In this guest blog, John Hill, CIO of Carhartt, the iconic workwear brand, shares 4 technology innovation obstacles, and how to overcome them.

During my career in technology, I have to come to view the drive for innovation as a key part of any successful CIO’s job responsibility. The ability to help the business drive innovation is critical to growth and, ultimately, to the long-term survival of our organizations. Despite that, as I speak with many CIOs, I often hear about the struggle to jump-start and/or maintain innovation efforts.

Here are four of the biggest obstacles to driving innovation that I have observed, and the steps I have worked through with my teams to overcome them:

1. Agile development hasn’t made us more innovative.

Many IT leaders mistakenly think that transitioning to Agile development will help them be more innovative. 

However, the team often becomes a victim of its own success. The drive for empowered product owners, a backlog of groomed stories, and focus on team velocity can result in a never-ending stream of work, leaving little time for innovation. The teams move from sprint to sprint focused on what the product owner has prioritized. This can result in little focus on activity that doesn’t pay off right away. In one of my roles, we overcame this by setting aside a portion of each sprint for innovation. It was important to find a way to structurally create the capacity.

2. We don’t have the budget to work on innovation.

In one of my previous CIO roles in the public sector, where money was always an issue, the challenge was how to drive innovation activity without allocating significant funds. We decided to work with suppliers who were eager to demonstrate their products and willing to bear the cost of proof of concept (POC) efforts. We were very clear with them that any future project would result in an RFP, and gave them no guarantee that they would win the business. Essentially, those suppliers were creating the market for their products. The result far exceeded our expectations. In one year, we ran 12 PoCs that – aside from using the internal IT team’s time – only cost us a total of $5,000. We were able to learn from those PoCs, and several of them went on to become successful projects.

3. My teams can’t get excited about innovation.

They see it as extra work.IT innovation

No matter how much time is set aside in sprints for innovation, the reality is that innovation activities will often take extra time for those involved. At Carhartt, we came up with one way to build excitement to help combat that issue. We took a page from the successful TV show, Shark Tank, and created our own version.

Teams submitted their ideas to a panel of leaders in the organization, approximately six of which were selected each quarter to be featured in the “Shark Tank”. The teams presented their concepts in the morning of the day-long event, then worked on finishing the prototypes before final presentations. A winner was selected each quarter by the judges – which typically consisted of myself and a guest executive from a business unit.

The results have been fantastic. Each quarter, at least two of the ideas have made it to production. 

4. Our innovation efforts have stalled.

After more than a year of “Shark Tank” sessions here at Carhartt, we came to the realization that we were getting fewer break-through ideas. We were getting great ideas that could be implemented, but they tended to focus more on continuous improvement. In addition, we felt that the amount of time being spent was not sufficient if we were going to be serious. To combat that, we recently decided to make a change and begin allocating 5 percent of the IT team’s time toward innovation.

We have set aside one Friday each month for innovation activity. To drive breakthrough ideas, we’ve identified seven themes that we want the organization to focus on. We created cross-functional teams and assigned each of them specific topics, such as cognitive services or bots. The teams will spend two and half Fridays building their prototypes, and then we use the same “Shark Tank” approach to demonstrate the ideas.

To emphasize how critical this is for us, each member of the IT senior leadership team (including myself) has also joined an innovation team. We are early on in this evolution along our innovation journey, but there is a lot of excitement around the approach. 

In summary

There are many different methods to overcome the various obstacles to driving innovation, and because each organization is different, the best options will differ. However, two common elements are likely to be found in any successful innovation effort:

1. the existence of executive sponsorship to provide the time and resources necessary for teams to embrace the challenge.

2. teams find a way to make the process fun so the enthusiasm will not fade away.  

I would love to hear other ideas on how you have jump-started or accelerated your innovation activities. Please share your them in the comment section below.

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