Overcoming Obstacles to an Innovative IT Culture

By Rick Pastore
October 11, 2018

The largest group of respondents to The Hackett Group’s Changing IT Culture poll want to adopt a more innovative, bold and entrepreneurial culture. They believe it will better position IT as a partner that can consult, collaborate and inspire with new ways of applying technology to solve problems and seize opportunities. Yet, there are many obstacles to adopting an innovation culture, most of all the legacy perception of IT as an order taker. I talked with Stuart Kippelman, interim CIO at Biotest Pharmaceuticals and former CIO of Covanta Energy, who has been coaxing IT organizations to be innovative for more than 20 years. He shared interesting observations and suggestions on what innovation means and the challenges IT organizations must surmount. In his own words:

“Innovation is not a project. It is a set of values and a mindset that together define an innovative culture. At Biotest, it means everything’s on the table. There is no such thing as “It can’t be done,” or “We do it this way because that’s how we’ve done it.” Companies must be willing to have no sacred cows.

“Some IT leaders think they can hire two people and call them the innovation team. Or they think they can have one group of employees that are innovators and work on IoT, while the non-innovative employees work with SAP. Culture change doesn’t happen that way; creativity has to be everywhere. The entry-level help desk can be as innovative as any other area, and its staff should have permission to change anything they want. A senior manager won’t come up with an idea to innovate the help desk; it’s going to come from the people doing the work.

“As leaders we need to remove obstacles that prevent innovation. A service mentality, carried too an extreme, can cause IT employees to actually become order takers. It’s dangerous to call anyone inside the business a customer because it sets up the wrong perception that IT must do whatever the customer says. It can bias not only how others see IT, but how IT staff see themselves.

“The most important word in IT’s vocabulary needs to be “why.” When someone tells us they need a new SAP report, we need to ask why. We keep building and adding on to our legacy systems because people ask for it and our service mentality accepts it. We need to start challenging that and removing that demand so that everyone can start bringing new ideas forward.

“A lack of risk tolerance in the business need not be an obstacle. You can be innovative in a risk-averse culture. In healthcare, there is not much IT can do about tolerance for failure. But you can still think innovatively without subjecting the company to risk. For example, if the business doesn’t want to risk using data to generate revenue, IT can still think creatively about how to manage the data center. Another way is to isolate experiments from operational systems, or conduct tests on a duplicate or non-production version of the system.

“Culture changes fastest when people are free to come up with their own ideas. You need bottom-up thinking. You can set targets, direction, prioritize business needs and launch projects. But how they get done and details behind them should come from the people that do the projects and have respect for how the work gets done. It’s that thinking process that changes the culture.”