Are Chief Innovation Officers (CIO) simply the newest symptom of a raging C-level fever, or are they are valuable asset in keeping organizations innovative? Read on as we offer you 6 reasons why you need a CIO, now!

Businesses evolve, and with it the need for new roles; so the C-suite answers. The rise of Chief Innovation Officers is a direct consequence of the need to tackle new challenges in innovation. The CIO term was not coined until 1998, and is one of the newest additions to the C-suite vocabulary.

You might be thinking: “Well, this just sounds like another corporate-fuelled title craze”. If so, prepare to have your mind changed, because we are going to share with you why we believe the Chief Innovation Officer is absolutely vital.

In Forbes, George Bradt wrote how CIOs are:* “** beyond useless to completely and utterly counterproductive *”. Mr. Bradt compellingly argues that: “*If one person is in charge of innovation, everyone else are not.” *

In the following, we will show you why he is completely and utterly wrong.

Bradt’s article rests its argumentation on an understanding of the Chief Innovation Officer as the person sole responsible for innovation outcomes, i.e. the CIO’s job is to come up with new products, processes and customer experiences developed in the company. This is a misrepresentation of the role, and here are 6 reasons why.

1) Exploring Uncharted Territory

Innovation is in constant development, and it will never stop evolving. It will always require up-to-date research and testing. CIOs are a specialized figure within the field and is much needed in an era where being the fastest is not enough anymore.

Creative management practices
CIOs are specialized innovation explorers

Chief Innovation Officers are not oracles, sweeping in with messages from the future to save a failing innovation program. They don’t have all the answers, but they are trained to enable others to look for and find them.

Research has shown how just like with innovation, the role of the CIO is in continuous development, and is getting more closely tied to the CEO. In fact, believe it or not, companies where the CIO and CEO go hand in hand tend to outperform competitors .

This makes sense because the Chief Innovation Officer is there to bridge gaps in the organization and pave the way for innovation. The CEO on the other hand, has agency and oftentimes a deep understanding of the business, it’s culture and it’s long-term strategy. When pairing these roles, where the CEO ensures strong support and clear directives to help the CIO do their job, the result is a comprehensive approach throughout the organization, where the CIOs have adequate company-wide backing to do their jobs.

In other words, the Chief Innovation Officer’s role is to rally the organization to dare venture into unchartered territory.

2) Measure What Matters

What does it mean to be a successful CIO?

Contrary to Bradt, CIOs are, but should not be, evaluated on their innovation powers, which sometimes results in the rest of the workforce not participating in innovative activities. Instead of saying: “if one person is in charge of innovation, everyone else is not”, try turning this on its head like so: “if one leader is in charge of innovation, everyone else is too”.

What on Earth does that mean? Well, good leaders have been found to show the way, inspire, listen, stimulate, guide.

Transfer this to the CIO role, who’s most important task is to ensure innovation in your organization.
A successful Chief Innovation Officer will:

  • Stimulate creative business processes and guide the way to innovation
  • Showing the way to successful management of ideas
  • Inspire an innovation-friendly organizational culture

Therefore, claiming that a successful CIO is evaluated based on their individual contributions to innovation would be to hold the role to different standards than other organizational leaders. We don’t evaluate a CFO based on her skills in Excel, but rather on her ability to ensure that the entire organization sticks to the budget.

3) Focused Work Means Quality Work

We agree that everyone carries the seeds of innovation in them, and everyone should cultivate them. It’s not the task of one person only. At all. However, when channeled and organized, it becomes more effective. An innovation leader can give direction and meaning to your team.

Research from an European energy company sheds some light on the dangers of disorganized innovation work. Four different teams were innovating, but each team in a different direction; duplicating work and hindering productivity. Such poor management creates an hostile environment to innovation, fosters confusion and eventually damages your business.

A Chief Innovation Officer will make sure that you don’t end up in such a mess.

4) Keeping it Cool in Open Innovation

Gone are the days where innovation was something that only happened within the tall grey corporate buildings, no longer is it limited by the walls of your company.

Today, innovation involves customers, partners, shareholders, and even sometimes competitors. And yes, that can get pretty messy, pretty fast.

Bradt argues that innovation should happen all over the company, no matter roles and positions, and we couldn’t agree more. However, believing that appointing a CIO will work against this is a misunderstanding of not only CIOs, but also how open innovation works in practice.

Innovative business processes
Have a Chief Innovation Officer keep track of all the bright initiatives in you organization

Open innovation comes from all around you. Catch partnerships with entrepreneurs, tech savvy startups, academic institutions – the sky’s the limit. However, the fact remains that if no-one is there to keep track of your innovation activities both within and outside the company, you are not going to know what’s working and what’s not.

CIOs are the anchors of crowdsourced insights, providing overview and feedback while facilitating projects across divisions. As with most projects when one hand does not know what the other is doing, your chances of success in the long-run are going to be slim.

You can start as many partnerships as you want, but without a person to keep the cool overview, no partnership is going to save your failing innovation activities.

5) Catalyst of Change

Several articles, business people and consultants keep repeating how you should create a culture of innovation. “Get everyone to innovate! That’s the secret! Keep up with the pace!”

But it’s not straightforward to get everyone to agree, collaborate and innovate; not to mention changing an entire organization’s culture!

Many organizations battle the good old beast of silofication and the dreaded Not-Invented-Here (NIH) syndrome. Oftentimes, this is a result of a self-reinforcing behavior amongst employees; behaviors that are deeply ingrained in the everyday actions of the workforce and together make up your corporate culture.

You know the consequences of a bad corporate culture on innovation, right? Talent isolation, slow progress and egotistical thinking hinder willingness to share knowledge and innovate.

We know culture is a fluffy thing and oftentimes built over decades, if not centuries. Moreover, it is highly path-dependent and not at all easy to change. Therefore, changing this is going to take more than a two-day company retreat, and a lot of the work needs to be done among managers. Here Chief Innovation Officers are an invaluable source as catalysts of cultural change.

Provided they have backing from key personnel and the liberty to take action, competent CIOs are superheroes in leading the way towards a more innovative culture. They implement strategies for change, involve the necessary stakeholders, facilitate events and most importantly, a CIO could bridge the gap between innovators and the rest of the company, creating a unified vision towards a common goal.

6) A Desert Sandbox or a Dandelion?

The Chief Innovation Officer’s role has been questioned since its conception, most recurrent arguments include it being pointless, unclear or utterly counterproductive . Basically, as useful as a sandbox in the desert.

By some, CIOs are the newest addition to a raging C-level fever, i.e. the need for more and more titles in the C-suite, to tend to employees’ egos. Well, firstly, we agree with these guys that some companies take it too far with the so-called C-level fever. Just look at examples like these: Chief People Pleaser, Chief Internet Evangelist and Chief of Unicorn Division.

Symptoms of C-level fever include slow decision-making, blurred vision and communication headaches. Do yourself a favour, and look out for this terrible disease (as a rule of thumb, stop and reconsider when you catch yourself in the midst of naming a new position “Direct Mail Demi-God”).

Given the role’s young age, in the C-suite, it makes sense, because all new things need a little adjusting on both sides… But it’s overdue that we all start to reconsider how we think about CIOs.

Business changes and CIO role
We know, it’s scary. But we need to change how we think about Chief Innovation Officers and their roles

Think of CIOs as Dandelions. Not too charming at first glance, but consider this;

They spread nutrients in the ground surrounding them, helping other plants grow. They attract outside help, to support plants that wouldn’t otherwise survive. But most importantly, Dandelions are fighters. They fight for their ground and for growing in uncharted territories. Once they’re done blooming, they fade. Simply leaving the territory nurtured and rich for new life to set foot.

Your CIO is your Dandelion. One person leading innovation means a flock of employees following the lead with nurtured ideas and renewed creativity, from all possible sides.

Why CIOs Revolutionize your Business

Opposers, base their critiques of the CIO role along two lines and when digging into their argumentation, most negative views seem more a result of uninformed skepticism rather than a knowledgeable inquiry of the role.

The two most popular arguments put forward by the opponents of a CIO role include a cramped C-suite and the following equation:

*One person in charge of Innovation = everybody else stops innovating *

So why are these not valid arguments? Well..

“The principal role of a CIO is creating, sustaining and fine-tuning the organizational systems and processes that are needed to support innovation.”

Innovation needs to shift from being a few’s task to a widespread activity throughout the company. And contrary to what others tend to believe, CIOs are a step in the right direction.

Provided your organizational culture is ready and your employees are keen on welcoming such a figure. If not, you might wanna start considering how you get you culture to a place where you could successfully hire a CIO.

Once again, here are our reasons why you should hire a Chief Innovation Officer

  1. An experienced cane in unchartered territory
  2. An inspirational leader
  3. Focusing innovation means quality innovation
  4. Fostering open innovation
  5. Fight toxic cultures and silofication
  6. A nurturing and inspiring Dandelion