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The Right Question

The Right Question

CIOs had first better grasp where internal perceptions are rather than selling where they'd like them to be. Getting to where you want to go depends on it.

If perception helps define reality, then asking your customers how they perceive IT innovation is a simple and inexpensive way to focus your efforts

If you really want to know how innovative your IT shop is, don't bother benchmarking your competition or retaining consultants: Just ask your colleagues and customers. The question is simple. The answers will surprise you.

"What's the most innovative thing you think IT is doing for you?" Just ask. It's not expensive. The best reason for asking: You'll quickly learn how critical stakeholders see - and don't see - your IT organization's innovation "brand". You'll also gain quick insight into how they define innovation - or if they even care about it at all. A shrug of the shoulders matched by a glazed look of annoyance is not uncommon. Hopefully, that's not how your CEO or CFO reacts.

Then again, they may not care as much about innovation as you do.

Because IT wants to be customer-centric and future-focused, we're often too quick to ask: "What do you want IT to do for you?" That's not a bad question, but it's one that's sure to set false expectations. CIOs had first better grasp where internal perceptions are rather than selling where they'd like them to be. Getting to where you want to go depends on it.

Too many employees, for example, don't associate IT with genuine business innovation. They think of technical upgrades and enhancements. That perception effectively brands internal IT innovation as "geeky" and "techy". That's bad brand positioning for a CIO who wants to help an enterprise grow.

It's not surprising that different parts of the enterprise define innovation differently than does IT. The surprise - and disappointment - comes from hearing so many of your peers and their subordinates define IT innovation initiatives in ways that make what you're doing seem incidental, inconsequential or taken-for-granted. CIOs need to hear those answers. I have heard responses ranging from "the most innovative thing IT does for us has been cutting our downtime in half" to "runs the Web site" to "implemented a CRM we actually use" to bursts of cynical laughter. Are you confident you know how that question will be answered both inside your organization and out?

Why Users Know Best

The simple beauty of simple questions is that they frequently yield simple insights that matter. One Fortune 100 CIO who casually but consistently asked employees to name the most innovative thing IT was doing was consistently referred to the help desk. He discovered that, in addition to answering technical questions, this help desk had made a follow-up practice of e-mailing URLs of sites that would further explain to users how to get more value from their machines.

That simple - and cheap - innovation prompted the CIO to partner IT with HR. They set up a pilot program to send targeted URLs to employees with questions and concerns about health-care, educational programs and personal-day policies, and it tested well. The CIO cleverly leveraged an existing internal perception of an innovative IT practice to make his organization more visible and more valuable.

This approach can lead to revenue-generating ideas as well. For example, an airline CIO learned that his online customers thought the most innovative thing the airline did on its Web site was the seat selector map. That got the CIO thinking whether the site should offer people the opportunity to pay more to get "better" seats. That's an easy Internet experiment to run: Would individuals pay an extra $15 or $20 for an aisle or exit row seat on a four-hour flight? Like the e-mailed URLs, this idea cleverly played into what IT was already seen as doing innovatively and successfully.

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