Want Innovative Employees? Give Them No Limits!

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CIO Operations

An interview with Guido Laures, CTO at Spreadshirt, an e-commerce platform for creating and selling user-designed t-shirts and other items.

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): How do you foster IT innovation at Spreadshirt?

Laures: We have an every-other-week event called "Innovation & Hacking Day." During this day, our IT organization focuses on topics that are not yet on the radar of current business leaders. We have full freedom to research any topics. Prior to the official I&H Day, teams can form to avoid solo work and foster team building. The close of each session features a social event in the evening; voting is conducted to identify the best ideas for follow-up with Product Management.

TEP: Have you seen specific business benefits from I&H Day?

Laures: We have made it possible to get the engineers out of daily business concerns and provide them a completely different work environment. This allows them to come up with new ideas to be very futuristic about their work. These ideas might not always be revolutionary but may not typically appear on a business owner's current agenda.

A good example was using 3D technology to generate impressive product pictures with custom designs on them. Not a must-have feature but very cool - and popular.

TEP: Are there some things companies do to encourage innovation that just never work?

Laures: What clearly does not work is asking employees to innovate in a certain area predefined by management. It is too limiting and smothers creativity.

TEP: How do you handle resistance to changing systems users may already be happy with?

Laures: Actually there is no true system that everyone stays happy with forever; rather re-innovation is continual. Therefore we have a dedicated time to work on maintaining and refactoring existing systems; some may or may not be used for new business features.

As most business leaders do not have insight into the complexity of the system supporting their business, it can be hard to convince them of the importance of ongoing maintenance time. All planning must take into account that only a portion of the engineering time may be available because of this.

TEP: Technological innovation often means users must change how they do things. What are your strategies for helping people through these changes?

Laures: We have a strong user experience approach that is hyper-aware of need for user-centered design of all our software. We also do a lot of user and A/B testing before we release disruptive changes. This allows for a simple and fun experience for all users.

TEP: Many people resist change because it always comes with risk. Taking risks always seems to get more difficult as an organization grows and achieves success, as yours has. Are there things you do to make sure people at Spreadshirt continue to take risks?

Laures: This is entirely a question of culture. If failing is an accepted part of doing business and the blame game is not embedded in the organization, risk is not perceived as a threat anymore. The emphasis is on learning from mistakes to not repeat them rather than being too timid to attempt something for fear of reprisals.

TEP: Any advice you'd pass along to CIOs and CTOs on how to keep innovation going?

Laures: Don't try to answer a higher urgency item by simply throwing more people to work on it in panic mode! Even a very business critical issue can be solved simply and quickly by a small team, and sometimes by just one person.

Learn the six key behaviors CIOs at innovation-driven companies share and use them as a roadmap for transforming your IT department. Download the full report "Business Transformation and the CIO Role."

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for Inc.com. She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.