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The new products development process and IT innovation

Most people don't know what their company's business objectives are. But for IT to contribute to a successful new products development process, your team needs to know.

In 1995 the U.S. government kindly made available 30 satellites, and the age of public GPS was born. As a result, within a few years countless businesses either changed the way they operated or sprang into existence because of what GPS enables for them. A few examples: GPS enables the transportation of goods to be more accurately tracked, and it is a foundational technology for Uber.

In each of these instances, the new technology provided either a valuable evolutionary improvement, or a revolutionary new business opportunity.

Now take a look at the picture below. I took this photo many years ago walking down the street of a big city in Southeast Asia. Since then I've used it to illustrate various points on IT leadership, continual improvement and innovation. It might be a little mundane compared with the likes of Uber, but it's an example of how a new technology can be incorporated into an existing business.

The modern RFID tag was originally applied to vehicular tolling by the New York Port Authority in the early 1970s. Yet in the picture, RFIDs are being used to enhance the visitor experience at a public aquarium! Really? Who on earth came up with the idea to tag fish and link them to devices in the hands of visitors? (Tails enabling tales?)

Seriously, who do you think came up with that idea? Was it a marine biologist? A creative marketing person? An aquarium executive? A consultant? Or maybe an IT person? I don't know. I've often wondered about it, but I have no real insight into whether or not this initiative came from IT or "the business."

Billboard ad for Underwater World Singapore's RFID system

In the past, the new products development process was left to the creative types in marketing or R&D. But today we can no longer make such a small group solely responsible for creativity. The worlds of technology, best practices, big data, social trends and customer expectations are evolving so rapidly, and are triggering such far-reaching implications to the business, that we don't have time to wait for new technologies to be embedded into our social structures before pausing to think how OUR business can exploit and benefit. Dots have to be connected sooner.

For example:

  • If everyone is carrying a smartphone, what can we do with an app to promote better customer relations and engagement and generate more sales?
  • If people are using laptops outside of work, what can we do to reduce the risk to corporate data? And can we make people even more productive?
  • When employees and customers are engaging socially with web services like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram, what are the potential risks? And what benefits can we look to exploit?

Is it the job of corporate IT staff to be proactive here? If not, who's going to do it?

All too often when I talk to IT leaders about emerging trends, technologies and the new products development process, I find a level of complacency that reminds me of the dismissive declaration, "Not my job!"

In the past, ideas for new products and services came from the creative types in marketing or R&D. But today we can no longer make such a small group solely responsible for creativity.

Really? If not you, then who? For me, a key competence for our leaders -- including IT leaders -- is to create a culture of information and knowledge sharing, enabling risks to become apparent so they can be mitigated, and allowing for opportunities to be discussed and exploited. Do not expect a business to be successful just because one or two people have a title like "chief innovation officer." You cannot dictate innovation.

We need to be continually connecting dots while at the same time remaining focused on business objectives. Unfortunately, this is just not happening enough.

Business objectives

In recent years I've addressed groups of IT service management professionals on every continent, many thousands of people. One question I ask has become something of a mantra for me: "What are your business objectives?"

A simple question, apparently. One for which everyone should know the answer, right?

The famous management consultant Peter Drucker once said, "Managing by objectives is possible, if you know your objectives. But 90% of the time you don't."

From my experience in talking with IT managers and leaders, a staggering 99.9% don't know their current business objectives.

I've asked thousands of people in dozens of countries and in all industry segments, and only one person has been able to give me a good answer.

There have been plenty of bad answers to my question. "Striving to be the No. 1 healthcare provider" is not a business objective; neither is "delivering and supporting innovative technology services."

Those and many other statements of vision may have their place, but nothing focuses the mind sharper than clear and measurable objectives that MUST be achieved within a foreseeable timeframe: targets for revenue, costs, growth. That's what I'm talking about.

Linking innovation to business objectives

While I have great admiration for the entrepreneurs with amazing ideas and a new products development process that works, for many of us working in IT today, that's not our world. We have to keep the lights on and continually improve. We aren't recognized as great innovators. But as new technologies and new social trends continue to emerge, we need to be ready to seize the opportunities to understand and control risks and opportunities to more efficiently achieve our business objectives.

Having a clear understanding of what the business needs to achieve (this year) allows for faster and more confident decision-making and re-prioritization. If IT staff understand the objectives of their business, then they can connect what they're doing now and what they're planning to do to what they've been told is important.

It's possible you may not view yourself as an innovator. But as a senior person in IT you will have leadership responsibilities and that means you at least need to identify with a vision -- wherever it might come from. You may even have a subordinate who has interests or a specialism that facilitates the generation of innovative ideas and solutions. So, whether it's you or a co-worker who leads the visioning, as a designated IT leader it is up to you to relate the vision to others, empowering them with knowledge and resources to enable effective planning and implementation.

Maybe not every organization has the culture to replicate what I saw at a leading bank a few years ago. Everyone with a minimum of six months of tenure in IT had their "bright ideas" pre-approved if the cost was no more than $10,000. The only conditions were that there had to be measurable benefits that made the $10,000 spend worthwhile, and if the project failed, the person who proposed it had to earn back their stripes before proposing another "bright idea."

Think about your own work environment right now. Is everyone too busy keeping on the lights to be concerned with continual improvements? If so, what would it take to encourage your IT staff to connect new trends to existing business goals?

Next Steps

Defining innovation terms:

What is strategic innovation?

What is innovation culture?

What is innovation management?

What is innovation process management?

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