3 keys to innovation: Collaboration, architecture, and culture

You need to get all three factors right in order to drive innovation. Veteran CIO Anil Cheriyan shares lessons learned
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To drive innovation, you need three things: the right players at the table collaborating; an umbrella architecture, under which you incorporate these ideas; and a culture of openness, learning, and rejecting the status quo.

Let’s take a closer look at each one of these elements and how you can make them real in an IT organization.

Enabling collaboration

Real innovation takes place when a collaborative environment exists between all parts of the organization and where the subject matter experts are all engaged in identifying investment ideas in an agile and nimble manner. 

Traditionally, the process isn’t very collaborative. Instead, strategic investments originate with someone in the business defining what the opportunity might look like. Since most of today’s opportunities involve technology, the business leader gets the IT team engaged – specifically the application development team - which then conducts a feasibility analysis and write “business” requirements. 

Upon fleshing out the business requirements, the business and IT team may decide to involve operations to see how it will work from a process standpoint. This process of discovery grows, and before you know it teams from legal, compliance, audit, HR, and risk begin to get involved, too. 

This process happens in the IT organization as well. The application development team goes to the Infrastructure team to determine whether the project can be done on-site or in the cloud. The security team gets engaged as well, and soon the production support, testing, and IT operations teams all chime in with their needs. 

This very traditional waterfall method of innovating is time-consuming and typically delivers results late and over budget. More nimble competitors get their ideas to market sooner.  Innovation necessitates an agile approach where input from the right subject matter experts is gathered at the right time, and solutions are delivered iteratively.  

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To foster innovation, businesses need to clearly articulate a “blueprint” for a target business and technology architecture that depicts a commonly understood vision for the business. This architecture should be open to allow the business flexibility to integrate with internal and external partners in today’s rapidly changing digital ecosystem. 

We learned the hard way that innovation can only happen in an environment where we have a common view of the future architectural blueprint.

This openness should dictate that wherever a change happens — whether it’s incorporating a new home-built capability or building a new capability with a partner —  that it will integrate with existing platforms, connect with legacy environments, and connect external partners – all while heading to the target blueprint.

This blueprint ensures that you don’t have one-off solutions or the latest shiny object that someone just heard about from a vendor. In those instances, you can point to the blueprint and say, “This is what our client experience should really look like; this is how we’re going to render content; and this is how it needs to integrate with our core legacy platforms.”

Building toward the right architecture enables you to eliminate angst and future technology debt. For example, I have run “hackathons” – i.e., idea generating innovative sessions - that generated great ideas, improved employee satisfaction, drove culture change, and in many ways made everyone feel good and check the box that we were innovating. The reality, however, was that we were only able to implement one in 10 of those ideas because no one knew how to feasibly incorporate each idea into our current environment.

We learned the hard way that innovation can only happen in an environment where we have a common view of the future architectural blueprint. The more “open” the architecture, the more likely you can innovate and integrate new capabilities.


A culture of innovation is primarily about leadership, a growth mindset, and the desire to fundamentally change. We used to say on our team that we wanted builders and not maintainers —not that maintenance was a bad thing. We wanted people who were fundamentally unhappy with the status quo; you need that desire to change embedded in your DNA.

As CIO, the organization I inherited, for example, there were a lot of very strong vertical silos. People were unwilling to walk across the room to have a conversation with another team when dealing with a situation, which would have been a much more collaborative approach. 

We implemented several initiatives to change this – e.g., “ask me anything” jam sessions, hackathons, joint team brown bag lunches, etc. all to encourage people to move out of their vertical silos, get their collaborative juices flowing, and encourage them to be open and willing to talk with each other and share ideas. There are times when cultures need to be vertical, siloed, and hierarchal to operate — in a crisis, for example, you need a command and control structure — but to innovate, you need a “flatter” and more collaborative culture. 

Culture is also about learning. “Failing fast” is a hot phrase right now, but it’s not one I like to use. Failing fast isn’t about failing; that’s not a culture you want to encourage. Instead, it’s about building a culture of learning and not one of hubris. That’s how you learn from your failures.

In my experience, innovation efforts demand that you focus on all three elements – collaboration, architecture, and culture. Get all three right and you will eliminate some serious hurdles to innovation for your team.

[ Why is adaptability the new power skill? Read our new report from HBR Analytic Services: Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership ]

Anil Cheriyan
Anil Cheriyan is Cognizant’s Executive Vice President, Strategy and Technology. Overseeing all aspects of Corporate Strategy, Global IT and Global Security, Anil is responsible for Cognizant’s strategy, alliances and business development, and for strengthening the company’s global IT and security capabilities.