How to drive innovation in a hybrid world

Three tech experts discuss balancing freedom and frameworks to nurture creativity.
Lightstorm Entertainment CIO Tim Bicio at Dell Technologies World 2023

Producing a blockbuster movie like Avatar takes a lot of moving parts. Tim Bicio should know. The CTO of Lightstorm Entertainment, a production company co-founded by filmmaker James Cameron, has seen creatives around the world collaborating on massive projects, logging up to 19 hours a day.

Digital innovation underwrites all creative processes in Hollywood, Bicio said, so it’s hard to decouple innovation from everyday processes.

Innovation might form the DNA of creative movie production teams, but in many other enterprises, it can take a lot more effort. The findings from the Dell Innovation Index, a survey of 6,600 innovation influencers in organizations across 45+ countries are worth noting: Sixty-four percent say aspects of their company’s culture are holding them back from being as innovative as they want to or can be. More than half (57%) of respondents worry that their organization will not be relevant in 3-5 years.

People: Innovation culture

So, what does it take to seed innovation in companies that need more catalysts? Give the familiar “People, Process and Technology” mantra a fresh look, advised innovation leaders.

Develop a culture that gives all employees room to innovate, suggests Jen Felch, CDO and CIO at Dell Technologies. “Tech leaders and their actions define the culture of what we do every day. They help shape solutions and mindset,” Felch pointed out.

In shaping culture, tech leaders can set the stage by creating a mindset where failure is acceptable on the path to successful innovation. Worrying about failure can inhibit employees and stifle growth; a sound innovation culture recognizes that failure comes with the territory.

In addition, companies need to “build a culture of respect for one another regardless of rank and skill set,” Bicio said, “if people feel respected, they’ll take a chance at innovation. And if they fail at that, they know they won’t be shamed into not trying again. It’s important to give everyone an opportunity to prove themselves,” Bicio said.

An opportunity to prove themselves is a key catalyst to spur innovation in today’s hybrid workplace, where one-in-three remote workers feel forgotten and struggle to collaborate and effectively pitch ideas remotely, according to the Dell Innovation Index.

Bicio paid kudos to Lightstorm’s founders for giving creative teams free rein to innovate and play to their strengths. “Jim Cameron has expectations of us; he sets a vision for his films and pretty much leaves it up to the individual teams to backfill and sort out and resolve any problems,” Bicio said.

Process: Setting clear frameworks

Dell Chief Digital Officer & CIO Jen Felch at Dell Technologies World 2023

Ensuring the right culture and making space for innovation can be exciting, but too much freedom can be confusing too, Felch said. Instead, companies should have processes in place and draw boundaries and frameworks within which to nurture innovation. “You need a clear vision for where you’re headed so each group has the freedom to create and be innovative in their given functions [and boundaries] and know how to connect when they see additional opportunities,” Felch said. She added that companies need to identify table stakes for execution and areas that can accommodate innovation.

Digital transformation thought leader Helen Yu likened innovation to an orchestra with the tech leader serving as conductor. “As an IT leader, you show the team the music to play. At every individual level, the musician still has to play the part. You can be creative in playing the part, but you have to make sure you’re doing so within that framework,” she said.

Teams must also understand the context of all work, especially for innovation. If you’re told to simply build a button in a software app, that might be boring. But if you’re given context—the “whys”, —the experience might nurture creativity. “Innovation comes from having context, curiosity and then the freedom to create,” Yu pointed out.

Technology: IT infrastructure for innovation

In today’s complex hybrid and fast-paced work environment, the right technologies can facilitate innovation. The role of technology, Bicio said, is to “keep the lights on” and facilitate collaboration.

“With creative teams, we have to make sure there’s never an impediment to work; we want to make sure data’s where it needs to be before it’s even needed. So a lot of our innovation comes from anticipating what things we can automate to make sure that all the sleds are greased, and everything is in place,” Bicio said. Having automation take care of the busy work leaves Bicio’s team with time to react to incidents should they arise. “The hope is that with the time free of busy work, we’re now innovating further and further,” he said.

It’s a fine needle to thread for Bicio and his team as they have to leverage technology to facilitate collaboration between geographically dispersed workers while ensuring process security. “We worry about security and a number of other elements, including keeping our intellectual property secret and keeping the effect of going to see a movie new and exciting,” Bicio said.

Technology acts as an enabler: “It helps us innovate, to do things that used to be impossible,” Yu said. To make innovation a habit among all talent, hybrid or otherwise, strategize, streamline, and synergize, Yu advised. Strategize your IT investment with innovation initiatives that generate long-term business outcomes. Make it measurable. And then streamline your infrastructure and processes to make innovation more scalable and repeatable. Finally, synergize actions between IT and business leaders, making sure they’re on the innovation journey together, Yu recommended.

When people, process and technology work together in harmony, the result is sheer innovative magic—much like a Hollywood blockbuster.

The session in its entirety can be viewed below.

Lead photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash