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Chief Innovation Officer? Please no - It's better to reform your Management.

I recently came across more than a couple of companies that have appointed Chief Innovation Officers, (CINO) a role which I find to be an anomaly. Why? Well, to me, it’s an admission that these companies don’t understand the importance of innovation and so carve-out this responsibility and assign a caretaker. That way they can announce, problem solved. If only it was so easy! Lack of innovation results from the leadership failing to create a culture of learning, experimenting and risk taking. I suspect these organizations are bureaucratic and have enough managerial levels for innovation to be lost in the works!

The CINO is expected to “kick butt” and move the organization into recognizing the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex & Ambiguous) world. Is the CINO job different to the other Chiefs in the organization? We have Chiefs of, Technology, Information, Marketing, Finance and People, all reporting to the Chief Operating Officer. These roles have functional responsibilities, staff, budgets and deliverables. The teams are responsible for functional delivery and innovation is their responsibility. After all, innovation will bring new products, systems, processes, allow the organization to compete effectively and develop new markets.

So what is achieved by having a CINO? Well for me, it’s a shout-out that the company does not know where it is going. The company lacks a strategy to stay relevant and therefore a decision is made to bring in someone and dump the problem on his (or her) lap. The CINO is probably given a few staff and he sits alongside the CEO at critical meetings. The CINO will then make the rounds and cajole the leadership team to be more innovative, introducing them to the cool stuff he discovers on travels around the world – virtual and physical. The functional managers are then tasked to implement initiatives, which they will most likely be skeptical about and might even silently resist. The CINO is likely to be constantly fighting for relevance and recognition which he will solicit from the CEO or the Board - a move which will only increase the communication gap with the leadership team. Most importantly the appointment of a CINO represents an abdication of responsibility for innovation by the leadership team, not to mention raising the level of office politics!

Neither Apple nor Google has a Chief Innovation Officer

I watched online Tim Cook’s recent unveiling of the iPhone 7 in San Francisco and was struck by the number of teams that came onstage to present their product enhancements and innovations. Neither Apple nor Google has a CINO and they are doing just fine. In fact, I would argue, they are doing fine because innovation is the responsibility of the entire leadership team and has not been farmed out to the “Officer of Innovation”! Innovation is too critical for all organizations for it to be centralized. Jeff Huber, senior vice president at Google X, says this on innovation; “The core message on innovation is that there is no one thing that you do. There are a set of things, reinforced by the culture of the company, that enable and empower innovation. People often ask, ‘what’s the one thing I can do?’ or they say ‘we’re going to set up an innovation team’ or ‘I’m going to hire a chief innovation officer.’ When I hear that I think — you’re never going to get there; that’s not how it works.

A Chief Innovation Officer

Only adds a level of bureaucracy and complexity for operating managers to overcome and reduces their agility. Most importantly the appointment of a CINO represents an abdication of responsibility for innovation by the CEO and line managers. This was described to me as an “outsourcing” of critical thinking, albeit to an internal hire. Outsourcing innovation is a big mistake that Nokia realized too late, firstly when they outsourced the operating system to Symbian, and then when they relied on Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers to white-label Nokia phones.

Arguments for a Chief Innovation Officer

Alessandro Di Fiore, Founder and CEO of the European Centre for Strategic Innovation in the Harvard Business Review argues that for some large companies a CINO is required in order to have a “powerful executive who can counterbalance the natural killing instinct of a company’s business units and design a more innovation-friendly organizational environment.” I would argue that the flaw is with the management practices at Samsung. To fix the problem they need to inject the entrepreneurship spirit that existed before it was stifled by growth, complexity and more recently the need for compliance. The solution we advocate is the adoption of the nine entrepreneurisms; Self-efficacy, Risk-taking, Passion, Innovation, Opportunism, Learning, Realism, Persuasiveness, and Execution.

CINOs as Change Agents?

Some arguments for this appointment highlight the benefits of having a change agent to drive the learning of innovation across the organization. Why not then have a Chief Learning or Communication Officer, whose job will be to drive more effective learning and communications? I am afraid this argument doesn’t make sense to me. Innovation needs to be embedded into the DNA of the organization, as do the other entrepreneurisms. You might feel you can drive this through training, but often it is the policies and procedures of an organization that stifles innovation. The first stop on fixing this issue is to get the right people. Some organizations have been able to driven innovation through ad-hoc cross-functional teams, picked for competence rather than seniority.

Getting the right people

Well, you need to have the right people in your organization and that means, all the way through, from entry to Board level. Since organizations are not candles, you can start at both ends. Get recruiting managers to get involved in entry-level hiring. Once you have evaluated competence, you need to test for attitude and drive. If you are a CEO who really wants this, then get a couple of independent board members who will bring new entrepreneurial thinking. You already have enough of the compliance folks, who probably fill 100% of the board positions! Success in transformation will require a buy-in by the leadership of the vision, or as we prefer a commitment for the Business Frame, which is “A broadly defined frame that brings together hitherto unconnected capabilities, talents, and opportunities, at the right time, to form the foundation of an enterprise’s exponential growth.” Independent board members with an entrepreneurial mind-set will probably do more to drive innovation across the organization that a CINO. The decision is yours.

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