Innovation is evolving, and so is the role of the Chief Innovation Officer.

A few decades ago, innovation was just a matter of inventing new products. That is no longer the case in the 21st century. As sustainability and other trends are pushing companies to reshape their core, innovation today is a matter of reinventing what you do, how you operate, and how you run the business.

To stay competitive, the entire organization needs to become more innovative and innovation can’t be delegated and/or relegated to the Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) alone. As a result, their role is evolving significantly.

At our recent Innov8rs Learning Lab on Innovation Strategy, Leadership, Governance & Portfolio Management, Elisa Farri (Vice President and Co-lead at Capgemini Invent's Management Lab) and Gabriele Rosani (Director of Content and Research at Capgemini Invent's Management Lab) shared insights from their recent research on this topic.

Here’s a summary of what we learned.

The Broadening Scope Of Innovation

A quick look at the historical evolution of innovation will help better understand why the role of the Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) has been shifting over time.

In the late 20th century, innovation was still considered the sole responsibility of R&D. It was all about working on new technologies, products, and features. At that time, the CINO was a position virtually unheard of.

Things changed with the advent of the new century. In the early 2000s, having a good product alone was no longer enough to compete against emerging business models. These changing market conditions showed how a more strategic approach to innovation was actually needed. At this point, the CINO role started to be better defined.

In the 2010s, digital-native companies began disrupting many sectors. To stay competitive, companies started to embrace platforms and ecosystems as part of their strategy and innovate with others. In 2015, the companies felt the need to realign their internal operating models.

In the 2020s, sustainability is increasingly becoming a priority, and innovation is considered a great way to address daunting environmental, social, and governance (ESG) challenges. Today, innovation cannot exist without sustainability, and vice versa.

Innovation broadening inside and outside companies has several implications. As a result, the innovation officer’s role is also changing- it must evolve. How is it shifting? What's the impact of this evolution? To help answer this question, Elisa and Gabriele share their visualization tool.

The 8-Roles Framework Spiderweb: How The CINO’s Role Is Shifting

By analyzing how large established organizations organize themselves to reach their ambitious innovation goals, Elisa and Gabriele developed a simple visualization tool – “The 8 Roles Spiderweb”. This tool helps map all the different roles CINOs can play. Of course, the number and intensity of roles CINOs have may vary from company to company. Yet comparing spiderwebs of different firms, it emerges that the roles typically played are essentially two:

  • CINO as Innovation Owner: in the “owner” role, CINOs typically set their own targets and manage the innovation funnel, from exploration to scale-up, with a dedicated budget and team.
  • CINO as Innovation Facilitator: as "facilitators", CINOs build capabilities and advise on, facilitate, and accelerate initiatives within the broader organization. In this case, business units, lines, or functions maintain innovation ownership, and CINOs' part is to help them be more innovative.

As mentioned, different companies can be positioned differently on the spiderweb. But looking at how the average spiderweb has evolved over the last few years, Elisa and Gabriele found evidence of a gradual shift in the coverage of the roles, even more so in the last decade. Today, greater focus is given to the roles leaning towards “facilitation” – such as supporting methods for innovation, helping and coaching projects, and developing capabilities in the wider organization – rather than “owning” them.

This shift is consistent with the evolutionary history of the role itself: the more innovation evolves and gets broader in terms of scope, the more functions are impacted by it, and the more the CINO’s role changes. The role is shifting from being the sole owner of innovation to being the catalyst of change. In other words, CINOs today have to help other CXOs

And this facilitator role is as critical as ever. All the other functions – from marketing to sales to finance – are not used to thinking and acting innovatively.

“In the last decades, CXOs haven't been reimagining the game; they've just kept it going. And so leaving their traditional comfort zones and navigating uncharted waters can be challenging".

That said, it’s up to CINOs to support other CXOs (Chief Experience Officers) to innovate and reinvent themselves. And it all starts with facilitating, coaching, and creating the conditions and the capabilities for this to happen.

The whole organization will benefit from the role shifting. Since innovation is a shared task, appointing CINOs as facilitators and enablers helps eliminate other CXOs' unproductive cognitive bias "innovation is someone else's responsibility; it's not my job", concludes Elisa.

In Summary

In a business environment increasingly dominated by transformations, the C-suite’s new imperative is to achieve systemic innovation. All roles need to embrace an innovative mindset and start experimenting. This is leading to a significant shift in the roles of CINOs: while in the past, the CINO was the owner of the innovation portfolio, with a focus on new products and business solutions, today the mandate is shifting towards disseminating innovative thinking and methods across the broader organization, creating the conditions for the other functions and CXOs to be innovators in their specific management fields.