Organizations, embracing innovation, have taken the seemingly logical step of designating people to help “foment a culture of innovation.” Enter the chief innovation officer.

People in this role must thread the needle. Taking too light a touch, they may be accused of cheerleading from the sidelines. Taking too heavy a touch, they may be accused of making a land grab for the functional roles of research & development and marketing.

In this article, the innovation architect Doug Collins identifies two resources that may aid the chief innovation officer in their work.

Every organization needs people with the courage to help their peers remove the blinders.

Enter the Chief Innovation Officer

Once upon a time, the role of chief innovation officer did not exist. The head of research & development or, in some organizations, the head of marketing enjoyed exclusive rights to the innovation charter. The functional heads decided what new offers the organization would bring to market.

Today, the role of chief innovation officer proliferates. An ecosystem of conferences, journals, and professional societies, coaches, and consultants serve the newly designated leaders. Can certification be far behind?

What happened?

The Digital Age happened. The Digital Age happens.

Digital Age immediacy and transparency accelerates commerce and competition. If “innovate or die” helps focus the mind, then our minds observe that the Digital Age brings death that much closer, that much faster, to the organizational door step.

Fear motivates. Best put someone in charge of our salvation.

We find many newly appointed chief innovation officers plying their trade in the media, financial, and healthcare industries because the Digital Age roiled these segments first.

Catch a Tiger by the Tail

The chief innovation officer has a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, they have the charter to advance a characteristic—innovation—that people struggle to define. What does it mean, for example, to “foment a culture of innovation”? Does the introduction of a foosball table in the break room mean we are halfway there?

On the other hand, they have no designation of authority. The functional heads remain: research & development, product development, and marketing. The functional heads pull the levers, still.

Now what? Cheerleading?

Questioning and Convening

In my own practice I have found that the people who make the most headway in this role embrace the work of question formation and convening.

Question formation: What questions, were we to explore them together, might lead to real breakthroughs for the organization?

Convening: What forums and venues might we create whereby a group of people have the opportunity to pursue the critical questions?

Effective chief innovation officers spend time and expend energy exploring what it means for the organization to make space for asking and pursuing the questions whose outcomes determine success or failure. By comparison, people in this role struggle when they find themselves by design or circumstance taking on the role of “shadow” development or marketing—when they begin to assume the charters of delivery that the functional heads have in each of these domains (figure 1).

Figure 1: The distinct roles of chief innovation officer and the functional peers

Two Resources for the Chief Innovation Officer

I find two resources useful in perfecting the art of questioning and convening: Peter Block’s The Answer to How Is Yes and Juanita Brown’s The World Café.

The Answer to How Is Yes could serve well as the chief innovation officer’s desk reference. Block challenges us to focus on what matters. In doing so, he opens us to helping others to do the same. If we believe that one of the critical roles of the chief innovation officer is to help people figure out the problems worth solving, then Block helps us get to the proper state of mind for doing so.

Every organization needs people with the courage to help their peers remove the blinders that impede their vision—that keeps them from seeing the whole. The chief innovation officer role serves as a good place to do so. Block helps us find our way forward.

The World Café, by comparison, helps the chief innovation officer find their way forward in terms of what it means to convene a group of people in a way that respects and incorporates the gifts they bring to the table. It’s a scalable approach that can work with a small roomful of people to hundreds.

The Answer to How Is Yes and The World Café serve as complements. The former helps us form a personal mindset for finding meaning: meaningful inquiry, meaningful exploration, and meaningful work. The latter helps us engage others in the process.

Closing Thoughts

The challenge with designating someone with a role that ties directly to characteristic (e.g., health, wealth, innovation) as opposed to a function (e.g., accounting, human resources, legal) is that people assume that, as with the latter, the leader of the former has sole responsibility for the job.

The head of accounting is ultimately responsible for balancing the books each year. Thus, should not the chief innovation officer be responsible, ultimately, for fomenting a culture of innovation?

Answer: no. The former role—the role tied to a characteristic—must always be viewed as enabling that attribute, as opposed to delivering on it. Otherwise, the enabler turns into a crutch: “the office of the chief innovation officer is responsible for innovation—thus, the rest of us do not have to worry about the matter.” The chief innovation officer innovates in that they innovate on their practice: mastering the art of questioning and convening.

In this environment, one must actively embrace the questioning and convening functions—helping people explore the right, critical question and helping people gather to do so in ways that reflect the gifts they bring to the table. Here, The Answer to How Is Yes and The World Café serve as useful guides for the person heading down this path.

By : Doug Collins

About the author

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations such as The Estee Lauder Companies, Jarden Corporation, Johnson & Johnson, The Procter & Gamble Company, and Ryder System navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation. Doug develops approaches, creates forums, and structures engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the ideas and to the collaboration that result.

As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL). Today, Doug works as senior practice leader at social innovation company Mindjet, where he consults with a range of clients. He focuses on helping them realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.

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