Innovation, Creativity, IT and Architecture

Greetings and Salutations,

As Enterprise Architects, we can easily get caught in the trap of having tunnel vision. We perceive that our roles are that of technology strategists, of aligning business vision with IT enablement, of providing a governing role in the direction of IT within the business confines.

Many of us are quite happy to leave the running, maintenance and direction of the operation and line of service staff to the CIO and the respective IT management. However, I have come to the conclusion that if we are to be truly successful in our roles, nay our vision and the very delivery of the end point, then we too should be seeking out other aspects that affect us.

In short, just as we provide the service to the business of enabling business vision via IT through the process of Enterprise Architecture and technology direction modelling, so too should we consider and architect with equal fervour the enabler of the IT solutions – the very department and it’s people.

For a number of years, and in a number of organisations, I have had a constant battle with the oft conflicting requirements of providing value in my role, maintaining the core business activity, delivering IT, providing innovation and creating future value to the business.

Perhaps it’s purely my own focus that creates this scenario – god knows that I’ve oft been told to “let go”, “don’t take so much on”, “why are you even thinking about that” and of course, “that’s not your responsibility”. However, the fact remains that I am constantly on the look out to achieve each of these goals, and, even now, have unsuccessfully contrived the methodologies or toolsets required to simultaneously bring these all into a balanced, collaborative solution – i.e. a working formula.

In the last year, I’ve been researching other organisations, attending a plethora of conferences, speaking to peers and even resorting to materials taught to MBA graduates in the feint hope of solidifying a structure, process or even a blueprint to achieve these goals. Following are my current views – admittedly, as with all things in life, experience will change my (idealistic?) perceptions in the future, but as always, I prefer to write them out, share and invite open debate even if it is still a little airy.

Cleaning up the shop

First and foremost, the hardest job that needs to be completed prior to anything else being commenced is the age-old “getting your house in order”.

Now, this poses a variety of challenges that differ from company to company, but in general there are many common themes that run from the small business to enterprise wide IT department. These include the standard steadfast requirements of governance, change control and process management. However the oft overlooked, ignored or simply forgotten aspects are also important – the removal of blame culture and the process of implementation reviews so as to foster ideas and the ability to learn from mistakes, the ability to align key performance indicators with the combined visions of the business and the architectural plan, the implementation of feedback sessions with each group to understand staff perceptions and cultural environs … the list goes on. I will not delve into all of these areas here, but if enough interest is garnered, I will endeavour to write further on thsse arenas not covered in this article in future postings.

Foster feedback

I often see among my peers that they have been so far removed from the world of support and implementation that they were in so many years ago that they have forgotten the range of issues, perceptions and emotions they themselves invariably experienced. How many of us can claim that at the time we didn’t perceive that management had a clue, or that they were no longer in touch with what was happening “on the front line”?

If you are anything like me, you’ll read your customer reviews, management perceptions and vendor reports with a healthy sense of scepticism. Why? As important as these reports are to you completing your duties, they only provide you with one side of the information.

The staff who support the environment, those in daily communication with the end users will have an often contrasting view of the world to those presented by the formal reports. Does this make one or the other more correct? Of course not! However, it does provide you with a 360 degree view and thus arm you with the ability to better design and implement your solution.

Feedback can be received in many fashions – through a formal request, a feedback response system or scheduled group open forums – the important aspect here is to foster the feedback, listen to it and make the staff aware that it is welcomed and appreciated.

Foster an environment of creativity and innovation

Way too often I have seen the ideas of a help desk or other support staff squashed because someone further up the chain perceives them to “not understand” the bigger picture.

Often these ideas are squashed at the lower levels because someone perceived that “no one will listen anyway”. How many solutions, how many leapfrog advances have you missed because you are relying solely on your current circle of architects, managers and vendors?

The staff need to feel that they can be creative and have their ideas assessed as input into the technology directions of the company. Whether it’s a new way to deliver services, or simply a better way to package up an application, all of these ideas should be fostered and considered towards “the final solution”.

So, how do we encourage this? The previous topic is probably the most important step – if your staff do not feel that they can provide feedback and be heard, why would they waste their time providing you with creative ideas, innovations or process savers?

Once that first step is out of the way, the next is to actively foster a creative environment. Although each environment is different, and you have to take into account the varying factors (such as culture and team dynamics) the basics are pretty much the same. In essence (and at the risk of repeating myself once more) these are:

  • freedom that allows employees to determine what they will do and how they will do it (within you’re well defined vision and direction – aka your strategy)
  • open communication where ideas are exchanged freely between people
  • challenging work that interests and absorbs employees

Theoretically, culture flows down to the troops from the upper layers. If you foster these “creativity nurturing” aspects within your own team and it’s essence within your workshops, meetings and dealings with other business unit leaders, it may just permeate your organisation. Some items to help guide you:

  • Facilitating Freedom
  • Include your team in making decisions where feasible and practical
  • Let team members choose their own tasks and methodologies, within reason and standing policies
  • Facilitating Open Communication
    • Lay the foundations at the start – Let your team know they are supported, that it’s OK to ask question and that constructive ideas to improve systems and processes are welcomed and heeded.
    • Meet regularly, request ideas & open out the request for comments to members outside your immediate circle
  • Facilitating Challenging Work
    • Ask, “How else might this process (or product, system, design, etc) be utilised and/or leveraged?”

    ________________________

    It seems apparent to me that managing creativity well is closely related to being a good manager. It’s about focusing people on the task at hand while encouraging them to maintain an open mind, seeking improvement, providing them with what they require and all while fostering an environment that allows them to be release their creative sides.

    This is definitely a lot easier said than done.

    However, I believe that there is always something that can be done – it may not be perfect, and it may have some minor backlashes, but, then, that’s what we’re there for – to try and improve the business through better use of systems – whether that’s technology, information, process or … people.

    ________________________

    This may not be much, but it’s all I have for today. Hopefully, time will allow me to revisit this in the near future with further lessons learnt.

    TTFN!

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