(HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW)
One of the hottest jobs in the C-suite these days is the chief innovation officer, or CINO. Twenty years ago this position was virtually unheard of, but by 2017, 29% of Fortune 500 companies had a senior innovation executive, a study by Egon Zehnder shows. Because the role is relatively new, however, a standard definition of it has yet to emerge. The job’s responsibilities vary a lot, depending upon the company, the business challenges, and the backgrounds of the people filling the roles. Those people include everyone from seasoned executives to one-time academics, star inventors, former investment bankers, creative heads, and founders of start-ups.
As a result, it can be daunting to hire a CINO. How do you know what kind you need? How can you tell who is qualified? The answer begins with clarifying your expectations for the role at your company. Like “strategy,” the word “innovation” represents very different things to different people. So your first task when filling a CINO post is to have a firm grasp on your organization’s innovation objectives.
As corporate advisers and executive recruiters, we’ve helped nearly 80 companies hire senior innovation executives over the past five years and worked with innovators and entrepreneurs across all industries. Along the way, we’ve found that there are six main types of innovation officers. To help companies decide which type would best fit their needs, we’ve put together a “field guide” describing each one. While it won’t give you definitive answers, because each situation is unique and no candidate fits an idealized profile, it will help you understand what type of innovation you’re after and which type of people can best deliver it — which is a good place to start.
Researchers get annoyed that innovation has become the latest buzzword, because they feel it’s what they’ve been patiently doing for years – finding the next big thing. They’re often quieter people and can be recognized by their fondness for lab coats and their impressive array of degrees. They define innovation as “the invention of entirely new things.”
When, while the lovely valley teems with vapour around me, and the meridian sun strikes the upper surface of the impenetrable foliage of my trees, and but a few stray gleams steal into the inner sanctuary, I throw myself down among the tall grass by the trickling stream; and, as I lie close to the earth, a thousand unknown plants are noticed by me: when I hear the buzz.
Researchers use scientific methodology to tame the profusion of ideas and wrest insights from a multitude of data. They thrive in environments where innovation is as much about determining the right questions as it is about finding the answers. They make the best CINOs in organizations where competition demands true step-change advances and for which intellectual property rules are enforceable — such as pharmaceutical, aerospace and defense, and materials-manufacturing companies. In these industries innovations also regularly contend with low success rates and regulatory scrutiny.
To prosper, researchers require generous funding and strong business partners who’ll guide them toward ideas that are not just interesting but lucrative. They also need an organization that’s willing to make near-term investments for longer-term gains.
Unlike the researcher, the engineer has little use for theories. She wants to build something that works right now. Her mode of operation is to tinker with ideas and technology and try things out until something sticks. She defines innovation as “always working to make something a little bit better.” Engineers often hang out in product development departments and can be spotted fixing their own computers — and enjoying the process immensely.
Engineers are passionate about what is possible, impatient with what is not, and bursting with ideas. They focus on hands-on exploration, expert brainstorming, and many (sometimes expensive) tests. They’re most suited to industries where the complexity of technology and its integration create opportunities for myriad incremental improvements and occasional leaps of imagination – like technology hardware manufacturing and the automotive industry.
To be most effective, engineers need to be given a way to evaluate the feasibility and attractiveness of their solutions through prototyping and tests with real customers. Their bosses may also have to rein in engineers’ tendency to chase after every new product, which can lead to chaos if left unchecked.
One of the rarest species of CINO is the investor. The investor sees innovation as the means to an end, and that end is growth. Not just any kind of growth, however — big growth. For investors, successful innovation involves carefully allocating resources in order to optimize selective opportunities. These executives are analytical, financially savvy, data focused, and driven. To spot one, look for someone in traditional business attire crunching a spreadsheet when everybody else is dressed in jeans and huddled over a PowerPoint deck.
Investors thrive in fast-moving environments where innovation can come from any direction — customers, competitors, start-ups, labs — and in many forms, from new markets to better business models to new technology. Their focus is making sense of a mass of complex and conflicting information and betting on the right horse. Consumer goods businesses, whose essential growth task is choosing the right portfolio of innovations, often need this kind of CINO.
To be at their best, investors should partner with a technical expert who can help them assess the feasibility and future potential of ideas, not just their current performance. They must fight their tendency to pay too much attention to short-term results and current capabilities. Investors can be overly focused on numbers and dismissive of big concepts that may take a long time to execute.
Advocates, on the other hand, often start with big aspirations – specifically, the customer’s. They can be identified by their nonconforming clothing and a marketing or design-thinking background. This type of CINO defines innovation as “delivering something new for the customer” and is laser-focused on that goal. Advocates know their customers and are on a mission to explore and fulfill their needs.
Advocates thrive in fast-moving industries with a strong sense of fashion — of what is hot and what is not. Apparel, media, and advertising are obvious examples. Their focus is on keeping the brand relevant, crafting the right identity, predicting the future, and creating buzz, as well as generating sales. They must feel the pulse of the market and stay a step ahead — which requires a high degree of speed and agility.
Advocates are good at delivering immediately usable innovation and sensing where the customers wish to go next – but their obsession with novelty can lead them to pursue too many directions at once. They are best when partnered with a strategist who can discipline their thinking and channel their insights into a long-term course of action.
Out in the corporate wild, it’s common to see organizations getting in their own way when it comes to innovation. This is where motivators come in: They work to unleash the employees’ (and sometimes the customers’) creative spirit. That often involves getting the people and the culture focused on vision and imagination while reducing bureaucracy, complexity, and risk aversion. Motivators can come from many backgrounds (and may even fall into some of the categories already mentioned), but are distinguished by their fascination with narrative, people, and talent — and their friendly texts and voicemail messages. They define innovation as “unlocking the ideas of others.”
Motivators are not generally located in a specific industry. Rather, they tend to be found in organizations that are trying to reinvent themselves. Motivators can skillfully shake up the organization by creating an inviting space for others to innovate within: putting in place the right incentives, organizational designs, and capabilities; and protecting the mavericks while encouraging the quiet voices to contribute.
Bringing about cultural change is difficult, especially if your title isn’t CEO. Motivators often face this task without an explicit mandate or even resources, so the support of the CEO and the board is critical for them.
Organizers believe that processes rule. Identifiable by their color-coded online calendars, adherence to a methodology for “getting things done,” and spotless desks, they focus on the key performance indicators, metrics, and stage gates. They’re often more passionate about doing things properly than about innovation itself. Indeed, they define innovation as “a clear process for coming up with new ideas.”
Organizers can be found most anywhere but are particularly attracted to professional services, academia, and government, fields with many knowledge workers. While they can drive some other types crazy, organizers can be highly valuable in companies where innovation efforts require wide employee participation and the real challenge is adequately managing them. Assuming there are fresh ideas to run through their processes, organizers create momentum, galvanize support, and deftly navigate politics to help innovations go from idea to reality.
Organizers are usually effective – but can also lose sight of the big picture. They need partners who understand customers to help them focus on the right issues – and motivators to help them see when risk taking should prevail.
Now, you may think that your organization needs aspects of all six types described above – and that is likely true. However, we believe you have to prioritize; executives with all six kinds of strengths simply don’t exist, and most firms are unlikely to have the resources to hire every type. By being clear about the kind of innovation your organization needs the most, finding the right candidate, and, ultimately, creating the right habitat — you will set your CINO up for success.