“Innovation” is  a tricky term. Even if you have talented people, if you just bring them together and tell them to innovate, it won’t work.

I have found that innovation should be the by-product of solving an actual problem – you will kill yourself trying to succeed if pure innovation is your goal. Google is an interesting example. Their well-known “20 percent time” program encouraged employees to dedicate one day a week to working on a side project that wasn’t part of their job description. It resulted in products such as Gmail and AdSense, but it is also rumored to have generated a lot of crazy products that never went to market. One could also argue that it had a very low ROI for the company considering the number of employees they have. Google smartly put guidelines around the program in 2012 in order to focus on specific development areas and seem to have benefited from that. But it leads us to an interesting question – how do you balance innovation with business goals?

Open and Collaborative Culture

Having the culture to innovate is a key factor. As I have traveled to our offices around the world for my new role here at Citrix, I see why Citrix has been able to successfully evolve over the past 26 years. We have always had our customers’ challenges in mind when developing products, and we have had the culture to enable innovation as a part of the business cycle. I think recently-retired Chief Architect and Senior Fellow (and Citrix employee number 7), Brad Pederson, said it best in a recent interview:

“We wanted to create a culture that was very collaborative and open, where everyone is equal, everyone contributed, everyone had a say, and everyone could make a difference – I would argue that culture continues within Citrix today. I’m proud that Citrix has been able to maintain that original culture. I think most folks in Citrix are trying to do the “right” thing. They are trying to do what they think will benefit the customer, the company and the people they work with – and that’s not true in a lot of companies. It makes it enjoyable to come to work, and that’s why I stayed at Citrix for 25 years….Citrix has really changed the computer software industry and has changed how IT departments do computing. The bottom line is that Citrix has made a difference and now companies are dependent on XenApp, XenDesktop, XenMobile, NetScaler, GoToMeeting, ShareFile and other products – these products have transformed a lot of companies and a lot of industries and have made a real difference.”

After witnessing the way Citrix has impacted the industry with its technologies, it has been fascinating to experience this culture from the inside. A few weeks ago, I went to Bangalore to see the “Rocket Science Fair” that Citrix employees put on to demonstrate their ideas on how to add value to our products in the areas of security, flexibility and experience. There were more than 90 submissions for 45 exhibit spots – and countless great ideas! Here in the U.S., we also have small teams working on ideas to solve customer and business process challenges as part of “Spark Park,” an internal version of our Innovators Program, which helps entrepreneurs develop ideas into businesses. There are also regular internal hackathons, “science fairs” and impromptu design-thinking style team brainstorms at Citrix offices around the world that help shape how we meet the needs of our customers. Solving problems is a big part of the culture and enables us to uncover innovation in unexpected places.

Harnessing Innovation from the Outside

Harnessing outside innovation has also been key to balancing innovation with business goals. At Citrix, we look at customer demand and competitive developments, as well as channel and alliance partner feedback and innovations. Our business development group looks to the marketplace for relevant acquisition targets (such as Zenprise, which turned into our XenMobile solution), while the Citrix Startup Accelerator scouts for cutting edge startups that it can help develop to gain insight for our products. Citrix Labs looks at industry innovation now and on the horizon through applied research, and the Citrix CTO Council leverages the expertise of Chief Technology Officers and other strategic staff from each business unit to analyze critical technology areas and drive disruptive business opportunities. The Customer Experience group brings together design thinking best practices, research, market analytics and content development to help us create products and services that deliver exceptional total customer experiences.

Innovation in the Wild

With all these activities at Citrix dedicated to solving problems for our customers, it is no surprise that our customers are doing cool things. The Citrix Innovation Award given out at Citrix Synergy each year always highlights the best of those stories. In 2008 as a Citrix customer, my former employer Bechtel was a finalist for this award (see the original video here). I think it provides some good insights into balancing innovation.

My team at Bechtel never set out to win any industry awards. We didn’t even realize anyone would view what we were doing as ‘innovative’ – ourselves included. We simply set out to do business differently and lower costs while doing it.

We knew that incremental change was not going to be enough and that we couldn’t continue business as usual. As CIO I made sure the team had the freedom to get on with it. I told them to forget about making mistakes, the buck would stop with me. We didn’t write a business plan and we didn’t ask for extra funds. We just focused on doing the right thing for the business and we aimed big. We knew we were going into new areas such as virtualization, multi-tenant apps and high bandwidth networking, and that we had to think differently. I refer to this as ‘edge innovation’: first establish the problem, then get to the edge of the challenge and identify the real need. Suddenly, you start to come up with very different solutions – and Citrix technology was part of our solution.

It was only when we finished – with 150 times more bandwidth, 25 times more computing capacity and server utilization up from 2.3 percent to 60-70 percent  – that others told us the magnitude of what we’d achieved.

In the end, we didn’t even win the Citrix award, but it gave us an opportunity to have our effort recognized by a wider audience. It showed us to be a pioneering business, which helped to positively impact our internal IT culture, as well as boost recruitment and retention. It changed people’s perceptions of Bechtel as simply an engineering and construction company, and it opened up a wider conversation with our own customers. We went on to be one of the first enterprises to use iPads as a critical business tool, which was also enabled by Citrix technologies (see video here).

The unique Citrix culture that enables innovation will shine through more than ever at this year’s Synergy conference. It is exciting to see some of the cool stuff we are bringing to the enterprise (Mark hinted at some of those things here). So come join us in Orlando May 12-14 and see what problems we have solved for you. Better yet, how does Citrix help you balance innovation? Tell me in the comments here or on Twitter (@Geirheads).