Chief Innovation Officer: How will the Role Evolve?

Debating the pros and cons of the Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) has become irrelevant, since the position now enjoys widespread recognition and support across nearly all business sectors. For 2017, a more pertinent discussion is exactly how the CINO post will evolve, as forward-looking companies endeavor to break down silos while also leveraging relationships with external entities as growth vehicles.

Organic vs. Inorganic

For the CINO of the future, one potential model is the centralized executive, which envisions control of all innovation across the entire enterprise. This would, quite literally, be the owning of every new idea and next-gen development, regardless of division or line of business.

Such a purist construct is ultimately doomed, in part because the information volume would be too great to be effectively managed by a single individual, and also because it suffocates the creative power vested in so many other roles. If you accept the premise that a company is really no more than the transfer of ideas, this centralized model would represent the placing of excessive responsibility in one pair of hands. A particular CINO may be very capable, perhaps even gifted – but they can’t be omniscient.

The federated model

An alternative is the federated CINO model – an executive who isn’t expected to be the sole source of innovation. Instead, this individual provides instruction, while also connecting disparate groups or people for mutual benefit. It’s certainly preferable that the head of each business line or division be allowed to own their group’s innovation, while making necessary decisions on investment and development. For instance, if a given group enjoys better margins, it can afford to be more aggressive in terms of reinvestment strategies.

Under the federated model, the CINO is a facilitator, but not the primary originator of innovation. Instead, the executive enables innovation by educating and cross-fertilizing across the entire business. As a result, new products or systems remain within the division or unit that developed them, with everyone recognizing that the ideas might never have come to fruition without the counsel and guidance of the CINO.

Whether the future of the CINO role takes more of a federated or centralized direction, its impact within companies will continue to expand. It already fulfills two crucial yet distinct connection functions, one focused on internal invention and one trained squarely on external enterprises.

Inward-looking innovation

Perhaps above all else, an effective CINO will break down their company’s silos by working with all members of management, and at varied seniority levels. The end goal is cultivation of an unparalleled perspective on innovation trends across the entire business. This level of awareness is invaluable, particularly in an organization actively attempting to move away from a traditional, hierarchical structure in favor of decentralized groups that collaborate and share information.

In such a case, the CINO can potentially be a catalyst to seismic change, both for the operating model and in the office culture. Journalist and writer Malcolm Gladwell may have expressed this need for collaboration most succinctly: “Innovation – the heart of the knowledge economy – is fundamentally social.”

Outward-looking innovation

Innovation doesn’t always emerge from within, so the CINO must have “ears to the ground” and be a point-of-access for external third-parties. The quickest route to growth is often through connection with – and possibly even acquisition of – start-ups and other groups, before perceived value makes them inaccessible. Google, Amazon, and Pay-Pal have each embraced this approach as a strategy, and regularly demonstrate its impact.

The CINO often is empowered to facilitate the establishment of such partnerships and to make various investments that streamline innovation development. It’s increasingly common, for example, for banks to outsource vital innovation programs to external fintech companies. The CINO not only has to manage the resource, but also ensure integration with other related internal functions, including marketing, digital, technology, and customer care.

The CINO is not R&D

One necessary caution on the future of the CINO role is avoiding a drift toward becoming an R&D officer. Both roles are essential, and there needs to be a strong bond between them. The key to success is sharing of a knowledge platform, with the CINO focusing on shorter horizons and commercialization, and being prepared to pivot as needed to accommodate the pace of change.

In contrast, R&D requires a longer horizon, and the development of more radical breakthroughs. Some of these will inevitably be more fanciful than practical, yet all contribute to “pushing the envelope” and sustaining a long-term competitive edge.

Marlin Hawk has designed and implemented CINO offices across multiple sectors, while managing searches that discover the best talent to lead them. Our experience suggests that the CINO position will become increasingly prominent in the future, as it’s not just about creating ideas, but making ideas happen. Whatever the latest epoch-making shift, businesses must be ready to embrace change and work collaboratively to be part of it … rather than becoming the debris that’s left behind.




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