8. How To Enable Innovation
Stay ahead of emerging technologies

Imagine the scene. You're a technology director, and you're providing the monthly update to the executive board of your company. The usual finance, project updates, service updates and new initiatives are being discussed. After the regular interruptions and questions, five minutes before the next agenda item, you ask, "Any questions?" 

In this latest blog post, I delve into a scenario that many of us have encountered in our technology roles - presenting a monthly update to the executive board and being caught off guard by unexpected questions about emerging technologies. I vividly describe the moment and the subsequent realization of the need to stay on the front foot when it comes to these evolving trends.

To help professionals like you overcome these situations, I provide eight key enablers that will empower you to excel in your technology role. From aligning team activities with strategic business outcomes to fostering a culture of innovation, I offer practical strategies that will help you navigate the ever-changing technology landscape with confidence.

Listen, watch the media or read the transcript below to get practical examples and understand the tips on what this means in practice.

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Imagine the scene. You're a technology director, and you're providing the monthly update to the executive board of your company. The usual finance, project updates, service updates and new initiatives are being discussed. After the regular interruptions and questions, five minutes before the next agenda item, you ask, "Any questions?"

In retrospect, you wish you hadn't asked, and you made a quick escape for the door. The CFO pipes up and asks, "What about AI?". Suppressing the immediate knee-jerk response, "What about it?" you offer, "It's an emerging technology that we need to investigate. There are risks associated with it and opportunities". In the back of your mind, you scrambling to remember the key points from the Gartner report you downloaded last week. "And what are they?" asks the CFO.

You reply:" Specifically for our line of business; we've yet to investigate. We can prioritise that but must drop another feasibility study to fit it in. If I bring in some consultants to advise, that will impact our budget line. How would you like to proceed?"

Well, nicely played. But now you've got the task of coming up with some research on AI for your business. So how do you stay on the front foot? Wouldn't it have been better to pre-empt this situation before being prodded in front of the board?


I'm jon, and this is part of a series of short articles called "Tales from a Portfolio Manager". I help people in corporates plan technology across teams. You could be someone who has a technology portfolio - of clients, projects, or services or a backlog of features, and you have to manage them across a wide variety of teams to achieve any number of goals. I have been doing these roles for over 20 years for many corporates, and I have a few tales to tell. The best thing I can do for you is to encapsulate that experience into my advisory, online training and coaching so that you have the opportunity to reflect on how you can solve some pretty challenging issues that you come across and be more successful in your technology role. If you like the content, you can subscribe for a free two-week trial of our online courses  here. Thanks to those who have already subscribed; I look forward to speaking to you soon.

It's very tough to extricate your team from the technology debt that only seems to increase, defuse the latest crisis and keep pace with the overwhelming and constant demand for "transformation" in the organisation. Then the industry beneath your feet is changing at an ever-increasing rate.

I seek to give you eight key enablers that allows you to have that impact assessment right when needed so that you are prepared when the executives ask you about a topic. Why is this so important? Being a strategic partner across the digital and business domains requires innovation. Innovation is curating ideas and presenting options, and selecting the best candidates to move forward into development. The first thing I teach in my strategy management course is the mindset, attitudes and behaviours you need to operate in the space. But you do not alone or act as a stepping stone in a broader corporate process. Being a strategic partner means being part of a broader innovation ecosystem within your organisation. Suppose the organisation is serious about responding to emerging environmental threats and opportunities. In that case, this innovation capability will provide your organisation with its competitive advantage for years to come, and that's the point of strategic digital business partnerships.

So what do you need?

1) Clear strategic business outcomes

Fundamentally you need to articulate how your team adds value to the rest of the organisation. As mentioned, shared outcomes and Strategy On A Page (SOAP) and they help you do this. The key is to align your company's business objectives and your team's activities. You can modify the capabilities and processes that enable organisational change on this canvas.

2) Fund innovation time

Your team will already be focused on existing platforms and business capabilities, where you leverage product managers or business analysts to make tweaks. But what about emerging trends, wholly new capabilities, or the unknown? If your business is in a rapidly evolving industry or commercial context, it is at risk of being displaced. You can help your executive committee understand the only way to mitigate that risk is by funding additional innovation time. New people or team members' time can be reallocated to this activity. The short-term fix may be to reduce the pipeline of feasibility studies on existing capabilities to provide extra space for new ones.

3) Enable a centre of excellence. 

What do I mean by this? Helping people understand how to innovate through coaching and facilitated workshops by experienced innovators helps enormously. Great ideas are formed through discussion with people with different ways of expressing their thoughts and sharing their perspectives on challenges and experiences. Facilitate rotating team members and provide opportunities for all employees to participate. Curate and nurture a culturally safe space where they are free to think aloud. If these innovators are employed full-time, they can lead a centre of excellence and help pass on the innovation baton throughout the rest of the organisation.

4) Encourage a creative and curious mindset through games and coaching.

Whilst having an ideas email address and a prize draw voucher at the end of the month is one way to solicit new ideas, their quality is directly proportional to your team's ability to think outside the box. The ability to think creatively can be for everyone; it is not just a natural talent. So helping people discover how to ask the right questions, explore unknowns, experiment and take risks are behaviours that can be nurtured. Hackathons are a fantastic event-based way to encourage this. Here is a resource that I follow for this https://www.hackerearth.com/hackathon/

5) Give your team the tools and the freedom to explore.

Providing a laboratory environment with access to new tools or platforms to experiment with can go a long way to Turbocharge that idea generation. An example is https://fabfoundation.org/getting-started/#fab-lab-questions, where they provide a template and framework for physical and digital product development.

6) Create a backlog of ideas and an innovation pipeline

The same techniques that apply to agile sprints can be used in innovation. Scale the work you do to the capacity you have. Make sure each of the activities you create can be time-bound, such as two weeks, and focus on the pain points in your organisation. Prioritise those pain points according to the threats and opportunities in your strategy. Ensure a clear outcome for each activity - what hypothesis are you testing?

7) Fail fast and learn lessons faster.

The key outcome of the innovation process is the lessons learnt. This outcome contradicts the return on investment and revenue metrics we typically apply. Still, with the innovation process, you will have options, candidates, and new potential products to choose from. In addition, each time you disqualify an idea or invalidate a hypothesis, you generate a lesson learnt for every new product or service. You may have 30 failed experiments, each of which gives a lesson. The cost of that lesson learnt at this stage in the process is far less than promoting a poorly designed product through the development and implementation stages and only finding out that it will never generate the revenue desired afterwards.

8) Communicate the results.

And finally, the proof in the pudding. You're now pre-armed and ready to tackle off-the-cuff questions about new technologies from your business, sponsors, or executive board and provide that impact assessment. One way to share this is to regularly offer something called Insight On A Page, effectively a blog post or a short article that shows an audience how emerging technology can be applied to a specific pain point in the company and some of the lessons learnt. This hugely informative and value-adding narrative helps the board direct the company and navigate its competitive environment.

So they have it. I talk much more about these concepts in the Strategic Management and Portfolio Management courses that I offer online. Feel free to click the links to subscribe for a free two-week trial. Stay tuned for the next episode of Tales From A Portfolio Manager.

8. How To Enable Innovation
Baxter Thompson Ltd, Jon Baxter
1 June, 2023
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