The Rise of the Chief Innovation Officer

Questionable or confusing job titles have long provided fleeting office lunch-break entertainment. A quick search online brings up innumerable lists, featuring classics such as: Senior Information Adviser (otherwise known as a librarian), Wet Leisure Assistant (lifeguard) and Ideation Director (advertising). In this article Harvey Wade, Director, Innovation Strategy at Mindjet, discusses why a job title formerly found at wannabe creative companies is now playing an increasingly recognised and integral role in business.

Not long ago, ‘Chief Innovation Officer’ would have featured fairly highly in the confusing job titles list. However, due to greater competition, tightened budgets and new technology, the importance assigned to innovation as a legitimate and vital business process has been elevated in recent years. But who at the top is responsible for ensuring the infrastructure and procedures are in place to help foster innovation and ensure the company is using every avenue to maximise progress?

Traditionally, CEOs are responsible for business direction and strategy, CIOs for IT and information management and CFOs for cost management and budgeting. Within business departments, incremental innovation is common but in large or diverse organisations, someone is needed to manage the transformational strategic innovation that straddles the entire business, who has buy-in from the CEO and can galvanise the whole workforce.

This is where there’s an opportunity in the C-suite for an executive who links the traditional CEO, CFO and CIO roles. Step forward the Chief Innovation Officer (CINO). Rather than an “executive without portfolio”, the CINO is seen as key to an organisation’s future success. Dr. Jane Snowdon provides a great real-life example, IBM’s first appointed Federal Chief Innovation Officer in May last year.

CINO’s Key Characteristics

The CINO’s key role is to constantly “bang the drum” for innovation, being responsible for identifying and proposing areas where technology, company structure and day-to-day practices can be combined and refined to drive a business towards its corporate goals.

The CINO must be strategically aware and able to operate tactically in the short-term, but be equally comfortable in long-term strategic planning. They will believe in the benefits of innovation, but may not be the creative, innovative thinker. Their key role is to create the environment that enables the innovators to operate to best effect. Today’s CINO is organisational-savvy; they understand how to best operate and who holds the power to get things done.

The combination of people skills, technological wisdom and a greater business understanding isn’t a natural marriage, and is the reason why innovation executives are becoming increasingly sought after.

The combination of people skills, technological wisdom and a greater business understanding isn’t a natural marriage, and is the reason why innovation executives are becoming increasingly sought after.

CINOs can help by addressing several key issues that are still widely missing in the make-up of most organisations. Encouraging cross-company collaboration is a perfect example. Most businesses retain an inherently top-down mind-set. While structurally, there will always be senior leaders and junior employees working their way up, this hierarchical set-up need not apply to innovation. Changing ‘old school’ company culture and negative attitudes towards horizontal collaboration is a big challenge, but one that can be achieved in a number of ways.

Crowdsourcing Innovation

Collaboration allows companies to begin crowdsourcing innovation, ensuring a business maximises the value it gets from its workforce’s creativity. There are several tactics CINOs can use to guarantee participation and results.

Physically, collaboration can be encouraged through intelligent office planning such as relaxed meeting areas. Company-wide innovation can also be fostered virtually through collaborative technology software. Tools like Mindjet’s Spigit allow companies to challenge the whole business, on a global scale, to provide answers to key questions or problems.

Gamification is an increasingly effective method from making a question into a game-like challenge. Innovation projects can be enhanced by scoring systems to encourage gentle competition and participation between employees, or reward schemes introduced – from a simple prize, to career progression incentives – to drive involvement.

The rise of the CINO

The rise of the CINO is backed up by the numbers. A recent survey showed that 43% of large companies have a formally accountable innovation executive in place, up from 33% in 2011. CINO’s even have their own website! With corporate competition intensifying in the post-recession era, and innovation increasingly sought after to stay ahead, it is highly unlikely we’ll be seeing Chief Innovation Officer appearing on ‘ridiculous job title’ lists anytime soon.

By Harvey Wade

About the author

As Director of Innovation Strategy at Mindjet, Harvey Wade provides strategic direction and support to Mindjet’s key clients, as they engage their workforce and customers to identify ideas that solve and overcome key challenges. Based in the UK, he has over 17 years’ experience in the financial services sector, working for Commercial Union, CGU, Aviva and Allianz Insurance, where he designed, set up and ran the employee ideation and innovation program. He is a graduate of Warwick University with a bachelors in Chemistry.