The Changing Role of the Chief Innovation Officer

Fireworks from Chief Innovation Officer Summit in San Francisco

Altitude attended (and spoke at) the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in San Francisco.  The main theme of the conference speakers—and many of those who we talked to—was the changing the role of the CIO. We heard many CIOs describe their job as helping the company create ideas, more so than bringing ideas to market. Gerry Meyers, VP of Global Innovation at Chubb, described his job as creating a culture of innovation more than creating innovation.

The conference followed two themes that reinforced this message:

Always On: Open innovation was the biggest topic at the CIO Summit. There was a big desire for Chief Innovation Officers to look inside their own companies for innovation. Meyers of Chubb and Moises Norena, Global Director of Innovation at Whirlpool, both spoke of the need for their employees to always think about and contribute ideas for innovation. There were a host of software companies offering up tools to collect, prioritize, and share ideas to streamline the open innovation process.

Start-Up Fever: Executives at GM, Unilever, and Coca Cola talked about the value of start-ups to their work. One thread was on adopting the behaviors of start-ups within larger companies to help facilitate new ideas. Another topic, advocated by GM and Unilever, was on creating outposts in Silicon Valley to identify relevant emerging technology.

The majority of CIO’s we talked to at the conference had been at their company a number of years before moving into their current role. They were company “insiders” who knew the culture and company capabilities well. They had the connections to move things forward. This stands in stark contrast to just a few years ago, where many of the people our clients and prospective clients hired for innovation roles were “outsiders” brought in to disrupt the company with fresh thinking.

These two contrasting styles speak to the difficulty of not just the job, but innovation as a whole. Simply put, one style is not enough for success. The Chief Innovation Officer is ultimately tasked with bringing new and disruptive ideas to market in a way that their organization can understand and adopt. She needs to be what one of our clients calls the “inside outsider.” Being too much of an outsider and your ideas won’t be right for the organization. Yet having too much of an insider approach results in too many ideas that don’t represent meaningful change to consumers.

It’s why innovation is best done as a team sport. Constructing the right team of diverse talent and approaches has the best chance of success. Typically, diversity of talent and style is valued in the creation and development of the idea, but it is every bit as relevant to its implementation, as well. It’s a rare person that can be the “inside outsider.” A Chief Innovation Officer may be most successful when he recognizes whether he’s an “insider” or an “outsider” and then builds his team or partners with those who possess the style that contrasts his own.

Craig McCarthy

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Craig McCarthy

Director, Strategy