When the US Ryder Cup won at Valhalla in 2008, many attributed the win to the energy of the new team members. The fact that some of the members never felt the experience of losing to the Europeans in previous Ryder Cup events, to some, also was a major factor in the US win. I have also heard from time to time how as we grow older, we seem to lose our sense of wonder, amazement at how the world works and we make things more complicated than things should be, maybe even more cynical. In some ways, I see this happening in the workplace. There is no question that a sense of perspective based on years of experience, institutional knowledge, provides a great compass in how we should move forward. It is through institutional knowledge that pitfalls can be avoided based on lessons learned from the past. However, solely relying on the past to guide any actions moving forward, when taken to extreme, stifles innovation.
I’ve heard colleagues say “I’ve tried that before and it didn’t work out” or “we need to review these further to minimize risks” which lead to paralysis by analysis. I think because for those of us who have experienced “failures” and have faced obstacles, we are more careful about our actions and maybe even less apt to take risks. In addition, for those of us who have been promoted to IT management, our focus becomes making sure that our systems are stable, reliable and consistent operations. Political and budgetary considerations become big factors and often dominate the discussions in any projects we choose to work on.Lost in the discussion is the pursuit of something new, fresh, exciting approach towards creating solutions that are even better than what we ourselves have ever accomplished before. What is missing is the attitude of “just do it!”
More than once, I have relied on my fresh-out-of-college as well as student employees to deliver innovative solutions. Because they are not involved with politics and they have not experienced the sometimes painful results of not-so-successful projects, their focus is on creating a solution that is new, fresh and exciting to them. They also bring in a perspective shared by our customers. Because they are new graduates, they can relate to the mentality of our students, specifically on technologies (e.g. social media, web, mobile).
One of my mentors, Dr. Michael Young, Vice Chancellor for UC Santa Barbara Division of Student Affairs gave me an advice in 1996 when I became a professional as the first webmaster for the division. He said something like “I’d rather have you move forward even if you make some mistakes along the way than to stagnate.” This is a philosophy I’ve carried throughout my career and now sharing with my staff. While I consider the political, cultural and financial constraints when dealing with projects, I try not to lose focus on the philosophy of just moving forward . In pursuing innovative solutions and moving forward, trusting and valuing the contributions and fresh perspectives of my new professionals has been a big part of the philosophy . I think to some managers, the idea of letting an inexperienced developer run with an idea is a scary one and in some cases, I do feel the same way. However, more often that not, I’ve seen the value of just letting our young developers explore and experiment with minimal direction from my part as their manager. After providing them with general requirements of the project, I choose to let them develop on their own and review their work from time to time. As a matter of fact, I’ve even told them in some form that the reason why I don’t involve myself too much as they are developing is because I don’t want to pollute their ideas.
A project that illustrates the value of innovative thinking devoid of politics and “institutional knowledge” is an xml-based content management system created by one of my younger developers. This system is now being used by 18 departments in our division. A couple of years ago at a managers retreat, the common complaint expressed by the managers was that they wanted more control of their websites and as much as they appreciated the help being provided by my web team (part of central IT), there were times where we were not able to make the changes in what they considered as timely manner. In the past, we had explored different options including commercial products, open-source solutions and even Sharepoint. We performed our analysis, did some comparisons and even contemplated creating an enterprise-level solution. We went through these processes for a couple of years. For various reasons, such as these options were too expensive, did not meet our requirements, they required a lot of IT support/maintenance or not high enough on the priority list to dedicate resources, we never implemented any solution.
In part due to frustration and with the realization that our customers were getting agitated more and more, I had to take a different approach of delivering a “lightweight” solution that was inexpensive, did not require a lot of IT support, fast to implement and met the business requirements. I asked one of my energetic and bright developers to come up with a solution. I laid out the general requirements and left the implementation details to him to decide on purpose. In a period of three weeks, he was able to produce a system that exceeded our customers’ expectations as well as mine. He was able to accomplish something we had been trying for months, even years, in few short weeks!
Institutional knowledge and experience are certainly very valuable assets when it comes to creating solutions that are stable, reliable and consistent. However, they could also prove to be the barriers to innovation. It is for this reason that in some cases, innovation is best performed by those who are “naive” of all the perceived potential constraints and obstacles and whose sole focus is on creating a solution that is new and exciting to them.
I would love to hear about your experience and approach to innovation.