How CIOs Can Facilitate Innovation Agendas

By Simon Crawley-Trice -

How CIOs Can Facilitate Innovation Agendas

The 2019 CIO summit was engaging and thought-provoking, not least when it came to exploring the cultural side of technology, transformation, and facilitating innovating agendas. I was fortunate enough to participate in a panel discussion about that very subject, alongside HMRC Chief Digital and Information Officer Jacky Wright and SGN Director of IT & Innovation Andrew Quail.

It was exciting to be able to share with other CIO peers, tech leaders and industry experts the various insights I’ve gained at Rackspace. As a leader on our European leadership team, I have recent first-hand experience of going through a transformation within a large organisation that is tasked with driving continuous change. So I wanted to take the opportunity here to share some of what I talked about during the panel, outlining key lessons that could benefit your own efforts to reshape and modernise culture while driving innovation and tech transformation.

Perhaps the most important factor to fully understand is that transformation is endless. In the past, people set dates for such changes to be completed, because – for example – a hardware or software vendor would update a specific thing, which you’d manage within your own infrastructure. But technology now moves at such pace that this line of thinking must be consigned to history. “Continuous” was the word Andrew used. That excited me, because this is what I’m seeing with our customers and Rackspace as a business.

Rackspace has responded to and met this challenge by rethinking core components of its business – for instance, introducing Service Blocks, which changes the way customers manage services. We’re happy to evolve, and aware that this is an infinite game. But this also sets us up for the second key point: change is good – and not to be feared! What’s important during transformation is that you have a very clear vision and mission for your future.

Here at Rackspace, we literally reset our mission statement two years ago, because our strategy and vision changed. We set ourselves on a different path. Such boldness is necessary when there’s so much disruption in the marketplace, not least due to startups born in the cloud, who can adopt changes more readily than those organisations tied into heavy assets. They are a constant threat that must be met by driving innovation.

Therefore, encourage a culture that enables teams to fail fast. Have project teams and individuals work on something small, and get proof of value going. Ensure innovators are supported when trying new things and pushing boundaries, rather than judged. As long as the point of failure is defined at the outset, recognise people tried their best, avoid demotivating them, and encourage them to try something else that will potentially create new business value.

All of which brings us to the third point: risk. Change suggests risk, and by their very nature, boards are risk-averse. Innovation must therefore be balanced with a solid business case to get stakeholder backing. You must be brave enough to challenge the board, and ensure you recognise the talent, leadership and innovation beyond C-level. Furthermore, as Jacky said, it’s vital to have leaders supporting you that have the right ethics, and who are willing to change – and drive that change.

Getting buy-in of course requires a mix of education, technology, business, and finance. Prior to any big project or shake-up, you must define the case around business value it will drive. All of which requires effective communication. As I said during the panel, this in itself may too require a shift in thinking. When working with graduates, who are very opinionated (in a good way!), you must work out how ideas from such people can feed into the business. C-level executives should head to roundtable events more regularly as well, to find out what others are doing, learn from peers, and articulate and share their own thoughts.

Enterprises need to look at how many levels exist before you get to the individuals who are creative people, and perhaps consider restructuring with fewer levels, or have different leaders drive different sides of the organisation, with the CIO then taking the crucial role of driving consistency. But also, more than anything, examine how you can facilitate transformation, cultural change and innovation by how you work with your own teams.

During the panel, I recalled how I once used to run an all hands meeting with my team once a quarter, where the meeting was all about team leaders and score cards. But we did a survey and I found that this was not what most Rackers needed from me – they already got that sort of thing in their team meetings. Instead, they wanted my personal opinion about the market, what’s going on in business, how that affects our organisation, and the subsequent impact on customer demand.

So I set up what I call a coffee catch-up. It’s more Q&A and less about slides – bar the odd one as a conversation starter! The talks are hugely positive and allow the team to share ideas directly with me. As C-levels, we’re never going to come up with all the ideas, and so must enable our teams to do so.