“Software innovation, like almost every other kind of innovation, requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people, and to sit down and talk with customers and get their feedback and understand their needs.” –Bill Gates

Information technology has had a high growth rate for years and there is a reason for that: a constant flow of innovations in technology, but also in business processes, as growing competition on the market has made innovation a must for every organisation. On the other side, the top skills missing among job applicants in the current world are problem solving, critical thinking, innovation and creativity.

In the ever-changing world of IT, it is challenging to create and maintain innovation activities. With more than ten years of experience working in three different companies as an innovation manager, I will try to give a fresh perspective on innovation management in the IT environment and show examples from companies all over the world. A software development environment provides many possibilities for innovation, but also puts some constraints on innovation processes that can be bypassed, bringing success to the company and innovators.

Using the agile process in the area of software development with its short cycles, it is a challenge to create and maintain an innovation culture. With this in mind, the following questions are raised:

How to bring innovation challenges closer to developers and use their experience and vision to create new projects? How to set up fast and clear focus topics or customer challenges oriented toward new business ideas? And on the other hand, how to inspire developers about incremental, often small but useful and money-saving, improvements?

I’m working in innovation management for more than a decade. In that time, I was involved in creating an innovation programme using a new reward system that successfully increased innovation results. The next big topic was the creation of bespoke innovation activities for a customer-oriented software company. Product innovation was also part of my efforts, but I will come back to all these topics later. Now, let’s see what place innovation has in IT companies.

The environment in a software company is much different than in other industries and most tools and activities, which are common in other industries, must be either adapted or totally neglected. Let’s start with people. Software engineers, developers, coders, or however you call them, are a bit different from “ordinary” people. They are deep in thought, don’t like disturbing meetings and they often have short-term milestones which makes them people who haven’t got too much time to think “outside of the box”. Hence, the shape of every innovation initiative has to be carefully adapted to this special environment. Processes are also a bit different than in other industries. Planning is done differently, and the time to deliver the new product is shorter as all process stages are shorter. Deadlines in the agile world are focused on a short-term pace instead of a long term time cycle in a waterfall system or in other industries. These make life easier, but can prevent innovation as shorter cycles could mean less or no time for ideas. Sometimes it looks like we are working in a zero-defect culture where no errors are expected, as we are concentrated on new incremental improvements, but innovations need a different error-tolerant environment to allow for breakthrough ideas.

In addition, the export of software is done differently. When a customer buys the software, it is not necessary to ship it with trucks, trains, ships or planes. The customer just needs access to the latest release versions and the user rights to download it. There is no direct contact with the customer, no physical stores or warehouses, just websites and servers.

What is very positive in this industry is that here the most common thing is change, which is really important for innovation. Software engineers are used to changing direction, projects, tasks and technologies; hence establishing an innovation ecosystem should not be too hard a job. Software engineers must educate themselves and constantly be ready for change. So, the future where there will be no more workers but only creatives are ideally shaped for today’s IT workers. In a time when it’s not so difficult to launch a product, but it’s extremely difficult to achieve success with it, product managers are key figures in starting and maintaining innovation activities.

The product manager’s view

Now, let’s look at what is important to software product managers, here is an insight from a survey of 40 product managers in a software company (done with a colleague, Denis Faivre). They were asked to indicate how important (or not) they consider several tools and techniques related to innovation and product management, and whether they would do more (or less) of them.

From the answers shown in Figure 1.1, we can see that the activities seen as most important are input from the front line, customer interviews, customer workshops and market watch. We classify these as the most important practices in customer and market intimacy groups, in which we also include insight from fairs and trade shows. Together, these are insights that make a direct connection with customers and the market as fast feedback on the company’s activities.

Next comes competitive intelligence, tech watch, market research, trend spotting and strategic workshops in strategic insights groups. These are insights that could be taken from externals, but also from internal experts or strategic groups. Quick prototyping, innovation workshops, ideation workshops, idea challenges, internal co-creation, external co-creation and design sprint make up the innovation management tools group. This group is connected with the usual activities of an innovation manager. The next group is less popular: profitability assessment, portfolio assessment, insights from research and academia, focus groups, hackathon and insights from consulting. This is connected to internal and external tasks and connections.

Finally, we find a smoke test and patent watch, with a very low score: these practices seem to be not important to product managers who filled the survey. It would be interesting to investigate whether this results from a lack of knowledge, interest, or effectiveness.

However, this survey shows that product managers gave most trust to:

  1. customer and market insights and research
  2. technology and strategic insights
  3. innovation management specific activities
  4. external connections and internal focus groups

All four groups are directly related to innovation activities and are part of them in a larger or smaller way, and all are important in setting up the innovation ecosystem in any IT company. Product managers can change their thoughts after successful practices in organisation, but they will surely always state that the most important practice is a connection to the customer and market – so, this should be the most important aspect of every innovation activity. However, the most important asset in this industry is people; but can people be grouped by some kind of creative perspective?

People: I, T or X?

I first heard of “T-shaped” people when reading Tom Kelley’s book The Ten Faces of Innovation where he described them as:

T-shaped people enjoy a breadth of knowledge in many fields, but they also have depth in at least one area of expertise.

“T-shaped” people have skills with depth in many areas; the vertical bar in the “T” refers to expert knowledge which a person has in his or her “main” area, while horizontal means the ability to be open to thinking in other disciplines and to be open to using that knowledge. “T-shaped” people are great fellow workers, they will collaborate, communicate. In the IT sector, these people are ideal, as they have in-depth knowledge of their main tasks, but also the ability to understand the needs of other areas. On the other hand, “I-shaped” people are mainly skilled in-depth, only in one direction like a developer with expertise in one programming language, which is needed for her job. These people also fit into the IT world, but they would need to educate themselves because of the challenges of the future. Such people are passing the usual scans of recruiting and hiring processes but later could find it hard to adapt to future challenges. “X-shaped” persons have leadership skills as they have subject knowledge of their subject and credibility, but also the skills to lead and support teams. Great managerial candidates.

“Tree-shaped” people have deep knowledge and experience in many areas. They have knowledge in the core area, but also  background in other fields, which makes them the best problem solvers. In an innovation or creative process, these skills take their place and could fit several roles. It could be quickly noted inside of innovation teams that people have the skills to collaborate, think differently, the ability to lead or connect the dots and solve problems. It is very important to know people, but wouldn’t this be too late? Maybe this should be done when people are hired. Many companies take care of various skills during employment, but many don’t, as they just hire developers with the one currently needed skill, which will solve their current needs. Many companies are in constant need of a group of developers, which should be hired “now” and they don’t care too much about all the skills people have; and they certainly don’t detect them.

It is said that to have a high IQ without social skills is the same as having a super-fast computer without an internet connection. Therefore, “T-shaped” people can look at the task from another point of view, and as they have skills from other areas, they can be inspired and brought into challenges for topics that are not their main areas, a very interesting characteristic for future innovation tasks.

So, how do you transfer people from I to T?

Job rotations or training could widen the perspective of people, but they must voluntarily step out of their comfort zone. They can make this step, but they need to be interested in other topics, reading and communicating to broaden their horizons.

Figure 1.2 shows how different shapes relate to IT and creativity. “I-shaped” people could be experts in their field, but they would probably generate only improvements from their working field. “T-shaped” people with expertise across several topics have more of a chance of generating innovations than “I-shaped” people, as they have a wider perspective and more diverse knowledge. They are also a nice addition to any innovation team. With their leadership skills, “X-shaped” people could be candidates for managing innovation teams and have grounds to become intrapreneurs. In the end, “tree-shaped” people have the ability to solve problems with their deep knowledge and experience; they could fit anywhere in innovation activities. They must be recognised and be a part of the innovators community.

This article represents an excerpt from my book “Developing Innovation – Innovation Management in IT Companies” which was published recently. This speaks to the first chapter of the book “IT and Innovation”, if you are interested, you can download the second chapter “Igniting the Innovation Process” here.