Innovate or stagnate: A CIO’s guide to pragmatic innovation

Tested and true advice from a senior leader on how to accelerate from idea to execution.

By Jen Felch, chief digital officer and CIO, Dell Technologies 

Jen Felch, Dell CIO, discusses Dell's application of artificial intelligence to its own business operations on Day One of 2023 Dell Technologies World.
Jen Felch, Dell CDO and CIO, speaking at Dell Technologies World.

As a CIO, you face a choice when confronted with adversity: view obstacles as deterrents or catalysts to drive innovation. Despite supply chain disruptions, cybersecurity risks, financial limitations and climate change, organizations can create a win-win by meeting end-user needs and fostering an authentic and resilient innovation culture. Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” So as an optimist, I thought I would share a few of my observations on how innovation can thrive when the going gets tough. 

Small steps lead to big breakthroughs

 Contrary to popular belief, innovation doesn’t solely stem from bold and disruptive ideas. It starts by identifying problems or opportunities and taking small, pragmatic steps to resolve them. Innovation can be a methodical and committed practice that lays the foundation for future development, efficiency and resilience. 

 For instance, our IT organization has set a Wildly Important Goal (WIG) that serves as the central focus for our entire team. Each member is responsible for a weekly action that contributes to advancing the goal, whether it involves increasing our story output or minimizing security risks. We hold 30- or 60-minute weekly sessions to track progress, reflect on learnings, refine methods, discover new approaches and celebrate achievements. We also share context on the problem itself and its complexity.  This intentional approach enables us to make meaningful impact in small but significant ways, while also fostering a culture of rapid learning. 

Foster innovation in your team members

To create exceptional customer experiences and serve communities in a rapidly evolving landscape, IT organizations need to foster a culture that allows developers, engineers, and other team members to have freedom to think, create, try, fail, and try again. Based on Dell’s Innovation Index*, 78% of respondents say that people join their company because they feel empowered to innovate as much as they want to.  

Building such a culture requires a multitiered approach that includes diverse perspectives, providing the tools and technologies that team members need and want, like GenAI, and investing in opportunities for them to upskill and practice those skills. Remember, people are and will remain the greatest source of creativity.

 Your ability to innovate is only as robust as your process

From the Dell Innovation Index, 2023

Innovative leaders recognize the importance of functional and collaborative processes in driving organizational progress. Encouragingly, half of those surveyed reported that innovation goals were regularly integrated into all departmental and staff objectives. The index also highlighted the importance of data in refining the innovation process, which must include creation, deployment and testing that give way to practical solutions. Innovation is often iterative and faster iterations create moments of quick growth and learning. 

 It’s important to recognize that valuable insights for process improvement can come from formal sources or everyday observations. For example, when we kick started an effort to reduce user incidents by 25%, our development team started actively engaging users, gaining valuable feedback and uncovering blind spots. Whether it’s from hands-on experience or less formal channels like IT tickets, understanding what customers truly aim to accomplish fuels our ability to respond and presents the biggest opportunity for innovation in our work. 

 It’s important to emphasize that innovation is not a guaranteed right; it must be earned by establishing credibility, trust, and a history of delivering results.” Jen Felch, chief digital officer and CIO, Dell Technologies 

   Business-IT partnership fuels customer experience

To enhance operational and technological maturity, leaders must invest in modern, scalable technologies while strengthening relationships between business and IT. According to the index, while 86% of IT decision-makers want innovative technologies, a lack of digital skills can prevent them from using the technology effectively. Additionally, only 55% of business decision-makers regard their IT teams as important business partners.  

 A strong collaboration between business and IT should revolve around the customer and address the requirements of end-users directly. This collaboration should be based on shared data, empowering teams to work together towards the common objective of enhancing the customer experience and promoting innovation.  What we have found is that our common goal is around the customer / user experience and by us all looking from that lens, it is easier for us to collaborate.  As Dell’s IT org, we play a dual role in this collaboration. We are the tech team for our business functions, prioritizing their requirements and optimizing the user experience from the start. Simultaneously, we act as customer zero for our own product group, maintaining a strong feedback loop to develop best-in-class technologies.  

 It’s important to emphasize that innovation is not a guaranteed right; it must be earned by establishing credibility, trust, and a history of delivering results. 

 Embrace the spirit of innovation!

 Over the past few years, we have all witnessed remarkable progress in transforming organizations across industries through pragmatic innovation focused on reducing complexity. This progress underscores the power of aligning people, process and technology as a catalyst for change. We can continue that momentum by bringing together our technical, business and partner teams to collectively define problems and seamlessly integrate customer feedback. By maintaining swift and agile processes with rapid feedback loops, we can accelerate our learning and drive impactful innovation.  

 * The Innovation Index is Dell’s latest research based on responses from 6,600 business and IT leaders across the globe, assesses organizations’ innovation maturity. It is a point-in-time snapshot of how organizations are innovating despite unprecedented uncertainty, after a global pandemic and amidst rampant inflation.