I Love You, I Love You Not… (Our short-lived romance with Chief Innovation Officer)

105 Daisy,Daisy

Oops! It turns out that we don’t love a Chief Innovation Officer anymore. Just a short time ago, Chief Innovation Officers (CINO as per popular abbreviation) were heralded as a new frontier in innovation management. Considered a missing link between the perennially aloof CEO and enthusiastic crowd of innovation rank and file, they have been promoted as a panacea for all corporate innovation ills.

It’s over now. In a recent post, Stefan Lindegaard calls on companies to “shy away from the Chief Innovation Officer role.” Lindegaard’s own prescriptions to improve corporate innovation process are curious though. First, he wants companies to “go all-in on digital” (whatever that means) and replace a CINO with a Chief Digital Officer. Second, he proposes to trash the very term “innovation” and replace it with something else (he suggests “transformation”). OK, now I at least understand why innovation has been difficult for so many organizations for so long: they’ve been using wrong terminology.

George Bradt of Forbes doesn’t like CINOs either: not only he considers CINOs “useless” for the innovation process; he calls them “utterly counterproductive.” His argument is simple: “If one person is in charge of innovation, everyone else are not.”

This is a strange argument. What about other C-level functions? Does the role of the CEO imply that no one in the company can make an executive decision? Does the role of the CMO imply that he or she is the only person involved in marketing efforts? Does the role of the CFO deprive everyone else of fiscal responsibility? Unfortunately, Bradt doesn’t explain what is so unique about the CINO role that it effectively shuts down innovation in the rest of the company.

Bradt’s hostility towards CINOs seems to be rooted in his belief that “everyone can and must innovate.” It’s not a secret that the “innovation is everyone’s responsibility” point of view is very popular, due to its perfectly democratic and egalitarian appeal. And yet, it’s completely wrong. Bradt and other believers in “innovation holacracy” confuse innovation with operational improvement. True, in any organization, everyone from a janitor to a division head can improve his or her performance in such a way that it’ll benefit the whole organization. But innovation is not any improvement; innovation is a strategic process of improving the company’s products, services and business models.

Not everyone can do that because not everyone has skills, experience and access to proprietary corporate information to understand the company’s strategic goals. And not everyone must do that because not everyone has an authority to allocate resources required to implement strategic decisions.

No, I’m not saying that innovation should be restricted to a limited number of corporate executives. Quite to the contrary, what makes a company truly innovative is its ability to harness the “collective wisdom” of all of its employees. And that’s where the role of a Chief Innovation Officer (or whatever fancy label one might stick to this person) becomes crucial. Because things, be it innovation or any other corporate process, don’t happen by themselves; they need to be planned, executed, monitored and repeated. Because anyone who understands how corporations work would tell you that when everyone is in charge, no one is.

Some time ago, I wrote about ways we fake innovation. Incidentally, I mentioned that we’re faking innovation when we appoint a Chief Innovation Officer, but give him or her neither line authority nor fixed budget. I’d like to add here that we’re equally faking innovation when we replace discussing the nuts and bolts of innovation process with a childish game of calling names.

Image credit: “1395 Daisy” by Diana Marshall (http://paintingthedayaway.blogspot.com/2011_01_01_archive.html)

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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