Jun 24 2010   3:54PM GMT

How CIOs can use ‘creative dissent’ as an IT innovation tool

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Francesca Sales is an editorial intern working with and She is attending Northeastern University for a dual degree in English and Linguistics.

If gurus at a recent gathering at MIT have it right, an increasing number of IT leaders are reaping benefits from applying the scientific method to IT projects. Experimentation is being used to create a culture of “creative dissent” in order to drive IT innovation. The key for CIOs is to pick a few experiments to rapidly scale and manage, then measure their failure rates — similar to what some describe as an iterative agile project practice.

Roy Rosin, vice president of innovation at software maker Intuit Inc., is a proponent of rapid experimentation. At an IT innovation panel at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, Rosin explained that unlike in years past, the essence of innovation today is to go fast.

CIOs, Rosin explained, “need to rapidly validate whether this is a good production or not, preferably before you spend all that time and money. Speed is of the essence.”

Rosin provided the example of ViewMyPaycheck as an instance of rapid creation and validation that has resulted in dividends. The payroll solution began as an idea to put secure employee data in the cloud. The self-service site lets employees check their pay stubs, adjust withholdings from their paychecks or check vacation balances. A handful of volunteer Intuit employees were given unstructured allotted time to collaborate and test the application. Within three months, the company was able to release the first version of the application.

“Overall,” Rosin said, “Intuit now has small teams rapidly validating new concepts — getting most initial releases into customer hands in a few months for meaningful learning.”

But speed cannot come at the expense of value. Experiments need to be controlled, according to Erik Brynjolfsson, the Schussel Family Professor of Management and director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and Sloan School of Management.

One of the ways this is done, he claims, is by replicating what is innovative in the business model, into enterprise software. “It’s great to have innovation, but you also need to deliver value and embed that in enterprise software, and scale it to translate innovation into value,” Brynjolfsson explained.

Rosin agrees, saying that the difference between innovation and invention is that the former captures value in new ideas. He thinks that a CIO needs to spend time with the little teams. “Are you just measuring revenue, or are you also celebrating the little things? It’s the culture of putting yourself out there and getting feedback. You measure success from the perspective of the customer and celebrate learning from fast failure,” he said. This is where creative dissent, a big culture change, factors in.

On the other side of things, many CIOs also believe that innovation can be achieved through standardization and common processes, or what Brynjolfsson refers to as the “paradox of standards.”

For example, Anne Margulies, CIO for the commonwealth of Massachusetts, used standardization to pave the way for innovation. Soon after taking the job as CIO, she embarked on a massive restructuring of 100-plus IT agencies across the commonwealth’s executive branch as part of an IT consolidation initiative issued by the governor of Massachusetts. Over a period of three months (each phase of the project is implemented in three-month chunks), she simplified the disparate agencies into a streamlined eight, an example of what she calls “restructuring complexity.” Currently, the initiative is on its last phase of implementation, with 80% consolidation completed.

Margulies believes that centralization is one of the keys to IT innovation because, unlike many other states, the commonwealth of Massachusetts is consolidating at two levels — the infrastructure at the commonwealth level, as well as at the secretariat level — in order to keep application technology close and responsive to the businesses served.

If creative dissent or agile practices are driving innovation, or reducing project complexity at your company, we’d like to hear from you. Email me at

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