Reinventing innovation


Guest post by Sara Gates, founder and CEO of Wisegate

Innovation is fundamental to a company's success, if not survival. As business leaders continue to search for new ways to improve performance, cut costs and expand revenues, many IT professionals are in turn asked to adopt the dual role of technologist and innovator. Tapping into the creativity and delivery capabilities of the IT organization seems to be a natural progression. While some welcome the challenge, others struggle to find the right ideas, processes and programs to drive and support innovation.

Admittedly, the road to innovation success is filled with potholes. The failure rate of new technologies or business ideas is estimated at between 50 percent and 90 percent. The success rate of large technology projects is consistent with these findings, hovering at around 30 percent year after year.

As the Founder and CEO of Wisegate, a private online community for senior-level IT executives, it is my privilege to work with some of IT's best and brightest, with a ringside seat to the private discussions that unfold between IT leaders, technologists and innovators.

On Wisegate, members engage in debates and share insights on how their respective organizations are addressing the growing dependency on IT as innovators. While they don't have all the answers (yet), they have made considerable progress in determining the factors that allow innovation to thrive and the processes needed to transform ideas into reality. And I've learned some valuable lessons about innovation from my vantage point.

A partnering mentality is critical

Innovation success relies on a shared vision. Without a unifying direction, people can work against each other and stagnate rather than support progress. Consider the possible mismatch of operational goals between IT security and innovation teams. While security practitioners strive to contain risks, innovators push the risk envelope in search of new, better, more effective ways of doing business.

Given this, it is understandable that tension can develop between IT security and front-line innovators as they lock horns over their respective interests in protecting versus growing the business. In a recent Wisegate poll, 40 percent of our members described the working relationship between innovation and security teams as "tenuous."

Today's IT innovators are recognizing that partnerships are more effective than the "Lone Ranger" approach. As one Wisegate member shared in a recent community call, "In the past, our innovation team would plug a new device into the network and then scramble to find out what we were doing wrong. We would make some phone calls, talk to our CIO and he would tell other teams to make whatever we wanted happen. This did nothing but make hard feelings for the people on other teams. Now we partner with our information risk management team, as well as our infrastructure team. This helps them see what we are trying to do. And just as importantly, helps us to understand what they are up against on a daily basis."

Identify risks early

To successfully innovate, companies must identify the interdependencies--what is needed for a change to work--as well as the possible places risk could be introduced. In a Wisegate poll, 25 percent of our information security members reported that they are not involved in the product development life cycle until "after it's too late!" Sharing concepts with cross-functional teams early in the idea validation stage can mean the difference between project success and failure.

One Wisegate member, who leads an IT innovation team, counts on his information risk team to keep him in check and keep business operations running smoothly. He stated, "Collaboration with our information risk team gives us the certainty that we aren't going to create a breach. Because, frankly, even if we have great solutions, if we create one breach that costs us the trust of our consumers, I won't be running this great team much longer. Our partnership is vital to the innovation team's long-term life here at the company and our ability to do some great stuff."

A collaborative 'no' is better than just 'no'

For every good idea, there will be plenty of bad ideas--or ideas that just pose too much risk to the organization. Consequently, IT security departments often find themselves as the bearers of bad news. Sometimes referred to as the "No Organization," security teams can be viewed as inflexible or out of touch with the needs of the business. In this climate, innovation can be disrupted as a power struggle overshadows other goals.

Collaboration between departments can help to diffuse tensions and bring about creative solutions. As an IT innovator for a major healthcare company put it, "The term 'collaborative no' feels a lot better than the old 'no' we used to get. Four years ago, we would rush the hill of information risk management and quickly be told 'no'. Then we would have to go ask 'dad' (aka our CISO) for permission. That has changed dramatically under our CISO's leadership and it has been fantastic. They don't just say 'no.' Instead they come with cause. They help us understand the impact."

Build processes that support innovation

While a single visionary can bring a great idea to the table, formalized processes are the fuel that transforms vision into reality. One of our senior architect members stated, "Often the I idea have, I can't make happen myself. I have to go figure out who the right stakeholders are. At times I've talked to people about ideas for two years, just to make sure I had the right people engaged."

Two years of talking is two years too long. Formalized incubator processes can help connect idea people to the people that can make it happen. The ability to quickly identify and engage the right stakeholders is critical for any business that wants to nurture a culture of innovation.

Mind the gap

In most organizations, a gap exists between the front line people who need a solution, and don't know how or who to ask for it, and the technologists who could build it but don't know what's needed. Cross-functional teams with experience that spans front-line customer facing to back-end development together can translate requirements and become a powerhouse of new ideas.

A Wisegate member and IT innovator explained, "I think the problem is that the people who want a solution don't know how to ask for it, and the people who could do it don't know they needed it. That is the kind of gap we fill between IT and the business team. That is an incredibly fun part to play, and we call it minding the gap, helping to close that gap between a business team that doesn't really know what to ask for and a technology team that is waiting to be told what's needed."

Share the successes and failures

Viewed traditionally as a business expense, an IT department can challenge the status quo by supporting the business goals of the larger organization. As a supporter of innovation, IT becomes an ally to the business. And consequently the successes are collectively celebrated, while the failures are jointly mourned. Without finger pointing between departments, innovation naturally thrives.

A Wisegate member shared his perspective on the power of IT as an innovator. "If we fail on something, we fail together. If we succeed, we succeed together. It is fun not to get on those calls anymore and hear how horrible and expensive IT is. We face tremendous challenges because IT looks to be so expensive to the business. But we are changing that culture significantly. Last year our CIO said that the best money he ever spent on IT was building our innovation team. I took that as very positive," he said. 

While frustrations can run deep between teams when executive pressures to innovate and protect collide, I see a reinvention of innovation unfolding on Wisegate. Through a meeting of the minds between business and technologists, innovators and risk managers, I see a bright future for companies that can harness the power and creativity of IT organizations. With a collaborative mindset and the right processes, I predict that the new breed of IT innovators will work swiftly and collectively to support progress with less risk to the organization, and a better rate of success.

Sara Gates, founder and CEO of Wisegate, previously was vice president of identity management at Sun Microsystems. Wisegate ( is a new social knowledge network for senior professionals. See if you qualify for membership at

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