What to Look For in a CIO

Since innovation is meeting a need in a new way, a chief innovation officer welcomes the idea of doing things differently

"The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, usually do."

–Think Different campaign, Apple 1984

With the economy in a recession and your customers relentlessly distracted with falling 401(k) values, layoffs, and a seemingly never-ending stream of bad financial news, the importance of innovation as a differentiator in the marketplace has never been greater.

You consider yourself a leader, yes? Well imagine that you are the CEO of a company driven by innovation. Obviously, you realize it is critical to have a highly functioning innovation team. What follows from that are two things:

1. You need to find just the right person to run it. You need to fill the seat of chief innovation officer (CIO) if you haven't already.

2. You need to determine who is going to work on this team (and who is expendable as the recession worsens).

Because the position of CIO is so critical, let's start there.

When it comes to innovation leadership, there is of course the common image that the perfect person is the loner with an off-kilter approach to both life and the problems that need to be solved. Innovation leaders are the "crazy ones" who choose to recreate systems while others are focused on refining the old ones. The ones who envision a completely new product while their counterparts only see incremental change. They question convention, always believing there is a better answer, and they are relentless in discovering it.

Well, from our experience, the most effective innovators are not as crazy as one might think. Infusing experts into our innovation process has afforded us the immense pleasure of brainstorming with hundreds of brilliant innovators over the years. These experts come from all walks of life: inventors, anthropologists, strategists, trend experts, scientists, engineers, writers, dreamers…

As you might imagine, we've thought hard about what makes them so special when it comes to the art of RE-creation (by the way, if you ever wonder if innovation should be fun, take a good look at the word recreation).

So here, based on our experience, are four criteria for choosing a great CIO, or, "The Most Innovative Person in the World."

The Balanced Innovator

Crazy does not necessarily equal creative. People seem to think the best innovators are mad scientists, tortured 24 hours a day by what could be. While Thomas Edison may have had his Van Gogh moments, from what we have been told most great innovators are wildly innovative at work yet still know when it is time to go home. The best know about balance.

John McCain for CIO?

One of our favorite parts of the Presidential election campaign was hearing John McCain tell the world he was a maverick. We love mavericks. Innovation requires mavericks. Mavericks have the guts and the ability to buck trends.

Look at companies that are innovation leaders—Apple being the most obvious choice, of course—and you will notice that most successful new product or service launches are led by a person who doesn't mind leaning into adversity. Since innovation by definition is meeting a need in a new way, it requires leadership from someone who welcomes the idea of doing things differently. And doing things differently means swimming against tradition and politics, a tough challenge for most. That's why seasoned mavericks usually make excellent innovators.

You can't lead an innovation crusade without a spreadsheet. Nobody famous said this. It's just true. There is far too much risk in business today to invest money in an uncalculated dream. For an innovation initiative to gain the support and maintain the momentum, the product or service you are developing must have to actually get to market. You must show the board the money you are going to make. That's why your CIO must be able to segment the opportunity, build strategy, and basically do the math. He or she must be able to be as innovative with mathematical modeling as he is with marketing concepts.

The joy of curiosity is at the heart of innovation. It propels you to discover new things and enables you to hear old ideas in new ways. We are all full of wonder as children, but it is something we seem to lose as adults. Do your company a favor. Find a CIO who still finds joy in being curious. There is no more important trait for the role.

This leads us to another brutal reality. Lack of curiosity and the corresponding absence of optimism is a deal breaker. Innovation simply can't stand up to a team of cynics and know-it-alls. If you have a cynical leader, fire him immediately. It has been said that if you want a happy team, fire all the unhappy people. If you want an innovative team, fire the cynics and incurious. This is the best way to tighten the belt in your innovation group—recession or no recession.

Great innovators—whether they serve as your CIO or are "just" a member of the team—are not crazy; they just see the world differently. Great leaders have learned to identify, respect, and harness this magic. There are still some in senior leadership who don't believe in this type of thinking but we suspect most of them will soon be unemployed.