A CIO's advice: 3 ways to empower innovators

How to inspire and make way for innovation
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If you want to run an innovative IT organization, you need everyone on your team to be an agent of innovation. I would argue that there are three elements involved in making that happen. All are focused on empowering greatness in others, which ultimately leads to competitive advantage and business value.

Eliminate mundane tasks

A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for IT leaders to pull people away from revenue generation to handle mundane tasks. In today’s environment, it sounds ludicrous, but ask any CIO and they will know what I mean.

[What pairs with innovation? Speed. Get more wisdom from CIO Curt Carver, in our related article, Increasing IT's speed: 3 levers CIOs can use.]

They could have been a genomics engineer trying to develop personalized medicine, a researcher trying to solve Parkinson’s disease, or a cancer research center director. But they still might have heard, “Look, I know you’re trying to change the world, but please stop. I need you to go manage your email because you’ve got too many email messages. And the same is true for your storage, by the way. You’ve got too much stuff stored on our network drives. Stop changing the world and go manage your storage. And you might as well go get a cup of coffee because the network is slow. We really need you to focus on saving us some pennies, OK?”

Thankfully, that scenario is far from today’s reality. If you are trying to change the world, the role of the IT leader is to eliminate all the roadblocks in your path to success. Too many email messages? We’ll move to unlimited email. Storage issues? We’ll solve that too. At University of Alabama at Birmingham, we moved to a cloud-based storage solution that provides unlimited storage. We moved our networks to the fastest network in the state of Alabama, and we’ve extended that service all the way down to the individual desktop. We’ve even put wireless hotspots on the buses to increase connectivity for our team members. We want our people to have the freedom to solve the problems worthy of solving, not focus on mundane tasks.

Simplify bureaucratic processes

Similarly, there are too many bureaucratic processes that get in the way of generating revenue, and IT leaders should continually look for ways to simplify if they want to achieve faster results. Take our genomics engineer from the example above. Sure, you freed him from mundane tasks so he could change the world, but after traveling the globe to present his groundbreaking research, he’s immediately tasked with submitting his expense receipts upon his return – via fax machine. Why? Because the process for expense reporting hasn’t been updated or addressed since the age of the fax machine.  

Again, this is just an example, but I’m guessing one that is all too relatable for CIOs who have been in IT for a long time. You have to keep your eyes open for these bureaucratic processes that simply no longer make sense in a digital era. In my experience, if someone wanted to visit our campus, it was a 17-step process. We collected an excess of information that no one ever used – and all of that information stood in the way of someone potentially giving us money or becoming a student. To address this, we’ve taken 30 minutes off of the application process, and we’re working to make it completely mobile-enabled. We used to require a unique username and password to submit an application; now, applicants can just link to their Google or Facebook account to submit their information. We’ve also taken 20 days off of processes associated with submitting research grants. The faster we can do that, the more grants we’re going to win. That creates a competitive advantage, and that’s how we generate value at the institution. Eliminating and/or streamlining those bureaucratic processes has been absolutely critical.

Make their passion your own

Finally, if you want to inspire your people to achieve great things, you have to be willing to become personally invested in their goals and remove friction wherever it exists – whatever it takes. In IT, it’s easy to pick up occupational hobbies. In other words, you’re working on something that used to be important, but it’s not important anymore. It doesn’t empower anyone to do great things. If your goal is to change the world, you won’t have time for occupational hobbies. Everyone on your team must be an agent of innovation focused on things that create revenue, growth, and competitive advantage. These are the projects that will inspire passion among your team members. And as their leader, if you share their passion, great things can happen.

I’ll give you an example. A member of my team wants to cure Parkinson’s disease. The algorithms that she was running required the use of a high-performance computer. Two years ago, to run her algorithms, it would have taken about 30 years. So, I put on my principal investigator hat. I went out and won a grant, convinced three deans to chip in some funding, and we increased the speed of the high-performance computer. We were able to achieve a tenfold increase in the performance and speed of the computer, taking a 30-year process down to a three-year process.  

But, it wasn’t enough. The team member pushed back, and said, “I’m not going to solve this world-affecting issue or even get tenure if we run an experiment every three years. We’ve got to get this faster.” So, we helped her rewrite her algorithms. We were able to improve the process time from three years to 18 days. But we didn’t stop there. We further improved the algorithms and bought some additional hardware, and by September 2017, it will be a  less than one-day process – or an 11,000 fold increase in performance – in slightly more than two years.

Most of the improvements we made were not a result of investing in hardware – it was investing in people. It was in sitting down, understanding the real problem, and bringing in scientists from different disciplines and technologists who really understand technology, then working together to solve the problem at hand. That’s how you foster agents of innovation and inspire greatness in everyone – by becoming personally invested in their success.

If you can tackle these three things, you will unleash your organization’s innovation potential and accelerate your ability to generate revenue.

Curtis A. Carver Jr., Ph.D. is the Vice President and Chief Information Officer for the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In this role servant leader and enabler of others, he leads a team of dedicated professionals focused on providing solution to the UAB through world-class IT with a focus on innovation, agility and cost efficiency.