02 April 2010

Adversity Drives Innovation

Economic downturns are commonly viewed as a time of retrenching and cut-backs, but they're also times of intellectual ferment and innovation. While budget cuts and scaled back programs create adversity, there remains a job to do and customers to satisfy.

The issue is how to accomplish this with fewer available resources.
To do this you have to get creative, and adversity catalyzes the process. It is the gap between available resources and demand that drives innovation, creativity, and opportunity.

In the words of J.C. Maxwell, “adversity motivates.” Maxwell’s "Benefits of Adversity" identifies the positive attributes of adversity:

1. Adversity creates resilience;

2. Adversity develops maturity;

3. Adversity pushes the envelope of accepted performance;

4. Adversity provides greater opportunities;

5. Adversity prompts innovation;

6. Adversity recaps unexpected benefits;

7. Adversity motivates.

The present downturn is no exception. IT managers face budget and headcount cuts, yet the companies for which they work cannot stop running. Leveraging investments in existing infrastructure, minimizing major new capital investments, and recouping savings from company operations are the new marching orders. If satisfying existing needs was good enough then the task at hand would be straightforward – weather the adverse economic climate by cutting as much spending and headcount as possible.

But in business it isn't that simple. The end of any downturn is followed by an uptick that will require increased IT services. Cut too far today and IT won’t be able to respond tomorrow. Business will suffer - again. IT managers must therefore be cognizant of the future and look at changes and cuts with an eye towards their impact on a future recovery.

This begs the question – is it possible to batten down the hatches to survive the current economic storm while laying the foundation for a future recovery? The answer is yes...but the challenge to doing so, surprisingly, is neither technological nor monetary but conceptual.

Doing more with less requires a new way of thinking about problems. In the IT world it means reconsidering the value of overbuilding complex, expensive infrastructure. In this market, in this economy, the first priorities need to be streamlining costs, boosting productivity, and enhancing efficiency.

A simple example will drive home the point. To lower costs, most enterprises are reducing their real estate footprints. Today 88% of employees work somewhere other than the corporate headquarters - many hotel in branch offices, work from home, or work on the road. The traditional way in which these remote users would be served is with a branch router
. This paradigm might be acceptable for a large office but it's outrageously expensive for a branch of just a few people.

The challenge is how to network a large and growing remote workforce in an environment focused on cost reduction. It is here that adversity catalyzes innovation. By standing the problem on its head and saying the real issue is how we enable mobility at low cost for a large number of users - not how we connect a branch office - new, non-traditional solutions emerge.

To a router vendor every problem ends with a hardware-based solution - it is the proverbial key under the streetlight.
Reconstituting the problem expands the area of illumination, revealing, for instance, that cloud-computing and virtualization are new options not previously considered.

Simply reframing a question can open a completely new set of solutions. Adversity forces the process by highlighting the inadequacy of
the “old school” way of thinking and opening the door to innovative new solutions. Ones that focus on today's needs instead of yesterday's answers.