This post previously appeared in Fast Company.
How does a newly hired Chief Technology Officer (CTO) find and nurture islands of innovation in a large company?
How do you avoid wasting your first six months as a new CTO when the status quo is working to push you over the edge?
I had coffee with a friend of mine, Anthony, who was employed as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of a large company (30,000+ people) who had previously built several enterprise software startups and his previous job was building a startup. Scratching in another big company. But this amount is the first time the CTO of the company.
Good news and bad
The good news for him was that his new company would provide essential services and no matter how bad they were, they would be in business for a long time. But the bad news is that the company is not keeping pace with new technologies and new competitors. And the fact that they are an essential service makes internal cultural barriers to change and innovation that much harder.
We both laughed when senior executives told us that all existing procedures and policies were working perfectly. It was clear that at least two of the four units didn’t really want him there. Some groups think that he is going to fight against their territories. Some groups are dysfunctional. Some, he says, are “world-class people and organizations for a world that no longer exists.”
So the question we were pondering was, how do you quickly infiltrate a large company of that size and complexity? How to place wins on the board and make combinations? Maybe by getting people to agree on common problems and strategies? And/or help them find and scale the organizational innovation islands they were already offering?
The journey begins
During the first week, the Executor staff pointed out the existing corporate incubator. Anthony came to the same conclusion I did, that the most visible corporate incubators do a great job of shaping culture and getting good press, but usually their biggest product is demonstrations that don’t get off the ground. Anthony concludes that the incubator at his new company is no different. Successful organizations understand that innovation is not a single activity (incubators, accelerators, hackathons). It is an end-to-end process from ideation to deployment.
Additionally, nearly every department and function was already building teams for innovation, invention, and technology scouting. However, no one working in the organization had a single road map. And more importantly, it was not clear which of those groups, if any, were consistently delivering products and services at a high rate. His first task was to build a map of all those activities.
Creative heroes are not repeatable or measurable
Over coffee, Anthony offered that he knows how to find “innovation heroes” in a company of this size – other individuals in the organization have single-handedly challenged the system and discovered a new product, project, or service (see article). Capability deployment is a hallmark of a single-source disconnected organization, so the task becomes more difficult than one might think.
Anthony believed that one of his roles as a CTO was to:
- Map and evaluate all innovation, incubation and technology scouting activities.
- Help the company realize that they need innovation and execution to happen simultaneously. (This is N Ambiguous Organization (seethi HBR article)
- Teach the company that innovation and performance have different processes, people and culture. They need each other – and they need to respect and trust each other
- Create an innovation pipeline – from problem to deployment – and get it adopted at scale
Anthony hoped that somewhere three, four or five levels down the organization were the true centers of innovation. Classes / groups – Not individuals – They were already accelerating the mission/providing innovative products/services at high speed. It was his challenge
Discover these creative islands and understand who runs them and how
- It used the skills and assets of the existing company
- Understand existing processes and how processes are integrated/transferred
- It had continuous customer discovery to create products that customers needed and wanted.
- He understands how to deliver quickly and efficiently.
- And if you somehow make this a repeatable process
If these groups exist, his job as CTO is to take their lessons and:
- Find out what obstacles the innovation teams are running into and help build innovation processes in parallel with execution.
- Use their work to create a common language and tools for creativity around accelerating the current mission and delivery
- Consistently deliver products and services quickly through written creative education and policy
- Provide the process with measurements and tests
Get out of the office
So with another cup of coffee we’re trying to answer, how does a newly hired CTO find the true creative islands in the company?
The first place was with creative heroes/rebels. They usually know where all creative elements are buried. But Anthony’s understanding was what he needed to get out of the 8.Th They spend time in the floor office and where the company’s products and services are developed and delivered.
It is likely that most innovative teams are not just talking about innovation, but rather rapidly coming up with new solutions to customer needs.
One last thing
As we were finishing my coffee, Anthony said, “I’m only going to be here a few years, so I’m going to let a few executives know that I’m not out for turf. I was about to spit out the rest of my coffee. I asked how many years the division’s C-level employees had been with the company. “Some for decades,” he replied. I pointed out that saying you “visited” a large organization set you up for failure, and the executives who made the organization their career simply waited for you.
As he left, he looked more concerned than we started. “Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.”
- Large companies have divisions and functions that work independently on innovation, invention, and technology testing, with no common language or tools.
- Innovation heroes are the hallmark of a disrupted organization with the only source of deploying new capabilities.
- Innovation is not a single activity (incubators, accelerators, hackathons). It is an end-to-end process from ideation to deployment.
- Three, four or five levels down the organization are true innovation hubs – accelerating mission/delivering innovative products/services at high speed.
- The role of the CTO is to:
- Create a common process, language and tools for creativity
- Make them sustainable through creative writing and policy
- And never tell anyone that you are a “short timer”.
Filed Under: Corporate/Government Innovation |