Established Company Looking for Chief Innovation Officer

by Michael Hugos on March 30, 2014

Innovation means change and change is a delicate proposition. A headhunter retained by a brand name information services company wanted to get my thoughts about a new position they were doing a search for. She described her client as an established company more than 100 years old that is looking for a global head of innovation. The person in this position would oversee the operations of some 350 people; would be looked upon as a “change agent” and would report to the company COO. This new person would have the attention of the CEO and might even rise some day to become CEO themselves. Salary was negotiable she said, and she threw out some very large dollar amounts that were being talked about.

Then she stopped and invited me to comment. The big salary numbers got my attention but what did they imply? What kind of opportunity was this really?  I feel my pulse quicken when I see an opportunity to step into a situation and win fame and fortune. I find myself so eager that I have to remember to check and see if there really is an opportunity before I go charging in. For starters, experience shows me that the life of a change agent tends to be short (but eventful). So, using a historical analogy, I explained to her that during the Napoleonic Wars the band of soldiers who went first to charge a heavily defended enemy position was referred to as the “forlorn hope” (for obvious reasons), yet the officer commanding this group, if he survived, was almost guaranteed a promotion and a long term boost to his career. I said I agreed that the person in this new position should certainly be paid well as long as they lasted because chances are excellent they won’t last very long. Then I tried to get a sense of how long this person might last.

Administering Innovation and Leading Innovation are Two Different Things

To see what I could find out, I told the headhunter I had a few questions. The first question was about the actual function of the person in this position. Is this person going to administer a process of innovation or are they going to actually lead the process? It’s such an obvious question but it’s often overlooked. Here’s another historical analogy to illustrate what I mean. The Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bombs during World War II was certainly an innovative operation and it was run by two people. There was General Groves the Army officer who administered the project. He was a general; he understood Army protocol and procedures but he knew nothing about nuclear physics and couldn’t give direction to the hundreds of scientists and engineers on the project. And there was Robert Oppenheimer the physicist and creative talent who directed the work. He’s the one who led the project to successful completion. Is this company looking for a GeneralGroves or a Robert Oppenheimer?

Groves and Oppenheimer
(GeneralGroves and Robert Oppenheimer – picture courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Energy)

The next question was how will the success of the person in this position be measured? This person will report to the COO so I assume there are performance objectives to assess how this person is doing. Is this person supposed to manage the productivity of the people in the innovation group? Just working hard won’t create innovation. Getting inspired for innovation involves trying different things and doing stuff that often looks like people just fooling around. A wise operations manager once told me she finally realized everybody didn’t have to be busy all the time to be productive and sometimes you even need to have people who aren’t busy. She used the analogy of a relay race; during a relay race most of the racers are just walking around; only one racer is actually running at any given time. But is the object to keep everyone busy or to move the baton around the racetrack as fast as possible? Is this chief innovation officer supposed to cut headcount to increase productivity and try to get more innovation per FTE (full-time equivalent) or are they supposed to win relay races?

Innovation is a Process, Not a Thing, and Ideas are just the Beginning

In business it’s not just innovative ideas that you want; what really counts is turning those ideas into profitable offerings customers wish to buy. The chief innovation officer will need the active cooperation of the COO, the CIO, the CFO, the CMO, the VP Sales and even the CEO to turn ideas into products. But people in those positions in an established company are typically risk averse. And innovation is risky because so many ideas turn out to be duds. I’m sure the COO, CIO, CFO, CMO, VP Sales and CEO are already busy doing their jobs and I bet their respective organizations are also real busy supporting the company’s daily operations so who’s got time for risky ideas? Does the chief innovation officer’s group have some capability to productize their ideas or does the group just sketch out cool ideas that others are supposed to bring to market?

And then there is this loaded issue. Since innovation is a process, not a thing, maybe the chief innovation officer should actually be looking at ways to change company-wide processes used to define, produce and sell products. Or does the company think the chief innovation officer and the creative types in the innovation group are just going to dream up ideas and toss them over the wall to be delivered to customers with existing procedures the company uses to deliver its current products and services? If so, then the company has not really thought about what is involved in innovation. And if the chief innovation officer does start suggesting changes to company-wide procedures this is likely to be seen as unwanted meddling by some very powerful senior executives (as Mark Twain put it, “I’m all for progress; it’s change I don’t like.”).

When an established and successful company more than 100 years old decides to create a new position for a chief innovation officer they are creating a very tricky position indeed (perhaps just a forlorn hope). Thoughtful change agents and innovators probably have a few more questions to ask of this headhunter.


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