Job Description of a Chief Innovation Officer

posted by Ravi Arora August 13, 2017

In my previous post I tried to justify that innovation is a risky sport, which people in established companies are hesitant to play. This note attempts to answer the next obvious question – Who in these organisations should excite or involve people to play this important sport?


What is the role of the gardener after he sows the seeds?  Can he extract the saplings out from the seed or just wait for them to germinate? Can he accelerate the growth of plant beyond a point? No! He has no direct control on the seed and the growth of the plant. He has a lot of control on the external environment in which the seeds sprout and the plant grows. We measure the gardener’s performance (and actually pay him) for the sincerity of his efforts towards making conditions better for the plants. We believe that the use of right seeds by the owner/gardener and sincere efforts of the knowledgeable gardener would almost ascertain the chances of getting desired plants. Do we all need a gardener for our garden? Not necessarily – As long as the owner is able to find time to sow the seeds in the entire garden, maintain favorable conditions for plants and keeps himself aware on new seeds/flowers, there is no need of a gardener. This is perhaps possible if owner earns his livelihood from the plants that he grows. If the owner is not earning his livelihood from plants, it is very likely that he needs help (gardener). Owner, who employs a gardener, impatiently looks forward to having blooming flowers (or fruits) in his garden. On the other hand the gardener looks at environment and passionately removes the grass & weeds that sometimes surrounds the plant. He looks at the pests and checks the soil condition and sprinkles fertilizer and water.  He controls the amount of exposure the plant should get from the direct sun. He patiently waits but expects the flowers or the fruit in the plants. His level of expectations depend upon the sincerity of his efforts and care. (He assumes that if the seeds are good the results would be good except a few times when there are extreme weather conditions)

Innovation – challenges

Exactly the same is true for innovation. We need good quality ideas (seeds) and need the right supporting systems for the ideas to get developed into innovations (flowering plants). Innovation is never the main job of the owners (CEO appointed by the Board) of established companies. Board members, the representatives of shareholders, expect their companies to perform well quarter after quarter. If the senior leaders of the organisation (working on the guidance of Board), are too busy in the main job of achieving monthly and quarterly results (source of livelihood), and are unable to give time to manage innovation (identifying right ideas and giving the right conditions for ideas to get implemented) the organisation needs a Chief Innovation Officer (CInO or a gardener).

Corporate innovation efforts in large companies, in absence of CInO, often lack a clear plan and framework. In most companies, different groups work on innovation who report innovation outcomes only when they are successful. Due to presence of several people trying to drive innovation, the innovation canvas gets crowded but with no accountability. These people either compete with one another to get more space and or exploring white space in the innovation canvas. Innovation gets dispersed in the objectives of several people and due to its inherent uncertainty always becomes the last item in everyone’s list. 

Performance metrics of business units and functions are optimized for short-term goals. This drives line managers to get most from the current operations rather than thinking about doing different things or doing same things differently.  They, rightly, focus too much on incremental improvements that have almost zero uncertainty and can give outcomes in the current year or quarter. As a result, most line managers instinctively (not deliberate though) reject innovations that won’t immediately contribute to their goals.

Chief Gardener or Chief Innovation Officer

This is where Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) could be handy. He can be an executive who can counterbalance the natural tendency of line managers to focus on the next quarter and their instinct of killing innovative ideas with long gestation period. Having a CInO has another major advantage – Just as marketing budgets increase and shrink with the economic conditions and financial results, but never get dried up completely, innovation too would start getting the same treatment in presence of CInO – It will never dry up.

There is one difference between between the gardener and CInO – Unlike the gardener who can perform almost all the jobs himself (simply because the plants do not have organisation structure), CInO would need to play an orchestra involving several people for innovations to grow.

Role of CInO could be bunched in two heads – 
1) Plan for future innovation outcomes (60-70% weight)
  1. Spot & aggregate trends in own, adjacent and related industries. Proactively facilitate identification of opportunities across businesses for the next 2-5 years
  2. Jointly own the innovation portfolio; Make detailed implementation plan and dovetail it with strategy plan for future years and execution plan for the current year
  3. Ensure that accomplishment of long term strategy, medium term strategy and annual strategy clearly and substantially (as per industry standards) depend on the outcomes from the innovation portfolio.
  4. Incubate “homeless ideas” that are either too risky for the business units, or are outside the existing business boundaries, and hence might not otherwise get funded.
  5. Ensure that (perceived) Novelty degradation doesn’t creep in for past bigger Innovations thereby diminishing the returns from innovation
2) Deliver the current innovation outcomes (40-30% weight)
  1. Ensure deployment of efforts (quality and quantity) that will result in the planned progress of projects in innovation portfolio
  2. Analyse (and compare) the Innovation performance of the company, business units and functions and facilitate improvements
  3. Facilitate Open Innovation. Interface with the external entities: start-ups (for investment and for providing use cases), universities
  4. Inspire and enable employees for innovation: Capability building, Rewards & recognition, organize Hackathons and leverage Crowd-sourcing
  5. Facilitate IPR process in the organisation

The CInO should be a high-level executive who is willing to accept accountability for future innovations. CInO will be the only role in the organisation who will have most influence on the innovation outcomes of future years other than the current year. The role would inculcate a Discovery mindset (vis-à-vis Delivery mindset) in the person and hence CInO role could be used as a springboard for the person to get into an executive leadership role. The CInO needs to have a very lean organisation and all his deliverables (other than the incubating homeless ideas) should be juxtaposed appropriately with the deliverables of all other chiefs in the organisation.

Desirable Skills 
  • Must be able to collaborate with executives, creative teams, research and development, and product development teams.
  • Strong business knowledge, understanding of a variety of business practices, and familiarity with the company’s industry.
  • Must have excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to persuasively sell ideas.
  • Superior research and analytical skills to track and predict trends.
  • Must be willing to take calculated risks and manage expectations of both internal development teams and potential and existing customers