Last month, I wrote a post about Cambia Health Solutions, a nonprofit health insurance provider in Portland, Ore., and how it had turned to crowdsourcing to spark innovation. As I noted in that post, the person who ignited that spark was Mohan Nair, a Cambia senior vice president who had assumed a position that’s becoming increasingly common in the C-suite: that of chief innovation officer.
So where do chief innovation officers typically come from, and what, exactly, do they do? I had the opportunity to discuss those questions with Nair, who had been Cambia’s chief marketing officer before being tapped to fill the newly created chief innovation officer position five years ago. He provided an informative look at his own position, beginning with his assumption of the role:
In 2010, the board and my boss, the CEO, decided that I would best play in the next generation as the chief innovation officer for the company. The CEO suggested that to me, initially, and I took it, knowing full well that chief innovation officer roles are not well-defined in the marketplace, but one that allowed me to set the table in health care, given the fact that I was probably one of the first few chief innovation officers in this industry. I think I earned the right to be the chief innovation officer from creating ambidextrous solutions. I had a technology background—I was producing, with the help of people smarter than me, significant e-properties that the company had yet to see in a consumer engagement. Through that, I demonstrated the capability to not just market, but also to design and create new solutions and new pathways from a consumer perspective in a large health care institution. So I think there are many paths to becoming the chief innovation officer. One would clearly be through the IT ranks, where you report into the chief information officer as an innovator, so you can keep being the engine for invention using technology. Then there are other pathways—when you look at organizations that desire to transform, with a view on the new customers that arrive, you may need an innovation officer who really understands both the business and technology sides combined into a unique recipe that finds insight in the customer.
Nair noted that there are companies in which the chief innovation officer reports to the CIO, but that’s not the case at Cambia:
[The chief information officer role at Cambia] was designed generically to report to the CEO as a separate role. I think that was enlightened on the part of the CEO, because he knew my capabilities could traverse multiple organizations, and he wanted to give me the breadth to define new markets, to create new companies, and to accelerate what other people may be struggling with in the companies concerned. There are configurations in the world where the chief innovation officer reports to the chief information officer—that’s also a model that can work, as long as one realizes that whom one reports to is less important than whom one is accountable to. There’s always going to be a natural tension between the functions of the chief information officer, who has to keep the train running on the right track, and the chief innovation officer, who has to find a new way to transport the goods. That tension is a positive tension, though it could be a negative, if people don’t understand their roles. It’s a positive tension if it’s worked in partnership with personality. There can be an equal tension between the chief innovation officer and the business office, or the product office, or the marketing office, or the design office, if not managed well. So it is unfortunate, yet reliable, that the chief innovation officer role has to be in tension with almost every other department that is functionally driven. Because the role of the chief innovation officer is to bring assets of all of those functions as a lightning rod to create the future, and bring that future to the present.
I asked Nair how he would differentiate his role from that of Cambia’s CIO, Laurent Rotival. He explained it this way:
The CIO, Laurent, is going to have a broader perspective, to expand beyond IT conformance to the design and creation of platforms for the future, and good for him. I will do similar things, but I’m about enabling the culture of the organization, which is No. 1, because there’s no use creating knowledge with a few smart people sitting in a room eating pizza, and then throwing it onto the rest of the organization. You have to create the fertile soil for ideas to be absorbed and delivered—as well as ideas to be gathered, hence the Spigit conversation. Secondly, we also accelerate any problem to solution that the leadership deems necessary. So we’re kind of a Seal Team 6 group—we get in there, and within eight weeks we will destroy the enemy and produce good results. We are a team that’s trained to be able to jump in and understand the terrain fast, and enable the leadership to achieve results using proprietary methods of innovation. The third is, if we see a gap in the industry where a company can live, we go create that company, all the way from idea to launching and funding.
Nair said just like any “Seal Team,” his is quite small:
They can fit in an elevator, and that’s good, because I can do roll call very quickly. It’s only about 12 people, but that’s large enough for it to be hyper-productive. It’s the quality of the team that ensures the quality of the outcome. As I’ve learned how to be a true innovation officer in the culture of innovation, not just in the objective of innovation, I’ve learned to leverage teams, and to leverage individuals collectively to product the outcomes necessary. That’s not just saying it—it’s a practiced activity in my organization. We always travel, talk, and work in groups. We never go to a meeting by ourselves. We are always two—one to watch the 12 o’clock and the other one to watch the six o’clock. It’s a combination of military training and DARPA-like innovation skills. If you can combine those two, you get a unique proposition for the rest of the industry.
Finally, I asked Nair if there is any overlap in the reporting structure. He said there’s not—his team and the CIO’s team are completely separate:
But we are always in partnership, engaged in helping anyone in a classic service leadership model—we are of service to every part of the organization. It’s really funny how your team can be hyper-motivated when they have skills that are needed, and they can solve problems as a team. Our purpose never goes to bed—we’re always awake. It’s an interesting way to work. The organization took a while to adjust to us. At first it was almost like, “Why are you duplicating my job?” That is clearly one of the things most people would worry about. But when they start to see you as a [powerful force], they start to utilize your power.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.