Today, disruptive tech innovators are captivating the hearts and minds of customers and journalists. They’re shaking up entire industries, tossing paradigms aside and rewriting playbooks.
The old mantra “slow and steady wins the race” has become a recipe for business demise, not success. Many organizations that have relied on this philosophy in the past are struggling to keep pace with the market. Realizing that incremental innovation isn’t enough to stay competitive, they’re asking, “How do you reignite a culture of nimble, breakthrough innovation?”
In the interview below, entrepreneur Kelby Zorgdrager weighs in on this question. Founder of DevelopIntelligence, a Pluralsight Company, and previously a CTO for multiple SaaS startups, Zorgdrager has experienced firsthand the challenges of scaling an organization while fostering fresh thinking and testing bold new ideas.
You say innovation strategy starts at the top. What is the CIO’s role?
KZ: To foster innovation, CIOs need to push decision-making to teams and even individual employees. These employees are regularly listening to customers’ goals, needs and concerns, meaning they have the best feel for how business processes and products are working, as well as where they are falling short. Empower them to solve the problems they see. Equip them to evaluate, prioritize and implement ideas to improve customers’ experiences.
In a highly innovative workplace, the CIO “asks” instead of “tells.” CIOs ask their teams, “What challenges are you encountering? What solutions have you tried? What ideas do you have for next steps, and what would you need in order to pursue those ideas? What can I do to help?”
The CIO is an equipper—someone who serves as a sounding board, advocates for resources and helps remove barriers. Employees feel permission to initiate change and innovate, and the CIO helps champion that innovation process.
What’s involved in building a culture of innovation?
KZ: Innovation starts with the leader’s mindset. The CIO needs to believe that valuable insights can come from anywhere in the organization—from employees of any tenure, background or role.
Second, there needs to be a way for employees to bring forth ideas and concerns in an agile way—instead of “running them up the flagpole.” You want frontline employees to hold the flag in their hands, inspect it and decide what happens next. Do they fly it, fold it for later use or discard it? For every layer of management that has to inspect the flag, you can lose days, weeks, months and even years while your competitors beat you to market.
Leaders who are accustomed to being in charge, in a command-and-control structure, often find it uncomfortable to cede control to frontline teams. It means checking one’s ego at the door and being a servant-leader.
What questions do tech leaders need to ask?
KZ: If you’re committed to becoming a more innovative organization, start by getting employee feedback. Depending on the current culture of your organization, employees may be a little jaded—thinking that nothing will come from their input. If you have someone in your organization who is experienced with employee research and focus groups, consider enlisting them in your effort to collect information on the following questions:
- What gets in the way of innovation in our organization today?
- If you have an idea for a process or product improvement today, where do you take that idea?
- Walk us through what happened the last time you voiced an idea or concern. Even if it didn’t go the way you hoped, we’d like to understand what you experienced and observed.
- If you could change three things in our organization to help us become more innovative, what three things would you recommend?
It’s hard to become more innovative until you have a clear picture of the present state of innovation in your organization. You may hear some difficult messages, but you need a candid portrait of what’s happening today so that you can identify the best path forward.
What are your top tips for igniting team innovation?
KZ: Giving employees opportunities to learn, explore and be curious leads to idea generation and experimentation, which fuel innovation. Some organizations provide on-the-job time to learn and play around with new technology that is not related to a current project.
Ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions to help employees think like inventors. “What led you to this particular idea? What pros and cons have you identified?”
Recognize that failure is part of innovation. Some ideas don’t pan out. Any time you try something new, there’s a risk it won’t work as planned. Ask: “What did you learn from this experience? Based on that, what do you want to try next?” Employees need to know that they have permission to fail.
If there are pockets of rigid “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” thinking in your organization, you’ll need to help those managers or departments become more flexible. Dismissing ideas without a discussion kills innovation, and your organization loses the benefit of employees’ insights.
What are the hallmarks of an innovative culture?
You know you have an innovative culture when you see a constant stream of cost-effective innovations initiated and implemented by frontline teams to improve customer experience. These frontline teams know how to evaluate, prioritize and execute, with an eye toward ROI.
If employees can make most day-to-day decisions autonomously, your company will achieve greater velocity. Things don’t get bogged down in extended review/approval processes.
Employee engagement scores will be high, and attrition will be low. When employees believe they are making a difference and can see the results of their ideas, they are energized. Further, employees at all levels of the organization confirm they feel their ideas and opinions are welcomed and valued.
You can verify, via regular employee listening projects, whether they see any barriers to innovation. Fostering a culture of innovation is an ongoing process, with opportunities for continuous improvement.
Need some data to kickstart a dialogue? See how your organization’s engineering metrics can be a catalyst for both technology and L&D innovation.
I'm interested in how other organizations are using engineering data to foster innovation and build better products. Please contact me to schedule a Flow demo.
Are you interested in learning how other organizations use engineering data to foster innovation and build better products?
Please contact me to schedule a Pluralsight Flow demo.
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