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In the dynamic landscape of the 21st century, businesses must adopt a strategy that actively fosters and champions innovation at its core to achieve growth and secure a prime market position. In this environment, Chief Information Officers (CIOs) have emerged as powerful change agents and key strategists driving innovation and growth within their companies.

During the last three decades, Netflix, Airbnb, Uber, and Disney have significantly disrupted market dynamics, becoming global industry leaders and setting the bar for entertainment, accommodation, growth, and most importantly, innovation. 

In his 2019 memoir “The Ride of a Lifetime,” former Disney CEO Bob Iger referenced the business guru Peter Drucker’s famous quote, “If you don’t innovate, you die.” This quote has become more than a cliché, it has become our new reality, and these examples illustrate how disruptive innovation drives growth and economic value.

The changing role of the CIO as an innovation driver  

CIOs are uniquely positioned to act as their organisation’s de facto “orchestrator in chief”.  Once pigeonholed as the guardians of IT and the geeks in the backroom, CIOs are now at the forefront of actively driving innovation across the organisation’s value chain. 

They aren’t just contemplating the next systems upgrade or how to cut operational costs: they have become thinking partners to the entire executive team, aligning technology change to business goals, improving customer experience, influencing business models and product development, and shifting organisational cultures.

Yet, many organisations still treat innovation as an event; viewing it as a sprint, a hackathon, or a few strategically placed mentions in an Annual Report.

Sanlam believes that innovation is not merely an idea or an event; it’s a practice. In his book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell popularised the idea that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. This rings true for innovation. Just as a pianist who doesn’t practice scales or a swimmer who doesn’t do laps in the pool cannot truly be called a pianist or a swimmer, you cannot be considered an innovator if you aren’t regularly practicing innovation. 

The art of mobilising the organisation and instilling a culture of innovation involves encouraging and rewarding creativity, allowing employees to experiment and take risks, promoting open communication, and supporting cross-functional collaboration. It’s about valuing and embedding innovation into the organisation’s DNA. 

But driving innovation is not just about mobilisation, it also asks you to incessantly question why you are doing things in a certain way, and then to remove, for example, a process if it no longer adds value. And this requires thought and nuance and yes, often also bravery.

The power of why 

Sanlam’s Innovation Council has embraced this way of thinking, encouraging our employees to collaborate across different functions and levels of the organisation, whilst actively discouraging siloed conduct. We initiate and support activities that reignite “the power of why”, or the instinctive urge to question, like group-wide hackathons, where we encourage colleagues from diverse business areas like HR and Legal to participate and explore new ideas with out-of-the-box thinking. Similarly, we promote an environment where they feel comfortable making mistakes, knowing that it’s acceptable to learn from errors, make adjustments, and then move on.  

To develop propositions and solutions that resonate with customers, we also capitalise on the skills of other stakeholders in our ecosystem. We’ve extended this collaborative model to include Realm Digital, one of our external technology suppliers. As trusted partners, they bring diversity and fresh perspectives to the table; challenging the status quo and expediting the development and delivery of innovative solutions. 

We also employ our Innovation Council to harness the collective strengths and know-how of our colleagues at AfroCentric, a black-owned investment holding company with significant interests in the healthcare market, and in which Sanlam acquired a controlling shareholding in 2023. Their valuable insights as key Council members enable us to better deliver on the complete customer journey in the employee benefits space. 

An effective CIO not only conceives and develops but also has to deliver and scale new products, services, processes, and business models for customers. One of the biggest challenges in a big organisation like ours is getting teams to take innovative use cases beyond the hackathon and embed them into the business.  

Overcoming fear as a barrier to innovation

To deliver and scale effectively, constantly asking what destroys innovation is important. Research conducted by McKinsey showed that three fears may hamper corporate innovation more than anything else: fear of criticism, fear of uncertainty, and fear of negative impact on one’s career. 

Fear is a complex topic and there’s no innovation if you operate out of fear of the new or untested. What intimidates some can motivate others to act boldly, and I was not surprised that the fear of career impact emerged as the biggest barrier to innovation.  When employees believe their decisions can put their advancement or compensation at risk, they become reluctant to invest fully or to “gamble” their careers on innovation.

One way of alleviating this career concern is by making innovation an explicit requirement of professional success. By building a sense of belonging and safety through a shared commitment to innovation, we assure employees that it’s OK to experiment, ask questions, and provide feedback. And that it’s OK to use your imagination at work. 

Innovation is the new competitive advantage, and as growth and securing a prime market position becomes more challenging, companies increasingly depend on imaginative ideas to create new demand. Organisations that foster an enabling environment to stay ahead of the curve and manage to innovate across their entire value chain, will yield substantial, and cumulative returns.  DM/BM

By Ashley Singh, CIO at Sanlam Corporate.


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