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CIO Unplugged 6/15/11

June 15, 2011 Ed Marx 6 Comments

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are mine personally and are not necessarily representative of current or former employers.

To BE Innovative, YOU Must … Be Innovative

No one can avoid the term "innovation." It is the holy grail of the 21st century, the hope for modern-day business. 

In his 2011 "State of the Union" address, the President stated, "… the first step to winning the future is encouraging American innovation." Walk into any bookstore or library and the shelves are stocked with books and magazine articles on how to make innovation happen.

Yet despite the resources available and the attention given, innovation still eludes leaders. According Rick Kash and David Calhoun in their book How Companies Win, one trillion dollars was invested last year in the name of innovation with little return. Why?

As with many companies, ours touted innovation as key to growth and culture, yet the concept remained more of a dream than a reality. Then things started to change. Transformation began with a small group of individuals that discovered in order for their company to be truly innovative, innovation had to start with them. You see, to BE innovative, YOU must be innovative.

This evolution has given us national recognition for innovation. Disruptive business models and clinical discoveries have exponentially increased.

How does innovation begin?

First, come to terms with the fact that innovation does not happen by copying a genius like Steve Jobs or Leonardo da Vinci. Nor does it happen by copying the culture of 3M or Google. These men and companies are outliers. You cannot replicate results by cutting and pasting their experience. Gladwell’s latest work, Outliers, highlights this phenomenon brilliantly.

Innovation is organic and personal. This is why innovation begins with you.

Second, while I believe we are born innovative, the cumulative effects of societal norms have rendered the bulk of us innovatively impotent. To release the innovation inside of us will require significant effort. Start by purposefully casting off the well-meaning restraints put on you from parenting, schooling, and work policies. Retrain yourself to walk in freedom and creativity.

Ninety percent of the fuel required for a trip to the moon is expended at lift-off, as the spacecraft breaks loose of the gravitational chains holding it captive. It’s the same with the innovation journey. Balls to the wall.

Nine methods you can leverage to BE innovative:

  1. Embrace mentoring. Step away from the parental type of mentoring, where you’re paired up with someone reportedly “older and wiser.” Instead, pair up with someone younger, who looks, dresses, and talks in ways that might make you uncomfortable. The more uncomfortable and stretched you are, the better.
  2. Active passion. Passion stokes the fire of innovation. Exactly what brings out your passion doesn’t matter. Just find something that brings you life and energy. Painting, gardening, dancing, big wave surfing, or jujitsu, whatever. Passion provides content and context for innovation mash-ups and convergence.
  3. Leverage technology. Innovation drives technology, so it is critical to play in this area. Taking on technology forces you to become a continuous learner. Studies have shown that the more we push the boundaries of learning, the more our brains neuro-connections increase and retain their elasticity. Nicholas Carr provides an excellent overview in his book The Shallows. The converse is true; not pushing boundaries negatively impacts a person’s ability to exhibit innovation.
  4. Experience > observation. Go and experience the world. IDEO Partner and Stanford Professor Diego Rodriguez says, “Experience the world instead of talking about experiencing the world.” Stop watching "reality TV." Rather, go and make your own reality. Increase your diversity of experience. As with passion, this will increase the content and context for innovation.
  5. Disruption enables innovation. The fainthearted are not capable of innovation. You’ve gotta be courageous and take risks. Baby steps are for babies. Go big. Man or woman up.
  6. Practice exorcism. Time to get rid of the devil’s advocate inside you and inside your organization. Ban the phrase and practice. Dissent is encouraged in the context of collaboration, but self-proclaimed “demons” have no place in your organization or life.
  7. N2 > N. Adopt a systems-like approach to help you manage ambiguity, variation, and change. While the world is increasingly complex, you can cut through it all and maintain clarity. Embrace complexity on your terms and leverage for greater innovation.
  8. Eliminate broken promises. Innovation without execution is a broken promise. As they say in my adopted home of Texas, don’t be “all hat, no cattle.” Failure to follow through zaps your innovation.
  9. Embrace failure. Start celebrating failure, even reward it. In the smoldering ashes of failure, innovation rises. When you fail, be public and positive.

By following these nine steps, we were able to become innovative. Once we became innovative, our organization began to be innovative. No magic formulas or mimicking of other people or cultures will work.

Begin with the person in the mirror — you.

Update 6/28/11

Thanks for your comments, most of which focused on the exorcism of the devil’s advocate. Clearly you must have a culture of encouraging rigorous debate and contrarian opinions. Iron sharpens iron and it is during these times of challenge that ideas get honed or put to appropriately put to death.

What I am talking about is people who are not constructive, but always are the first to shoot down ideas, hiding beneath the “devils advocate” defense without offering anything new.


Ed Marx is a CIO currently working for a large integrated health system. Ed encourages your interaction through this blog. Add a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post. You can also connect with him directly through his profile pages on social networking sites LinkedIn and Facebook and you can follow him via Twitter — user name marxists.

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Currently there are "6 comments" on this Article:

  1. Some of the most creative projects I have worked on have been born out of a lack of budget. By making do with and squeezing the most value from what is available. By not being able to buy solutions but invent, create and make them. This could not happen though without an encouraging and supportive environment, i.e points 1-9.

  2. No, Devil’s advocates are the folks who ALWAYS tell the emperor that he’s wearing no clothes.

    Occasionally, they turn out to be correct and then they talk ceaselessly about those few cases for their entire career.

  3. There are many ways to bring about change. Innovation is the popular view, is often misused, and ignores the fact that change is episodic – normal science advances to revolutions (innovation), then back again. No organization can exist by ONLY being innovative, or, as Ed says, by “copying” (e.g. incremental improvement). BOTH are necessary over time. Any company with a storied history is a perfect study guide to this philosophy. Ed would do well to study science, specifically T.S. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Its principles transfer to business, and anywhere in life that change occurs. While Ed makes a few good points, the view that innovation is always what is necessary is a reckless philosophy for any leader or scientist.

  4. “Devil’s Advocate” is a “safe word” many people use when the person that they are talking to has proven not to be open to opposing points of view.

    Banning the practice yourself is an act of courage. Banning it in others in your organization may be a sign of weakness.

  5. The problem is that folks who really are proper devils advocates get canned by those who take the term literally. Or IT Departments eliminate folks who ask questions or point out issues, leaving folks too scared to point out anything. I’ve seen both happen with truly hideous results.

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