This is a salutory tale.
I was pleased and proud to be appointed to the position of CIO (Chief Innovation Officer). It seemed like a great opportunity to join a dynamic executive team and help drive the growth and ambition which inspired the company. Unfortunately, things did not work out well and there are some hard lessons to be shared. Here are some things I wish I had anticipated.
1. The CEO had the goal and the vision but not the commitment.
I reported to the CEO and he was adamant about his belief in promoting innovation in the organisation. We agreed some great initial plans but when the going got tough he focussed on sales, customer service and cost cutting. It was understandable in view of the situation. Nonetheless his commitment wavered just when we needed it most. This undermined my innovation projects.
2. Innovation is everyone’s job; not just the CIO’s.
As soon as I took on responsibility for corporate innovation the other executives focussed on their own objectives and left me to it. They did not actively oppose my initiatives, but they were lukewarm and their priorities always took precedence. Office politics, turf wars and jockeying for favour were all in play. For innovation to succeed it needs the full support and commitment of the company, starting with the entire top team.
3. Changing a corporate culture is harder than you think.
The people who worked there were good people, assiduous and loyal to the company. But they were operating within their comfort zones and were somewhat risk averse. ‘Why mess with success?’ seemed to be the watchword. People worked diligently within their siloes and they prioritised the goals of their departments. Getting them to allocate time and resources to new product projects proved difficult.
4. ‘We welcome failure’ is a mantra but not a reality.
There was general agreement that we needed to be bolder and take more risks. But after the first two major initiatives failed to achieve their objectives a blame game ensued. And a lot of the blame came my way. Maybe I deserve some of it for being too optimistic, but I expected constructive support not finger-pointing.
5. When the going gets tough, business-as-usual takes priority.
Things went well at first but then a recession hit our sector, sales turned down, targets were missed. We had to cut costs and my innovation budgets were the first to be trimmed. It was understandable. Sales of current products and services were funding the payroll so they had to be protected with precious resources. Innovation slid down the agenda at executive meetings.
6. Innovation is not a one-off project; it has to be a way of life.
We started with a big promotion, encouraging ideas from inside and outside the company. The CEO gave a rousing and inspiring speech about our vision for innovation and agility. There was real enthusiasm. We could not cope with all the ideas for improvements and new solutions which came flooding in. But then enthusiasm waned. When people saw how long it took to change things they gradually lost interest. We just could not maintain the initial energy. The CEO focussed on cost reduction and trying to sell the business. It just got harder and harder to get the commitment and cooperation of all the parties we needed to bring new products and services to market.
In the end I quit and a little while later the company was sold to a competitor. Looking back, I can see that I was a little naïve in my approach. But what do you think I should have done better? And how can newly appointed CIOs avoid these same problems?
Paul is a professional keynote conference speaker and expert facilitator on innovation and lateral thinking. He helps companies improve idea generation and creative leadership. His workshops transform innovation leadership skills and generate great ideas for business issues. His recent clients include Airbus, Microsoft, Unilever, Nike, Novartis and Swarovski. He has published 30 books on lateral thinking puzzles, innovation, leadership and problem solving (with over 2 million copies sold). He also acts as link presenter at conferences and facilitator at high level meetings such as a corporate advisory board. He has acted as host or MC at Awards Dinners. Previously, he was CEO of Monactive, VP International of MathSoft and UK MD of Ashton-Tate. He recently launched a series of podcast interviews entitled Insights from Successful People.