Business leaders are increasingly asked to do more with less AND to increase innovation within their organization – tall order! As companies are more and more reliant on technology to innovate, they get bogged down in support and maintenance tasks, which limits the resources they can allocate to other activities that foster creative thinking and innovation. This in turn creates an environment where good ideas get left behind, because keeping the lights on is seen as more urgent than improving products and services or creating entirely new ones.

Trying to achieve the proper balance between support and innovation can mean compromising at both ends. So how does one avoid this Catch-22? One proven method is to find a service provider to handle your support and maintenance tasks so that you can shift your focus toward innovation. A recent study by US-based market intelligence firm IDC found that IT departments that turned to a service provider for just a third of their application and related administrative tasks were able to double the amount of time spent on developing and implementing innovative products.

Play to your strengths

Best-selling business author and consultant Stephen Shapiro proposes the idea that 20% of your time should be spent extracting 80% of the value in your business. He asks himself: “What would I do if I were only allowed to work one hour every day?”

This a useful exercise, because it forces you to focus on what is truly essential. Every organization is different, so utilizing service providers for specific needs will vary, but the idea is the same no matter the industry you’re in. You need to identify your company’s strengths and then make those strengths the number one priority for your team. The rest, to the extent possible, is delegated or supported by a strategic partner.

Shapiro came up with a tagline for this approach: “Innovate where you differentiate,” i.e. focus on what makes you stand out from your competition. Any activity can be differentiating. We often think of differentiation in terms of competing products (e.g. Apple vs. Samsung smartphones), but some companies set themselves apart through their brilliant customer service (think Amazon) and others by reinventing an existing business model (think Zipcar, which is a twist on the traditional car rental model.) What matters is that you identify what sets you apart so that you can steer your efforts toward those core activities.

So how do you find the right strategic partner for your non-differentiating tasks? You should look to people and organizations for whom these tasks are their key strength, to whom these activities are a differentiator. Service providers are all about enabling your company’s and your people’s strengths. Using the right strategic partners will give you the leverage you need to stay ahead of your competitors.

This approach allows you to create a culture of innovation where your people are empowered to focus on the right challenges for their field of expertise, and you have outside expert talent keeping the roadblocks out of their way.

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This blog is by Andy Papadopoulos of Navantis, now a Datavail company.