Friday, March 13, 2015

Balancing Act: Innovating with the "Lights On"

By Jay Ferro
Chief Information Officer
American Cancer Society

Today’s CIOs are under attack!! That’s fairly typical in our role, but this time around we’re being bombarded internally and externally by the buzz words du jour: social, mobile, analytics, cloud (SMAC) - and now IoT… the Internet of Things. How are we leveraging these? Why aren’t we doing more?! Don’t we realize that time is running out?! 

Okay - take a deep breath and let’s get our head around what’s going on here.  There’s no doubt that innovation in all its forms (incremental, disruptive, breakthrough) is a critically important part of every organization’s strategy and viability. So important, in fact, that many world class organizations don’t make the distinction between innovation and business as usual: innovation IS business as usual.  Throw in the fact that the speed and competition in the marketplace is unparalleled and now the pressure on CIOs is really turned up.

Luckily most CIOs I know are up for the challenge.  We’ve embraced the idea that we’re now being called on to be Chief Integration and Innovation Officers as much as we’re Chief Information Officers.  There’s just one slight problem: all of that operational stuff that we’re in charge of (aka Business as usual.  Lights On. Run and maintain).  Depending on which survey or research you prefer, estimates for how much time we spend keeping the lights on range from 72%-90% of our capacity, with a recommended goal of 50%-50%.

Clearly we must continue to operate the existing infrastructure and application portfolio that we have - and do it well.  After all, no one cares about innovation when the lights are flickering or e-mail is down.  But how do we shift the balance in our favor and spend more time on work that will truly move the needle in our organizations while still keeping the ship sailing where it needs to go?  Let’s start with 3 key areas:

Operational Excellence:  Continual improvement, to me, is table stakes for any effective leader. Look at this through 4 lenses:

  • Simplify Ex. Review your application portfolio and sunset duplicative systems.  Why have multiple versions of the same application OR multiple applications that do the same thing?
  • Standardize Ex. Why have 4 different laptop vendors?  Why have 4 versions of Sharepoint?  Choose 1 and do it well.  You’ll regain capacity by needing less specialized skills (obviously helps with cost, documentation, training and support).
  • Efficient: Ex. Are you doing things right? Are you processes optimized? Can you automate/integrate manual tasks? Are you measuring and improving? Less wasted time on repetitive or inefficient tasks means more time for more impactful work.
  • Effective: Ex. Are you doing the right things? Are you properly prioritizing the work or simply responding to the squeaky wheel? I have found in any portfolio that there are projects or programs that have been there for extended periods of time and no one can really explain why.  Remove these or rejustify them and move them up.  Otherwise they’re a distraction and just noise in the system. 
Strategic sourcing:  If someone can do something faster, better, cheaper and more securely than you can - then why are you doing it?  Yes, it still takes capacity to manage and yes, as CIOs we’re still on the hook for delivery no matter who is doing it - but often handing commodity services off to a partner frees up precious capacity internally for higher level activity. 

Evaluate every area in your shop and determine whether or not it’s a good candidate for outsourcing.  There are certainly other factors in the equation (e.g. regulations, change management, business impact, etc.), but having a matrix of all IT functions with risk and readiness component allows you to pull the trigger when opportunities become available.

Make what capacity you DO have MATTER: Even if you’re one of the 90%/10% shops and you’re just getting started - are you making the best use of the 10% you DO have? 
  • Do you have a formal innovation process which captures ideas and provides a framework for evaluation/execution?  Start small here - some level of rigor is better than none.
  • Do you tolerate, or better yet, celebrate constructive failure? Fail fast, cheap and forward - but be willing to fail.
  • Are you allowing your IT team “tinker time” to innovate?
  • Are you actively discussing your ideas with peer executives outside of IT to get their commitment to the value of doing this?  Partnerships in the C-Suite are critical. 
This is obviously not a comprehensive list but rather meant to get you started on the path to recapturing a little of that time spent on operational work for efforts that will truly propel your organization forward.  It certainly worked for me:  In less than 3 years my IT organization went from a 90/10% mix to nearly 60/40%.  This has allowed us to deliver truly game changing technology to our staff and volunteers, which ultimately leads to more progress in the battle against cancer.

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