Established Company Looking for Chief Innovation Officer

Innovation means change and change is a delicate proposition

A headhunter retained by a brand name company wanted to get my thoughts about a new position they were doing a search for. She described her client as an established company, more than 100 years old, looking for a global head of innovation. The person in this position would oversee the operations of some 350 people; would be looked upon as a “change agent” and would report to the company COO. This new person would have the attention of the CEO; salary was negotiable she said, and she threw out some very large dollar amounts that were being talked about.

Then she stopped and invited me to comment. The big salary numbers got my attention but what did they imply? What kind of opportunity was this really?  I feel my pulse quicken when I see an opportunity to step into a situation and win fame and fortune. I find myself so eager that I have to remember to check and see if there really is an opportunity before I go charging in. For starters, experience shows me that the life of a change agent tends to be short (but eventful). So, using a historical analogy, I explained to her that during the Napoleonic Wars the band of soldiers who went first to charge a heavily defended enemy position was referred to as the “forlorn hope” (for obvious reasons), yet the officer commanding this group, if he survived, was almost guaranteed a promotion and a long term boost to his career. I said I agreed that the person in this new position should certainly be paid well as long as they lasted because chances are excellent they won’t last very long. Then I tried to get a sense of how long this person might last.

[ I do lively presentations on this and related topics - ]

Administering Innovation and Leading Innovation are Two Different Things

I asked the headhunter a few questions. My first question was about the actual function of the person in this position. Is this person going to administer a process of innovation or are they going to actually lead the process? It’s such an obvious question but it’s often overlooked. Here’s another historical analogy to illustrate what I mean. The Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bombs during World War II was certainly an innovative operation and it was run by two people. There was General Groves the Army officer who administered the project. He was a general; he understood Army protocol and procedures but he knew nothing about nuclear physics and couldn’t give direction to the hundreds of scientists and engineers on the project. And there was Robert Oppenheimer the physicist and creative talent who directed the work. He's the one who led the project to successful completion. Is this company looking for a General Groves or a Robert Oppenheimer?

General Groves & Robert Oppenheimer

(General Groves and Robert Oppenheimer – picture courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Energy)

The next question was how will the success of the person in this position be measured? This person will report to the COO so I assume there are performance objectives to assess how this person is doing. Is this person supposed to manage the productivity of the people in the innovation group? Just working hard won’t create innovation. Getting inspired for innovation involves trying different things and doing stuff that often looks like people just fooling around. A wise operations manager once told me she finally realized everybody didn’t have to be busy all the time to be productive and sometimes you even need to have people who aren’t busy. She used the analogy of a relay race; during a relay race most of the racers are just walking around; only one racer is actually running at any given time. But is the object to keep everyone busy or to move the baton around the racetrack as fast as possible? Is this chief innovation officer supposed to cut headcount to increase productivity and try to get more innovation per FTE (full-time equivalent) or are they supposed to win relay races?

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