How Creativity Drives Technology at M. Holland Company

Neil Goodrich uses the principles of improv and fiction writing to create fresh visions for M. Holland Company

IT may have moved out of the proverbial basement in recent years, but the idea that tech workers are primarily there to fix things and develop to business leaders’ specs persists. At thermoplastic distributor M. Holland Company, director of IT and acting CIO Neil Goodrich uses creativity to change the perception of IT in the organization. To do so, he draws on lessons learned from fiction-writing workshops and improv comedy.

At first, Goodrich didn’t have his sights set on a career in IT. He began working toward his BA in criminal justice and his MBA in the late 1990s. In fact, IT wasn’t even in his peripheral vision. Fiction-writing workshops and improv training piqued his interest in college, including visits to Chicago’s Second City theater. After graduation, he worked for several years as a private investigator for an insurance company. Noting his problem-solving abilities, the company began to give him primitive tech-based projects. One such project involved improving the way video footage was transferred from cassettes. Other projects of increasing complexity followed.

“I was always in the problem-solving space,” Goodrich says. “I entered IT as a subject matter expert and ended up being a problem solver. I had no time to reflect on IT as an industry. It just became a natural extension of the things I had done.”

By the time he arrived at M. Holland in 2013, Goodrich had a vision of IT that departed sharply from the norm. Synthesizing many of the principles he had learned in fiction writing and improv comedy, he began to condition his team to be able to act as idea people, not just completers of tasks.

Finding Creativity Within Business Constraints

“When you think about IT in the organization, you’re constrained by the business users’ imaginations,” he says. “In coming up with applications, there are three categories: what would be useful, what’s realistic, and what’s out there in the market. Business users know the first one but not the last two.  IT knows about the last two but, traditionally, not the first one. So, we set out to change that.”

Goodrich realized that part of the problem of changing that perception was that people in IT had never developed the skills or the confidence to participate in business decisions in a meaningful way. Many people who choose the profession tend to be introverts who keep to their defined roles.

“Work doesn’t have to be boring. If you force yourself to do novel things, it keeps those skills sharp.”

But Goodrich believes that all IT people have problem-solving abilities. If employees can marry this ability with greater social adeptness and confidence in what they can contribute, business leaders can begin to see them as value-adding workers who can help in a variety of ways.

“If you look at what makes an effective IT person, whether it’s a network engineer, a business analyst, or a software developer, they are all problem solvers and designers,” Goodrich says. “And if you think about core competencies, problem solving links intrinsically to creativity. We go out of our way to do things that let people practice those creative skills. Work doesn’t have to be boring. If you force yourself to do novel things, it keeps those skills sharp.”

Unexpected Approaches

That’s where improv and fiction writing come into play. Once a month, the IT team gets together and Goodrich leads them in improv exercises. He might ask everyone to take out a piece of paper and draw a person. He then asks them to hand it to the worker next to them to draw a background. Then he’ll ask them to make up a story about the picture on the fly. Once people warm to the improv practice, he might ask them to impersonate a coworker. All this sparks creativity and develops the social ease necessary for team members to bring their ideas to business leaders.

“It’s all in service of feeling comfortable in a social situation, to be able to jump in there and contribute,” Goodrich says. “The tech team is one of the few teams where everybody gets to be a leader all the time. If an executive walks up to the accounting clerk, it’s to tell them to do something. When they walk up to the help desk, it’s, ‘I have this problem. Can you help me?’ And if you’re prepared, no matter what level you’re at, you can demonstrate leadership, comfort, and sociability.”

All of this has wrought tangible change at M. Holland. In the past, IT sometimes waited for a request and kept to the given specs. Now, IT leads the charge in developing new technology. Case in point is the CRM that the organization tasked the team with making soon after Goodrich came on board. Rather than just producing it, there was a long preamble: IT rode along with the salespeople and watched the conversations they had. It led to an epiphany.

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

“We realized that if you watch the interaction between the salesperson and the customer, every question the customer asked, the account manager had to say, ‘I’ll get an answer and call you back,’” Goodrich says. “They had no information at their fingertips, and when they left, the customer was no more satisfied than when they had walked in.”

Goodrich and his team went to the business leaders and said they could produce a CRM with an industry average adoption rate, or they could build a custom app that draws data from all four core systems, and the account manager would have all necessary information at their fingertips. It was a risky proposal, but one that was backed up by observational learning and a unique approach to requirements gathering. The project received the green light, and it became a wild success with users. Not only that, but IT had proven it could contribute on the idea level.

Perhaps the biggest change that has happened since IT began contributing in this way has been the development of a platform that has the customer, rather than the company, in mind. While most portals divert a company’s work to the customer, M. Holland created its portal with the primary goal of making their customer’s life easier.

“There has been a change in perception and thoughtfulness that’s been the output of our influence here,” Goodrich says. “Rather than trying to define the value of technology at the macro level, we look at it through the eyes of the user. We know that if we take the time to understand what the user needs and create a compelling experience, we’ll have higher adoption rates and more satisfied customers. We’ll have products people love to use and that adds up to something big.”