Balance discipline and creativity to make innovation work for you

The right mix of talents is vital for ground-breaking projects

IT is known as an industry working on the frontiers of knowledge, thriving on fresh ideas and running at a different speed to other, more plodding, business sectors.

But is it really that sharp when it comes to recognising and backing ideas? The sector lends itself to constant innovation, but that does not mean it is doing it well.

As part of a government-backed campaign to promote the East of England as a good place to do business, I have carried out a series of audits across business sectors looking at the realities of the ideas process in companies. Where do they come from? How are they developed? What stops them from happening? And there are particular lessons here for IT departments.

Think about how the hierarchy in your department might be the enemy of the free flow of ideas. The Japanese originally resolved the problem by the "ringi" idea. There, the sales team, for example, comes up with an idea which passes up the hierarchy for approval. At each stage a higher manager puts their seal on the plan before final approval at the top. The Japanese approach creates a culture in which ideas can flourish at all levels. You see it in the internal trade show at which Sony's people display their latest technological advances, not to customers, but to each other.

One idea is the creation of independent departments. These are known as "skunk-works", a small select group who need to work outside the usual rules to get results. They handle innovative ideas, with clear leadership and freedom to create their own timetables, budgets and cultures. This strategy is entirely logical, but seldom as effective as it could and should be.

The reasons are clear from the ultimate failure of the two greatest (and originally most successful) skunk-works, Xerox in Palo Alto and IBM at Boca Raton. Both cases make it clear that radical innovations can only succeed under an open-minded regime that itself has a skunk-works mentality.

Do not expect to have it all your own way. You need to get the balance right between discipline and creativity - an area where some high-tech firms have struggled. For example, when the memory business slumped into heavy losses, Intel was saved by the microprocessor. But this was not created by an internal research and development project.

An engineer charged with producing a chipset for a Japanese calculator company wondered why all the transistors couldn't be placed on a single chip of silicon. Nobody in Intel's marketing group thought there was a market for what emerged, the computer-on-a-chip. It took an arduous internal battle before everyone in management either accepted the new Intel order or left.

You must have consensus around ideas if they are to achieve their full potential. That does not necessarily mean compromise or "making the best of a bad job". It means adopting a disciplined approach to generating a proposal which everybody, whatever their starting point, recognises.

That will not be achieved at meetings unless a sufficient number of ideas are placed on the table; alternative ideas are given a full and fair hearing; and those present come from a sufficient range of talents and interests. That may well mean mixing different departments and functions - adding outsiders to the mix.

Robert Heller is a management writer and contributor to the Space for Ideas campaign

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