Innovation as a function of Trust


Miami University

Next semester I am teaching a brand new class on “Innovation and Disruptive Thinking” for Miami University, and I’ve been doing a bit of research on the topic to make sure that I hit the learning outcomes with which I think students who take the class should walk away. And, I’ve been fortunate enough to be interviewing for a few CIO positions at universities around the country where this topic inevitably comes up. If it doesn’t, then it’s a bit of a warning sign. The gist of this is that between research and personal reflection, much of my thought cycles over the past year or so have been revolving around IT, innovation, and change.

We’ve been somewhat spoiled to Silicon Valley’s “next big thing” version of innovation with the big reveal, an IPO, and venture capitalists, and certainly that is a gigantic part of what innovation means, but it’s not the sole definition. My world has some of the big new things, but it’s the daily small innovations that are more powerful and frequent. It’s the piece of duct tape you use to wrap around a rake handle so you won’t get a blister (adaptation); or it’s using a muffin pan upside down to make cookie cups (new use) ( It’s when you get frustrated with a daily annoyance and either actually take care of it or think about ways you would take care of it if you could.

This sort of innovation usually occurs near to where the problem or frustration lives by the person being frustrated or by someone observing continual frustration with “fresh eyes.” If you’re going about your work and have some web based program (eg, a finance program) that takes you four steps to accomplish a task and you could envision how it could be done in two, this is innovation. If you’re at home, go ahead and put the duct tape on the rake. You probably don’t need me for that, but if you’re at work and have an idea that requires or could use some help from IT, what do you do? (My first advice is to write that idea down–moments of brilliance are fleeting!)

I think a lot of what you do depends on our relationship. “Our relationship” meaning the culture I’ve instilled within my organization from top to bottom. Are my basic services stable? When they aren’t, am I transparent on the cause, the mitigation, and the steps to prevent it from happening again? Do I involve people in guiding how resources are used? Do I find ways to frustrate you with bureaucracy? Am I better at saying “no” than trying to help you accomplish your goal? Do I confuse strategy with process? (a topic of a future blog post, I promise!) Am I open to feedback and do I take take criticism  non-defensively? (By the way, that’s criticism not flogging–there is a difference) In general, do my actions match the words I’m saying? We all know the grand words written on the wall that describes the vision and values, but do we all live it?

(An aside: If you’re a leader within your organization, can you answer the vision/values/mission question succinctly? Can your direct reports? If the answer is not yes–with allowance for some drift–then you have some work to do on your vision/values. Clarity of purpose is critical to being successful.)

Of course, we live in a world of limited resources and there are regulatory requirements that prevent some good ideas from happening, but for the overwhelming majority of the time, I think we in IT should be helping advance the cause of our clients. To do this we need to develop a trust relationship with people. IT can be a strategic enabler, but you’re not going to want to dream with me if you don’t trust me or question my competency on basic matters. And, by me, again I mean top to bottom of the organization. The lowest common denominator will define the trust in most cases. And, I would say the converse is true as well. I need to be able to trust you too!

As I understand your goals, there are those moments where “the next big thing” could be appropriate. Part of my job is to stay up to date and have the IT organization stay up to date, with industry trends, peer directions. If you marry this understanding of trends with the relationship and understanding we’ve developed over time, then you have a powerful reaction that can occur. Client need can be met with an technical possibilities. Steve Jobs said something to the effect that sometimes people don’t know what they want until they see it. For me, this is all about knowing and understanding your audience and constituency.

Where the big central group may not be able to move as quickly, can we facilitate and encourage innovating and trying new things with local IT staff? Once we reach a point where it is appropriate to deploy an innovation–the new big thing or a process change–across the university, can we work together to minimize impact? It’s about being able to cede areas of control to my constituency and manage through consensus and influence. Trust and communication are the two main vehicles that will make this possible.

To do justice to the discussion, I really need to talk about how mining conflict is critical to successful implementation of an innovation is; the role of failure as a component of success; and the general process of organizational change. But, those are other topics for other days.

My perspective is based on the belief that my role as a leader is to help foster an environment where innovation can occur, implement it where possible, and most importantly help people through the change process as their lives are disrupted. So much of my job now deals with broad organizational changes that becoming a competent change leader is critical to any chance of success. In many cases, we don’t fear the end state, we fear the transition. One of the thing that has been helpful to me is to be able to see the big picture and then help others see it, feel it, and taste the vision of what the future could be like. The beginning, middle, and end of this journey from innovation to implementation is all based on the trust relationship. It’s my job to set the culture where this flourishes, and making sure my actions and words are in alignment.

Just in case you’re wondering, here is my personal mission. Ask me about it any time.

creating a healthy environment where others can reach their full potential to excel at life and contribute positively to humanity.

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