I was doing some strategic planning for a company, preparing to lead an exercise on emerging technologies. The question of how to approach the topic in the forthcoming executive workshop was my first challenge. Is this a solution looking for a problem or is this a problem looking for a solution?
I have observed, and been a part of, teams who present new technology to executive teams, only to be quickly dismissed as 'too blue sky' or 'very interesting but we need to focus on our business'. As a CIO I have also been in the position of being challenged as to why IT is not leading the business in the application of the latest technological trends (that the board may have read about in various business journals). So where to start... define the business need or show the art of the possible?
Having got burned in the past by trying to tell the business executives what their problems and opportunities were - they can get very defensive and also pedantic - I decided to go for an initial wow factor by demonstrating some new technology that was not directly relevant to their business but interesting to them personally, as consumers. They were immediately engaged and momentarily distracted from their strategy session by calling out instructions to me in using the software. The CEO even took control of the iPad and I had to fight to retain control.
At the end of the fun part, I told the group that I had just demonstrated a business application that used 5 new technologies - cloud computing, big data, social media, crowd sourcing, and mobile computing. This ticked the boxes of most of the topics they had in their heads and led nicely into a short discussion of what they were and how they were being used. So having done the 'solution looking for a problem' bit, I now needed to quickly relate these technologies to the opportunities for their business.
The innovation task force had some prepared ideas for research projects based on what they knew of the emerging 5 year strategy and the opportunities for the business. We now changed the language from technology trends to business questions, such as: How will our customers want to engage with us in the next 5 years? How do we deliver significant efficiency savings? How can we find new clients?
For each business question, a different 'expert' presented the opportunity by first showing what the best non-sector application looked like, then some competitor activity and then a recommendation for the business. There was no attempt to put costs, time and benefits on the recommendations - it was important to stay at the strategic level. We then asked the group to rate the relative importance of each technology research project. This was a good way of getting feedback on the ideas without having to provide investment commitment (that came later in an operational meeting).
The executive team left the session more informed about the new technologies and gained an understanding of how they may be applied to their business. For the IT team, they were able to demonstrate their knowledge and expertise of new technology as well as their understanding of the business. They had a prioritised list of research projects, with potential sponsors, ready for the funding debate.
So in this instance, the egg came first but was closely followed by a large chicken that laid multiple eggs!