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CInO Onboarding Will Make or Break Corporate Innovation

Chief Innovation Officer

The Chief Innovation Officer (CInO) role is quickly becoming the common answer to the question of How will our company get better at innovation?


Unfortunately, there is no large pool of seasoned innovation leaders to choose from, because as a discipline, innovation is relatively new. Furthermore, because innovation is defined and approach in various ways, there is a huge disparity of innovation skills among CInO.

Companies are taking a few approaches to filling the Chief Innovation Officer role, and there are pros and cons to each:

Home Grown: Take someone from within, and declare that person an innovation officer. This could be a marketing, technology or product person or even a business unit leader. Sometimes it’s just a smart person that the company doesn’t exactly know what else to do with.

Pro: The person knows your company and how to navigate the politics and culture.

Cons: They are starting completely from scratch relative to understanding innovation program development and management. Also, they don’t want to burn bridges with stakeholders in the company in case this new innovation gig doesn’t work out.

Imported: Find an innovation expert from another industry that’s further along the learning curve of innovation.

Pro: The leader has more experience knowing how to set up an innovation program and manage it.

Cons: There may be nuances in your industry that this person could struggle with (e.g. The insurance regulatory environment. This typically throws outsiders for a loop.) Also, your culture may resist an outsider coming in and telling everyone how to innovate.

Swiped: Find someone within your industry that has been a successful innovation lead in a similar company.

Pro: Best of both worlds.

Con: It can be like searching for a unicorn.

Regardless of which route you take, the on-boarding of a new CInO is often a woefully undernourished part of the process. As someone who can speak from experience, having served on a first iteration of an innovation team at a very large insurance company, and seeing many corporations Maddock Douglas has worked with since then who seek to develop the innovation discipline, the on-boarding process feels like this:

1) Welcome! We are thrilled to have you.
2) There’s the restroom.
3) We need to show results quickly for this to work.
4) Go figure it out and then tell us what you need.

While this sounds wide open and exciting to some, it can often be a recipe for disaster for others. Why? Because without proper structure that is set up collaboratively at the beginning, the new Chief Innovation Officer is trying to educate both herself and the organization at the same time. Eventually, the gravitational pull from the larger organization’s business as usual will win out. If it were better managed at the beginning, the new Chief Innovation Officer has a better chance at success and consequently, the organization does too.

The leadership team and the new innovation officer, must answer these critical questions around structure during onboarding:

What’s the definition, appetite and level of patience for innovation? The answer to this question will guide the focus of the new innovation leader on quick wins, moonshots, and/or (hopefully) a portfolio approach.

What’s the evidence that it’s “working”? It can’t be the same measures as are used for the core business. Proper onboarding will suss out whether leaders are talking out of both sides of their mouths on this one.

How will the innovation work be connected to the company’s mission? There’s got to be a clear tie back. This is the most critical of the three elements, as it is the one that prevents innovation from being crushed by the business, because it would be evident how it IS the business.

I’d like to give credit to our friend and past client, Dr. L. Miguel Encarnaçãcao, for isolating and defining some answers very clearly from his vast experience as an innovation officer in multiple companies. I guess you could call him one of the unicorns. Here are three best practices from Miguel: 

  1. Deploy Spiral Integration: taking an iterative approach to bring learning from innovation into the business in much smaller bites, and more often. For example, if there’s an insight learned by innovation research on the fuzzy front end, start using it right away. Don’t wait till there is an idea getting ready for launch. By then, opportunity is missed to involve people and benefit the business today. 
  2. Change management is critical: This is a collaborative effort with HR, marketing, product and other key areas, actively designing for the impacts to talent, metrics, incentives and so forth. Again, this cannot wait until there’s a pipeline of cool new ideas, it must be done from the beginning, and the Chief Innovation Officer must have permission and support to lead it. 
  3. The strategy for innovation must cover multiple starting points: consumer insight driven, technology driven and market/competitor driven. While some companies adopt heavily focus on just one of the three, the reality is that all three are necessary for success, and there are logical intersection points where solid, valuable work can be done to drive innovation forward. 

Of course these strategies are easier on paper than they are in reality, just remember that the key is to contemplate impacts and opportunities early on.

If you’d like to learn more about how to successfully onboard a new Chief Innovation Officer, join me in an upcoming webcast, with guest speaker, Dr. L. Miguel Encarnaçãcao. If you are a new Chief Innovation Officer or innovation leader, or you are contemplating hiring one, this session will be worth signing up for.

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