Ten years ago (five?) the role of “Chief Innovation Officer” was almost unheard-of.  Now hardly a week goes by without a firm announcing the appointment of so-and-so to that role and title.

But what exactly Is a “CINO” and where do (where should) they come from?

Stepping back a moment to look at the composition of the more conventional inhabitants of a Law Land C-suite, JD’s are grossly over-represented–certainly compared to similarly sized companies in the corporate wild, and I don’t know what other baseline should be  used.  Honestly, people, what on earth does a JD degree have to do with marketing, operations, finance, or IT?  (Yes, I know the answer is that JD’s confer credibility on the degree owner in the eyes of the partners, but how condescending is that to your partner-colleagues?  It assumes they can’t distinguish the capable from the incompetent on the merits of performance.)

Still, we know what the presumptive qualifications are for, say, a CFO: Probably an MBA and/or CPA degree, a background in the Big 4 or an F1000 or the consulting industry, and far greater proficiency with Excel than PowerPoint.  If you’re thinking it’s hard to know what the equivalent baseline might be for a CINO, you are not alone, and now Harvard Business Review has the article for you: “What Kind of Chief Innovation Officer Does  Your Company Need?”  

To begin with, big corporates have increasing familiarity with CINO’s: According to Egon Zehnder, 29% of the F500 now have such a role.  But, they hasten to add,

“a standard definition of it has yet to emerge. The job’s responsibilities vary a lot, depending upon the company, the business challenges, and the backgrounds of the people filling the roles. Those people include everyone from seasoned executives to one-time academics, star inventors, former investment bankers, creative heads, and founders of start-ups.”

First, they advise (no surprise) figuring out just what your objectives are for your innovation initiative.  “Innovation,” like “strategy,” comes in a wide variety of forms.  Before you can figure out what you want your CINO to look like, you have to determine what you hope them to achieve.

Our HBR authors identify six different species.


These are big thinkers who would dismiss anything that doesn’t constitute “the next big thing” as not worthy of being called “innovative.”  Think quiet souls, lab coats, multiple degrees.  They’re fond of spending their time looking for the right question to ask (a true gift, don’t get me wrong–if you don’t believe me, you need to spend more time with 8-year-olds), but not necessarily the most efficacious contribution to a for-profit enterprise.

On the other hand, if you’re in the market for true inflection-point/step-change advances, they may be just what the doctor ordered.


The reverse of researchers, in that they’re all about stuff that works now.  Theories and hypotheses may be great, but in the meantime I’m going to keep tweaking this process until it’s as optimized as can be.  (Trial and error plays a large, and heroic, part in this.)  If you’re pursuing incremental, marginal improvements, engineers are your folks.


Investors may be reformed VC’s or startup alumni. In this context, it does not mean they come with a bankroll they’re prepared to drop on your firm.  For them, growth, not innovation, is the end goal; innovation may be the route to getting there.  As you’d expect, they tend towards the numerically analytic, data-driven, and financially astute.

The downside of the investor mindset can be an undue short-termism; they can dismiss large and actually transformational initiatives as taking far too long to deliver results (even if those results could be dramatic).


You may think your firm has a surfeit of advocates, but not in the sense we’re using it here.  These advocates are not advocating for their view, but for advancing the client’s goals.  The Holy Grail is “delivering something new for the client.”  You may have noticed that this assumes the client wants “something new,” which is certainly the case in the mass media, fashion, and creative communications industries.  Whether it’s true of your firm’s clients is for you to find out.

The downside of advocates is also their tremendous virtue: Great agility.  They’ll come up with something “new,” believe-you-me, but they can go in too many directions at once or, having introduced the new new thing, jump immediately into the new new new thing without following through sufficiently on the (now old) new thing.


Does this sound at all familiar?

Out in the corporate wild, it’s common to see organizations getting in their own way when it comes to innovation. This is where motivators come in: They work to unleash the employees’ (and sometimes the customers’) creative spirit. That often involves getting the people and the culture focused on vision and imagination while reducing bureaucracy, complexity, and risk aversion. Motivators can come from many backgrounds (and may even fall into some of the categories already mentioned), but are distinguished by their fascination with narrative, people, and talent — and their friendly texts and voicemail messages. They define innovation as “unlocking the ideas of others.”

If you think your firm needs meaningful reinvention, you may want to call in a motivator and invite them to start instilling a mindset of “safe” (small-scale, quick-win/quick-fail) innovation.  Count on them to come to the defense of the right kind of mavericks and designing incentive structures to encourage creative thinking.

But beware: Without clear and conspicuous support from your firm’s very topmost leadership–who have to walk the walk themselves–you’re going to be wasting your HR $$ on these people.  Plus they’re savvy and they’ll jump ship the second or third time “sure” turns out to mean “in our own sweet, achingly protracted, time.”


Aaaah, now you’re talking law firm language!  Organizers worship at the shrine of process, which means they may readily prefer the right process to the right outcome.  Innovation is not the end, but crafting “the right process for generating new ideas” is the end.

Organizers can be found most anywhere but are particularly attracted to professional services, academia, and government, fields with many knowledge workers. While they can drive some other types crazy, organizers can be highly valuable in companies where innovation efforts require wide employee participation and the real challenge is adequately managing them. Assuming there are fresh ideas to run through their processes, organizers create momentum, galvanize support, and deftly navigate politics to help innovations go from idea to reality.

Organizers are usually effective – but can also lose sight of the big picture.

So there’s our Linnaean specification of CINO’s.

Which one do you most need?

You’re probably thinking all of them have something to offer.  True, and this takes us right back to what your firm means when it says it wants to serve up more of that innovation stuff.  Are you seeking delightful client experiences, Six Sigma business process optimization, profit maximization, “Best Place to Work” accolades, dazzling marketing?  Start there, not with the six species of CINO. (We can help with that, by the way.)

Regardless of which direction you think you should head, be aware that you’re competing with the wide world out there, not just other law firms.  As The Lawyer  noted just yesterday, Eversheds Sutherland lost Andrew McManus, its UK head of innovation, to Bridgepoint, a private equity shop, “as firms increasingly deal with an ever fluid recruitment market around technology roles.”

Finally, for extra added credit, take this poll!

[poll id=”20″]


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