How Can CIOs Enable Continuous Technological Improvement and Innovation?

We recently worked with CIO UK to examine how CIOs can build the culture and processes required to support and drive continuous improvement and innovation throughout their businesses.

Most CIOs have come to understand that business transformation isn’t a project but an ongoing process – one that enables a state of perpetual innovation which drives real business value for the company. As CIO contributor Snehal Antani puts it, this involves creating “a culture of continuous improvement” which “empowers product managers to quickly identify and deliver new features”, or “pivot and iterate based on both the voice and behaviour of customers.”

While, I think everything has to start with the realisation that technology adoption and usage has changed.

No more ‘big bang’ launches
The first thing you need to do is accept that you’re in a new paradigm and so understand that it is no longer big bang, large programmes of work, but that things need to be more incremental, more agile, and approached in a different way.

Clearly such an approach takes time and creates its own challenges, but I believe that these can be overcome by a combination of a new organisational mindset, strong leadership and an environment that proactively supports and enables change.

To achieve that new organisational mindset, CIOs need to first earn the trust of senior business leaders in the new approach, creating a desire within the organisation to use technology as a real enabler for innovation. The environment part kicks in when firms nurture talent and change the way that they make decisions, even if that involves taking risks. Yet neither of these elements count without leadership from the CIO. Only the CIO can create desire within a team and make what the organisation wants to do real and tangible to the individuals involved.

Given these responsibilities, it is here that I think that CIOs need ‘grit and determination’ to build and maintain momentum around new projects within the organisation. Recent research seems to back this up with a report from Deloitte finding that the top leadership attributes needed to drive business change were an experimentation mindset, a risk-taking attitude and the willingness to speak out. At the same time, these same leaders need diplomacy skills and the ability to carefully manage expectations.

All of this means that enabling a culture of continuous innovation and improvement is by no means a quick fix.

The reality is that building a culture of continuous innovation isn’t going to take six months. There’s a blend of organisational, emotional, as well as practical process and technical knowledge barriers that you’re going to have to overcome.

Creating a learning organisation
All too often these transformation initiatives stall, but CIOs can maintain the momentum by creating a learning organisation, building and encouraging communities and bringing together diverse technical and business skillsets.

CIOs can also give people space to work in the wider community outside the business and bring what they learn back in. In fact, pointing to Rackspace’s own efforts in upskilling technical personnel within its Professional Services team, I believe it is vital that technical staff get the necessary time to learn – and away from their day jobs.

It’s really important to accept that cracking the whip for five days a week is not going to get the best for them or for you in the long run, and that you risk a lot of things. These perils might include experienced workers falling behind the technology curve, becoming disengaged and seeking out other opportunities.

A 2018 study by McKinsey showed that change management also plays a crucial role – a management team with a clear change story made business transformations up to three times more likely to be successful. Executive sponsorship is also critical.

The slowing of momentum can massively impact the ability of an organisation to really embrace and build a habit of continuous innovation, and that really requires the CIO to have the buy-in of the rest of the exec. I advise CIOs to set your compass direction, agree some demonstrable, measurable intermediate steps so you can demonstrate progress – that’s important – and don’t assume that this will all happen overnight.

CIOs as system integrators
Such tasks may sound onerous but CIOs don’t have to go it alone in their efforts to enable a culture of continuous innovation and improvement. In fact, it’s better to form multi-vendor ecosystems where innovation can thrive.

The CIO needs to think of themselves as an integrator, establishing a set of collaborative, multi-party specialist vendors that enable them to tackle the right problems with the right talent – the right people and expertise. Combining this approach with the right mindset, culture and leadership, alongside a robust change management process, is the optimal way to drive agility and accelerate the business towards that lofty goal: continual innovation.

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Adam is the leader of Rackspace’s Professional Services capability in EMEA, with more than 15 years experience delivering complex projects and programmes in the US, UK and Europe. His core expertise is consultancy based programme and benefits realisation management. Adam has worked as both client consultant and within vendor organisations, across cloud computing, telecommunications, the sciences and higher education. He has led Rackspace UK’s Professional Services function since 2013, dramatically growing the business through a focus on services that directly address Rackspace’s enterprise customer pain points, helping them accelerate adoption of a managed cloud model.

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