Four Keys to Creating a Culture of Innovation


Ask any top executive to rattle off their company’s future goals and they’re likely to mention the word “innovation.”

Indeed, the term has become a business buzzword, but that doesn’t mean companies aren’t onto something.

Innovation essentially means “a new idea,” and without new ideas, businesses can’t move forward and prosper. 

Innovation can’t happen overnight; companies need to foster a culture of innovation, driven largely by top management.

Ginni Rometty, chief executive officer of IBM, says companies should be constantly reinventing themselves in order to remain competitive.

“The only way you survive is you continuously transform into something else. It’s this idea of continuous transformation that makes you an innovation company,” Rometty told Fortune.

But how is an “innovation company” born?

In many cases, the innovation challenge at companies falls squarely in the lap of the chief information officer, who often has the burden of wearing several hats: innovator, technologist and business leader.

Martha Heller, an IT and CIO executive recruiter who wrote the book, The CIO Paradox, says innovation can’t happen overnight; companies need to foster a culture of innovation, driven largely by top management. 

Here are Heller’s four steps to creating a more innovative IT department—and a more innovative company.

1. Start at the top

Heller says there has to be a cultural receptivity to IT innovation, and that starts at the top. Business leaders should consider tying compensation plans to innovation—offering financial incentives for new ideas, assuring employees they won’t be punished for trying something new and failing, and creating innovation awards that are open to everyone in the company.

But perhaps most importantly, the CEO needs to empower the CIO to take the reins, particularly when it comes to technological innovation.

“One of the things the CEO needs to do to empower the CIO to create an innovative culture in IT and throughout the company is to take the emphasis off year-over-year budget reductions in IT,” Heller says.

“It takes money to innovate. If the CIO feels choked by budget reduction imperatives, how on earth is he or she going to have the money and the wherewithal to do any innovation?” says Heller.

2. Make sure your company’s operations are in order

It will be much easier to get buy-in from the rest of the company if operations are seamless. 

“Operations have to run flawlessly,” Heller says. “People will say, ‘Don’t talk to me about all your wonderful, innovative ideas if my email was down all day yesterday.’”

“Once your operations work like clockwork and your email isn’t down and you’re not having security breaches, now you’ve got an opportunity as the CIO to step up and be a leader,” Heller says.

3. Take the helm

Are you ready to be the type of CIO that leads your company’s digital innovation strategy?

“Once I step up to lead digital strategy, to lead innovation, I have moved from being an enabler to being a driver,” says Heller. “The CIO should be asking him or herself, ‘Do I really want to do that? Do I have the skills? Do I have the drive? Will I take that personal risk?’”

Heller recently spoke with Scott McKay, the CIO of Genworth Financial, who said there are two kinds of CIOs: the “how CIO” and the “what CIO.”

“There’s the ‘how CIO’ and that’s an enabler—someone who says, ‘This is how we’re going to get things done’—and then there’s the ‘what CIO,’ someone who says, ‘This is what we’re doing as a company. I’m a leader in this company,’” Heller says.

“Technology is increasingly becoming a ‘what’ for companies, and the CIO has got to step up and be that,” says Heller. “That’s about personal risk. That’s about a gut check. That’s about having the courage to stick your neck out and say, ‘This is what I think this company should do.’”

4. Think beyond IT strategy

If you’re the CIO, start doing innovative things before you’re asked.

“It’s important to say, ‘I’m going to put a stake in the ground and make the case that this is not the IT strategy, but this is the business strategy that we should focus on,’” Heller says.  

One thing to do is start small and start raising your hand for things that get you out of that “classic operational CIO mode,” says Heller.

For example, if your company is going to acquire another company, that’s a great chance to get up and say, “I would like to be on the due diligence team,” according to Heller. Then your role starts to evolve and you can engage in business discussions.

“If you go out and just do it, you suddenly find yourself at the table because everybody knows you can deliver,” Heller says. 



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