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The Fundamental Shortcoming With How We View Innovation

Why we should all be Chief Innovation Officers at work.

“Do you think CINO’s will be around in five years?” asked a fellow attendee at Innovation Enterprise’s recent Chief Innovation Officer Summit in New York.

It was a hard question to answer, particularly because I had no idea what a “CINO” was.

Even though I am literally a card-carrying member of the new religion of innovation, I hadn’t realized our high priests secured their own coveted C-suite acronym–CINOs for Chief INnovation Officer. Certainly this signals a function on the rise and was reinforced by the variety of industries represented over the two-day conference, including conservative ones that are more commonly associated with regulation than innovation, such as banking and healthcare. Indeed, Dr. Molly Coye, Chief Innovation Officer at UCLA Health, described how when she started in 2010 there were perhaps two or three similar positions, whereas today there are conferences purely for healthcare CINOs.

From Fad To The Future

Corporate history is a litany of excessive and often regrettable crazes. Some, like the 1990s embrace of Business Process Re-Engineering (BPR), left only bruised egos and battered balance sheets. Others, like Robert McNamara’s attempt to apply the quantitative rigor that was beloved by 1960s management practice and had served him so well at Ford to the Vietnam War, led to pure tragedy.

But the emergence of CINOs specifically and the increasing interest in innovation generally feels different; mainly because this growth is driven by push factors as much as by pull factors. Several speakers talked about the ongoing fear of being “Uber-ed,” where at any moment some wunderkind would launch a new business model that will overturn cherished certainties.

To put it more bluntly, every company–whether they like it or not–is now both a technology and innovation firm. While few might shed a tear at the demise of many Fortune 500 companies, this trend affects almost all organizations and arguably everyone’s future. That is why innovation even seeped into President Obama’s State of the Union earlier last year: “We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow.”

How We View Innovation

The conference was full of CINOs and consultants sharing their experiences and insights. A common theme was how they navigated the inherent tension between large organizations that typically judge themselves on executing efficiently and innovation that, at least ostensibly, necessitates searching chaotically. It was only during the lunch break when I was chatting to an attendee from the innovation team of a well-known consumer package goods company that I understood the fundamental shortcoming with how we view this function.

His boss had given him a task that spoke to the boundless faith now being placed in CINOs and their teams and can be paraphrased thus: “Go and devise a plan for an innovative new product that will yield transformative results, none of this piddly incremental stuff.” Oh, and one last thing, “I want this based on something more than mere assumptions.” In other words, everything contrary to how innovation works and the conference’s content.

This is the equivalent of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabelle telling Christopher Columbus we want you to find a new world, but before you leave draw us a map of exactly where it is, what it looks like, and how much it will cost to get there. Columbus, who some say until his dying day still believed he had found the east coast of Asia, would have replied that exploration, like innovation, “doesn’t work like that.”

“Celebrate failure,” “challenge orthodoxies,” and “creative confidence” are noble phrases and will remain just that unless how innovation actually works becomes embedded throughout an organization, not only in protective incubators and labs.

As even with vigorous C-suite support, innovation is often a misunderstood and misused concept because it presents psychological, as well as organizational challenges. The devil is not just in the details with innovation; he is dozing in our brains while simultaneously flipping off managers agonizing over their P&L statements.

What we need are conferences where people with “innovation” anywhere in their title cannot attend; where what is new is not the content, but those hearing it; where attendees learn that if innovation is what those people do “over there” it will never succeed “right here.” That is not to say those working in innovation do not also need more rigor within their approaches and genuinely appreciate why this word too often becomes a synonym for “expensive diversion.”

To return to the original question, the longevity of CINOs depends ironically on how effectively they make themselves redundant. They will succeed by helping employees view themselves as “innovative” exactly like they see themselves as “punctual” or “enthusiastic.” I am looking forward to the CINO conference where I am instead asked, “Do you think CINO’s will be around in five years, as aren’t we all one already?”

David Dabscheck is the Founder and CEO of GIANT Innovation Labs and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia Business School. You can follow him on Twitter at @ddabscheck.

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