Anyone can be an innovator — at least in theory.
What happens in practice is that most of us are kept busy enough simply trying to successfully do our jobs the way they’ve always been done. Time for innovation gets pushed because we have deadlines to meet, or fires to put out.
Most of us aren’t dedicated innovators because we may not have the authority or the specific leadership skills to see our ideas through. True innovation can often mean disruptive change that happens inside a company, and managing change is notoriously difficult.
At the same time, many organizations have realized they can’t afford to leave innovation to chance.
Customers may only continue to bring business to a company because it offers innovative products and services, or because the company uses innovation to overcome longstanding challenges across an industry.
More innovative firms may also look more attractive to prospective new hires, who see such companies as a better place to learn and grow, rather than simply earn a paycheck.
Over time, the need for a more defined role in this area has led to the rise of chief innovation officers. While it might still be considered one of the newer C-suite jobs, there have been people holding the title for at least 10 years. There are tens of thousands of chief innovation officers listed on LinkedIn today.
Chief innovation officers might be naturally associated with larger organizations that have more resources, and whose bureaucracy is more complex and slower to adopt new practices. Yet there’s no reason small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) could hire or appoint chief innovation officers too.
The background for the role varies widely. In some cases it represents the evolution of the chief information officer (CIO) or chief technology officers (CTOs) who have education and expertise in working with innovative tools.
In other cases chief innovation officers are those with a proven track record in research and developing insights, or whose prowess in a particular customer-facing function — like marketing — suggests they could generate new value by taking the role on.
SMB owners might also serve as de facto chief innovation officers if their time allows it. To properly assess your company’s needs, consider the following questions:
There’s something to be said for doing one thing really well, but most companies find the path to growth by adding to the portfolio of products and services they offer. They also look for new geographies or channels to meet customers where they are.
Chief innovation officers aren’t like scientists in a lab, creating new inventions. They are people who can help point out the way for your company to transition an in-person experience to a mobile app. They might guide your marketing efforts from TV spots and billboards to social platforms like TikTok. They do the legwork to determine whether it’s the right time to localize content and experiences for new customer segments or groups.
Chief innovation officers aren’t coming up with all the gold on their own. Instead, they help facilitate the sharing of insights and opportunities from everyone in the company. This could include a sales rep who identifies a product or bundle that could gain a greater share of wallet from existing customers, or a service agent who realizes a common stumbling block for customers after they purchase a product.
The chief innovation officer could determine the best channel for these ideas as well las the practices for acting on them. They might set up a special Slack channel, for instance, with a commitment to reviewing and reporting back on the viability of an idea in a given time period.
We’ve all come across that person in the company who seems to develop a workaround for a common hurdle or an out-of-the-box solution to long standing problems. Unfortunately, these innovators tend to be treated as happy accidents. Chief innovation officers help to engineer recruitment and training processes to ensure they become the foundation of a company’s talent.
Perhaps HR could work with chief innovation officers to develop a problem set or exercise candidates for certain roles they are expected to tackle in addition to a traditional job interview. The chief innovation officer would also periodically research and suggest events and career development platforms (like Trailhead, for instance) that could improve their skills to innovate.
We all saw what happened when the COVID-19 outbreak began in early 2020. Businesses around the world worked overtime to shift their employees to work successfully from anywhere and to digitize processes that had been manual and paper-based for decades.
Chief innovation officers are always looking ahead, and not just for growth opportunities. They also model worst-case scenarios and develop strategies that will allow their organization to continue thriving, regardless of what else is happening in the world.
Innovation seldom comes free. Beyond giving someone the title and a salary, a chief innovation officer may require a dedicated budget. They might need additional team members reporting into them, or to have “dotted line” relationships with those in other business functions.
Many of the technologies that allow companies to innovate are well within reach of even the smallest businesses, but consider how you’d support someone focused on making sure they are harnessed to their greatest potential within your organization.
Will every SMB eventually have their own chief innovation officer? Maybe not, but the most successful will probably look as though they do. And the more common the role becomes, the more it makes sense to think through whether you should have one on your team.