Leaders' Insights - Innovation isn't all Lava Lamps & Beanbags

Chief Innovation Officer for IBM's Global Technology Services business in UK & Ireland,Danny Williams talks about his views on Innovation Strategy and Leadership as someone with over 20 years' experience in various roles with IBM.
Published on: 10th December 2015
Danny Williams will speak on the same theme at the annual Global Innovation Leaders 2016 summit next March 2016, as well as hosting a Think Tank on Effective Innovation Governance: How To Make Innovation Really Happen.

You have over 20 years’ experience at IBM, with leadership roles covering IT and innovation, and are presently the Chief Innovation Officer at IBM UK Global Technology Services. Based on your extensive experience, what are the key pieces that need to be in place when translating creative ideas into deliverable projects?

The first thing that has to be in place when leading innovation is an agreement on scope. Most organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas but when starting out on the innovation journey many don’t focus on what really matters. Trying to innovate across an entire organisation is challenging so I find it helpful to work with key sponsors to agree which part of the organisation would most benefit from a focus on innovation. I find it’s helpful to have a sponsor for the overall innovation programme and, as an idea progresses, to find a sponsor to help drive the idea to a successful conclusion. I have a simple definition of a sponsor: someone who cares and has budget. If the sponsor is not motivated about an idea then they won’t grant it the support you need; and if they don’t have budget or a way of securing the resources you require then it is unlikely to succeed.

Leaders' Insights' Innovation isn't all Lava Lamps & Beanbags
When working on an innovation initiative I have found that there are some additional elements that make a big difference. The first is mentors: the people working on the initiative might not have all of the technical and business knowledge that they require so having a team of experienced professionals who can guide the innovation team and answer their questions had proven to be incredibly helpful. Direct client contact is critical to ensuring that the team delivers what the client actually needs. It’s far too easy to make assumptions about scope and requirements and end up delivering something that is way off the mark. Just like agile projects benefit from regular playbacks, so do innovation initiatives. In addition to client feedback I have found that peer review whilst
the initiative is progressing is extremely valuable. One innovation programme I am involved with runs projects that last for twelve weeks. Each week the innovation teams present their progress to an audience who are not involved in the projects. This provides objective feedback on the viability of the idea, the approaches being taken and a source of additional ideas and support when needed.

“Innovation is a team sport in which everybody needs to play an active and positive part.”

Tools are another useful ingredient – for the overall programme and for individual initiatives. I have been involved in several online idea generation events, which provide an opportunity for a large number of people to suggest ideas and discuss them. Collaboration tools are helpful for gathering and discussing the ideas, and analytics tools are helpful for identifying key themes and popular ideas. When working on an initiative I have found that providing teams with a set of technical tools helps them to focus on what really differentiates the initiative. For example a development and DevOps platform can provide the IT infrastructure and middleware that the teams need so that they don’t need to spend valuable time building and managing environments. Methods such as design thinking enable the teams to really understand what they are creating and who they are creating it for.

The last factors I’ll mention are less tangible but no less important: Energy, Enthusiasm and Excitement. Innovation is hard work – to misquote Thomas Edison: “Innovation [Genius] is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration”. Often I find innovation initiatives are a side-project. They lack the focus and time of the participants, who are often not motivated to really drive them to a successful conclusion. If you want innovation to succeed in your company then the people who work on the initiatives need to have time and encouragement. Many people who work on innovation initiatives are highly self-motivated but without the proactive support of sponsors, clients and mentors they are unlikely to succeed. Innovation is a team sport in which everybody needs to play an active and positive part.

As Chief Innovation Officer, you have a strategic overview and reach across all of IBM’s lines of business. What do you perceive to be the biggest factor in IBM’s success in sustaining innovation, and how does innovation fit into its business model?

The biggest factor by far is the quality and type of people who work for IBM. Innovation requires people to have depth and breadth of experience. If you’re an expert in one particular area then that’s useful but if you also have experience in many other areas then you are able to start seeing the bigger picture. Depth can be in a particular technology, industry or capability. Breadth is about working in many different teams, across multiple disciplines. Without the deep, expert thinking people don’t develop the analytical thinking and problem solving skills required to deliver successful innovation. And without the breadth people can struggle to adapt to new situations and communicate with diverse groups of people.

You could argue that Innovation is IBM’s business model – the company has reinvented itself many times in its 100+ year history. This understanding of the need to adapt to changing client needs and new markets drives the employees to regularly find new ways get things done. Sometimes these are large innovations such as inventing the hard disk or computers that can beat the experts at Chess and Jeopardy. More often these are smaller scale innovations focussed on improving an existing technology or process. Every year IBM Research produces the Global Technology Outlook where significant technology trends are identified. The GTO is used within IBM to define our technological areas of focus and investment. However, innovation at IBM does not just happen within our company. We have an ecosystem that includes many academic institutions, clients and partners who we work with to generate ideas and collaborate to deliver new products, services and business models. At the upcoming Global Innovation Leaders 2016 summit, you will be delivering a presentation titled “Innovation Isn’t all Lava Lamps and Beanbags.” Briefly, can you describe what you mean by this, and highlight a couple of the key points participants can expect to learn from?

My presentation will be about the importance of both the creative and methodical aspects of innovation. Generating ideas is a creative exercise that requires a certain mind-set and environment to be productive. Delivering the innovations requires a shift into a more traditional project delivery behaviour, without which you just have a set of great ideas but no real outcomes. I will discuss different approaches for idea generation as well as elements I have seen as critical to the successful delivery of innovation.


Danny is the Chief Innovation Officer for IBM’s Global Technology Services business in UK & Ireland. He leads his clients and colleagues to define joint innovation agendas and deliver innovation projects that are of mutual benefit. He brings Technical Leadership and IT Architecture skills to help his clients translate innovative ideas into delivered projects. Danny also teaches Innovation Leadership, IT Architecture, and Technical Leadership classes. Outside of work, he devotes most of his free time to his young family – any other spare time is taken up with running and cooking and, if he’s particularly lucky, snowboarding.
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