5 questions to ask when organizing for innovation

Sungard AS lead CTO architect explores how to make a dedicated innovation team work in your organization
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Innovation doesn’t just happen. It requires a team, stakeholder buy-in, a budget, and more. But innovation itself is just the start. Organizing for innovation is just as vital as the innovation itself.

[ See our related article: 3 keys to innovation: Collaboration, architecture, and culture. 

In this article, I will break down five organizational structures you should address to maximize your innovation efforts. By recognizing the questions you should ask yourself, you can unlock the building blocks needed for successful ventures.

Who owns innovation?

This can be a contentious topic within a company. One answer to this question is “everyone in the company.” Although this may be true at some level, if multiple people “own something,” typically no one is held accountable for the outcome.

In a previous article, How to cultivate an innovation environment, I introduced the concept of having a new innovation team (NIT). This team should be a separate organization that focuses on new products and services that are not associated with a current product roadmap.

This team might oversee the review process for possible patent ideas since it likely has the best view across the multiple internal organizations. This team could also facilitate company innovation fairs or competitions. From my experience, however, the labor it takes to periodically conduct these and to follow up on the submittals usually ends up discouraging innovation since the submitted ideas might not seem to go anywhere.

It’s usually better to have a defined idea submission process that allows anyone to submit an idea at any time. With this type of process, it’s much easier to manage submitter expectations.

All teams – product, engineering, operations, IT support, etc. – should be encouraged to innovate around their area of expertise.

In my experience, the NIT works best if it’s reporting to the CTO (as long as it’s been left inside the company). All teams – product, engineering, operations, IT support, etc. – should be encouraged to innovate around their area of expertise. For ideas outside that area, the idea submittal process can be used.

Who supports innovation?

The NIT should be accountable for leading the new products and services not associated with a current product roadmap and any new technology that supports this. The NIT should have a process for tracking and experimenting with new technologies.

When a new technology comes along, it can be utilized in one of two ways: Either the NIT identifies a potential use case, or a business unit (BU) discovers a technology that can help them.

For the second option, the NIT should be able to step in and work with the BU to help accelerate the use of that technology. If the NIT is asked to help provide input on new technology for the business and is unaware or unable to assist, then the process for tracking new technology would be reevaluated. The NIT should be knowledgeable about any up-and-coming technology that could impact the business, and it should be able to advise the company how to best utilize it.

Who funds innovation?

As I mentioned in my previous post, there should be intentional budgeting for innovation. Since the NIT should be a hands-on team, its budget should include funding for the following:

  1. Staffing
  2. Lab resources, experimental gear, or computing environments: Use of a public cloud is often the best “computing lab” because it provides a platform where newer technologies are germinating, allowing the NIT to vet things more quickly
  3. Course work and conference attendance: This allows NIT to keep up with the latest industry developments
  4. Outside industry analyst input/research
  5. Proofs of concept (POCs): In case a new idea is executed for a potential customer
  6. Travel: To support items 3 and 5

Assuming the NIT is under the CTO, the budget for the above items would also be included in that organization.

Who benefits from innovation?

The NIT is a tool and a resource to the company. It’s a tool in that the company relies on it for guidance out in front of the current product set. It’s a resource because other internal organizations can benefit from it if they choose.

Ultimately, it depends on the charter of the NIT and how its performance is measured. The NIT can be utilized by the PR/marketing team for blogs or media inquiries. It can be utilized by customer-facing teams as a trusted advisor to provide technical insight. It can be utilized by internal organizations that are looking at technology options to help drive efficiency. And the list goes on.

If the NIT is small, oversight regarding how it is utilized is important so that it also has time to focus on innovation and emerging technologies.

Managing innovation envy

I have witnessed NITs becoming the envy of other teams within organizations because of their exposure to new things. While this is true, it comes with great responsibility to provide value.

The best way to manage this and minimize contention is by having a clear charter for the NIT that does not overlap with other internal teams’ areas of responsibility.

For internal staff members who would like to work on the NIT, it’s helpful to have the NIT at the top of the hands-on career path. This doesn’t mean the most capable hands-on people are always on the NIT, but it does imply that you must have a high level of hands-on ability and an informed understanding of the company’s market space to be on the NIT.

By considering the aforementioned five areas, you should be able to organize for innovation so your version of an NIT provides value for the long-term success of your company.

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Todd Loeppke has over 29 years of IT experience and currently serves as the Lead CTO Architect at Sungard Availability Services (Sungard AS). Prior to joining Sungard AS, he held positions at CenturyLink Technology Services, Maryville Technologies and SBC (now AT&T). Todd has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from New Mexico State University.