMC that resulted in a storage solution for the SMB market.


The Federal Computer Week article includes several of Hale's tips for advancing innovation, all of which also apply to private-sector organizations. Among them:

  • Talk to customers to determine how they'd like to use the app. Most CIOs need to make more time for external customers, so they can start thinking more like them. I cited a recent article in which Vail Resorts CIO Robert Urwiler, who worked closely with his company's CEO on brainstorming ideas for a Web and smartphone application that lets resort guests see how many vertical feet they ski in a day, said: "We really do have to change our position from thinking of ourselves being pure internal service providers and order takers to people who are on the outside looking in like a customer and asking, 'What would you want?'"
  • Focus on doing things "small, fast and cheap" during a project's early stages.
  • Align your project's objectives with your business manager's objectives to ensure their support.


In another post on making innovation an IT imperative, I mentioned IT organizations could spur innovation by asking what DeSai Group CEO Jatin DeSai calls "the four whys": Why should something be done? Why now? Why that way? Why not this path vs. that path?

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