In the Digital Age, Who Powers Innovation?

By Jonathan Feldman

I’m giving Bernadette Jiwa’s new book, “Hunch,” as an educational giveaway to the awardees at my department’s annual picnic on Thursday. Here’s why.

We’ve been doing this picnic for well over a decade, and the formula goes something like this.

Prior to the picnic, we put the question out:

The rules are that you must recognize someone who is not properly on your team. In IT’s case, it is a must to recognize business partners in other departments.

This is not about self congratulation. It is about recognizing that people in other business units don’t have to help you. It is up to them. And yet they do. This is amazing and not to be taken for granted.

Then we give out nice certificates, say nice things, and bask in the glow of being in the presence of people who actually care about our mission. They’ve proved it by helping more than they needed to. We give an educational item because we recognize that these are the people for whom it will actually matter. Books will actually get read, etc.

So – back to Bernadette’s book, “Hunch”. Why give it? And why post about it here?

The people who are being recognized at the picnic are already crossing organizational boundaries to collaborate with people in other departments. They already know that organizational improvement is a team sport.

What they might not know is that organizational innovation is most likely to come from them.

Not me. Not any of the other execs. We’ll have ideas, sure. And if we’re lucky, the really bad ones will be shot down by caring employees who have the courage to speak up. If we’re smart, we’ll listen.

I have previously written in InformationWeek that digital organizations put people first.

This is because real digital transformation involves the entire organization. It requires that new ideas be evaluated quickly, implemented quickly, and modified quickly if needed. In short, digital transformation requires ongoing innovation sourced from the entire organization — not just from leadership.

The best ideas come from the people experiencing the problem, every single day. Executives don’t always recognize the merits because they’re busy focusing on other things. At Oracle, Larry Ellison didn’t realize that Tom Siebel was about to start a customer relationship management revolution, so he pooh-poohed Siebel’s idea. He ended up buying Siebel’s company for $5.8 billion, once Seibel proved the idea.

One of the best ways to shoot down potential great ideas is to say “insufficient data” or “the data would suggest otherwise.”

Helpful hint: there was no market for CRM before Siebel created one. And, as Bernadette says, data doesn’t always tell the whole story. “Where was the data that predicted the need for and subsequent success of Google, Facebook, and the iPhone, or the decline of Kodak, BlackBerry, and orange juice?”

And this is one of the many beautiful points that Bernadette artfully guides us through in her book: many innovations would never have been accomplished if we sat and waited for the data. Data can be a kind of analysis by paralysis.

Instead, Jiwa emphasizes attributes like being curious, empathetic, and imaginative.

What if your employees were given permission to be curious, empathetic, and imaginative?

What if we gave employees permission to not stare at their screens 8 hours a day?

What if we gave them permission to leave their desks for field trips in order to try something new? To experiment?

Over and over again, I have seen the results of this type of positive behavior with our awardees, this group of special employees.

I’m giving Bernadette’s book to our best and brightest employees to reassure them that there is another, better way. And it involves them, starting now.


Originally published June 7, 2017