The hitchhiker's guide to innovation

To escape old patterns and foster radical improvements, you must assemble small innovation groups to bring IT and business to a new dimension

Innovation is quickly falling into the category of cliché words, an epic vagueness that connotes little more than some activity outside the realm of maintenance. It's a shame because there is real innovation happening in some IT shops. And by innovation, I mean CIOs tearing up the playbook on creating value for the business and making a real investment in entrepreneurial change.

A more creative agenda requires a serious influx of fresh air and perspective. Fortunately, the people who can supply that are probably already in your organization -- they just haven't been tapped effectively yet. The best way to unlock their potential is to assemble them into small innovation teams.

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Motivated CIOs are creating and funding small teams with the sole mission of brainstorming opportunities in existing business segments or totally new ones. CIOs are in a great position to rethink how industries work (they know the plumbing) and how their own company can differentiate (they see everything). Rather than approaching these areas in terms of risk mitigation, smart technology leaders are taking a lesson from business managers -- pull out the credit card and experiment with mobile apps, public cloud services, and more.

Once a group determines its mission, the charter is simple: Start with a blank piece of paper. Let your innovation team rethink the way customers buy your products. Rethink a reservation system. Or maybe your business has huge amounts of data streaming from social platforms, but that data is not mission-critical to your business in terms of generating revenue. Charge your innovation team with the task of packaging, sanitizing, and monetizing that data.

Not every team will produce a winner, but it's guaranteed you'll find value in the discovery process every time -- and the internal press generated by the effort will be invaluable to shifting perceptions in your favor.

Successful innovation teams tend to pull in multiple generations of employees and varying skill sets from the business. This diversity is critical to maintain some semblance of control and focus, allowing tenured veterans to balance out the perspectives of the 20-something data scientist you recently hired. Pull in the creative thinkers from the business as well, and let them flex all that shadow IT muscle in a more pointed environment. In essence, you want and need these teams to create energy and the right environment to net out projects that can move the needle ... or move on to something else quickly.

There's a sponsorship component to innovation teams as well. The CIOs that have successfully seeded innovation teams in the organization and generated successful projects have done so with violent and unwavering sponsorship. They creatively set aside budget, built a solid communications platform to convey results to peers, and most important were willing to provide the political blocking and tackling when necessary. Without this executive air cover, your teams will lose momentum quickly before they can score the first big win.

Experimentation with innovation can be a cost-effective and invigorating endeavor for IT, but there's always risk. A lack of focus, sponsorship, relevant agenda, or measurable value can kill quickly. On the positive side, every business -- regardless of industry -- can reap huge benefits from the fresh thinking these teams generate.

Technology is drastically reducing the runway most businesses have to operate "as usual," so time is short. Innovation isn't all about an enormous budget or a room full of hackers. It's about the growing price tag for not experimenting -- a risk no one can afford.