Want innovation in your enterprise? Put someone in charge of it


Back in January I wrote about ways that organizations can build cultures of innovation, citing three specific tips culled from an article by consulting group LEAD Innovation Management:

  • Communicate a vision
  • Educate and train
  • Reward successful outcomes

But there’s another valuable piece of advice that neither I nor LEAD Innovation Management mentioned: If your goal is to create and sustain a culture of innovation, it’s important for someone to take charge of the initiative. For a growing number of enterprises today, that means a chief innovation officer.

My former colleague Esther Shein recently talked with some experts for CIO about how chief innovation officers can drive enterprise innovation. Two of the most important things that they can do is coordinate (and push for) resources and bring some focus to innovation efforts.

“Effective chief innovation officers start off by coaching their teams,” she writes. This helps ensure that innovation projects are aligned with the organization’s strategic goals. As Dr. Nils Olaya Fonstad, a research scientist at MIT’s Center for Information Systems Research, tells Shein, “The role of the chief innovation officer is to instill that discipline and coach teams on what types of insights do they expect to realize from the next iteration.”

Chief innovation officers also may have to educate fellow C-suite members and business unit leaders who may have different ideas about innovation and the necessary resources. That often means clashes with the other CIO.

“If you put a chief information officer and a chief innovation officer at the table, it would be a struggle,” Timothy Wenhold, chief innovation officer at Power Home Remodeling Group in Chester, Pa., tells Shein.

To be effective, chief innovation officers must establish innovation priorities to management and workers. “Prioritizing projects based on need and resources is very important to ensure minimal disruption to business performance,” says Karan Singh, principal chief innovation officer at Los Angeles-based business consulting firm Kersch Partners.

So what type of skills does an effective chief innovation officer need? Business consultant and author Phil McKinney lists five traits of a successful chief innovation officer. They are:

  • High credibility

This means they are respected both by employees and other executives in the organization. Otherwise there’s going to be resistance and possibly even subversion.

  • See and communicate the future

Wouldn’t this be a useful trait for just about anybody? Just saying! McKinney’s point here is that a chief innovation officer should “have a good predictive sense based on their experience in the market, and be able to see where a market might be going, identify future product needs, and contemplate how those needs will be filled.”

  • Drive ideas and action

As a chief innovation officer, McKinney argues, “you’re a team leader first and foremost.” And good leaders produce positive results.

  • Overcome innovation obstacles

Change is scary to many people, executives and employees alike. The chief information officer must “have the ability not only to function as the leader of a team, but also to identify those team members who are resistant to change and figure out why, and what it will take to disarm them,” McKinney says.

  • Build and bridge connections

When your job spans an entire organization — and even beyond to include partner organizations — being a great communicator and collaborator is imperative.

A dissenting opinion

Not everyone, however, is on board with the concept of a chief innovation officer. Writing in Forbes, contributor George Bradt is having none of it!

“The whole premise behind a Chief Innovation Officer goes beyond useless to completely and utterly counterproductive,” he says. “Innovation is too important to be left to the Chief Innovation Officer. Everyone must innovate.”

I get Bradt’s point, but I’d argue that the value of a chief innovation officer is not just to drive innovation, but to serve as a reminder that innovation must be an ongoing priority. After all, it’s way too easy for executives and business-unit employees to get bogged down in day-to-day activities. Sometimes just keeping the trains running is a full-time job in itself.

One thing is sure: With or without a chief innovation officer, enterprises in the digital economy must continually innovate or gradually become irrelevant.

What do you think? Do you believe it’s good for organizations to have a chief innovation officer? Feel free to leave a comment below.


  1. While I agree that companies need a Chief Innovation Officer, I think their job is to intentionally create a culture that supports innovation from everyone in the company. This CIO should be cultivating tools, creating processes and coaching teams that are pursuing innovative ideas. They should hold the vision for what innovation look likes in action but they should not be predicting the future or envisioning new products because then they are competing with the very people they need to be supporting. But they should have a non-opinion-based framework for assessing new ideas and managing investment in a portfolio of innovation projects – they should have an instinct for what would have an impact coming from their company playing into their market. In many ways they may be closer to a Chief Design Officer than CIO – the two CIO’s complement each other, have mutual dependencies. And this CIO should be bit more HR-ish, knowing what it takes for a team to be successful when pursuing innovation.

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