6 Traits of Successful Chief Innovation Officers (That You Can Put in Practice Today)
December 9, 2020

6 Traits of Successful Chief Innovation Officers (That You Can Put in Practice Today)

by Brian de Haaff

"Do you think of yourself as creative or conventional?" This question recently sparked a lively discussion with the Aha! team. Some folks referenced their DIY home project skills as evidence of creativity. Others counted aversion to risk as a sign of conventionality. As adults, we tend to pin labels on ourselves. Creativity (or a lack thereof) is seen by some as a fixed trait — people are either innovative or not. But in fact, these skills can be learned and practiced.

Being innovative is about imagining the future and anticipating how you will respond to what comes next.

More and more companies are carving out roles dedicated to the practice of innovation. According to one study, 30 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a senior innovation executive — such as a chief transformation officer (CTO), which should not be confused with chief technology officer, chief digital officer (CDO), or chief innovation officer (CINO).

These executives are directly responsible for building a robust idea management process, developing new product ideas, and identifying opportunities for transformation. I personally do not advocate for or against this type of role. But the reality is that some organizations feel this type of leadership position is necessary.

And I have written before about how innovation management requires much more than just generating great ideas. It takes a fundamental shift in an organization's culture — both a genuine openness to new perspectives and a formal process for evaluating and implementing ideas that will bring real value. Without buy-in from the organizational leaders, innovation initiatives are essentially hamstrung.

But that does not mean that every organization needs to add a senior role like CINO.

Done poorly, you can end up with isolated strategic initiatives. It is also true that innovation is impossible to delegate. And worse yet, you may disempower the individuals who are closest to customer feedback and internal requests for improvement. There is a lot to be said for encouraging innovation at the team level and creating a culture of shared ownership.

No matter how innovation is managed internally, it is a focused pursuit that has wide benefits. Cultivating your own creativity as a business leader or product manager expands your ability to see beyond what you have done before. You need it to solve increasingly complex problems, lead your team to success, and continue to meet the needs of your customers.

Everyone in the organization has a responsibility to deliver new ideas and discover better solutions.

There are no shortcuts to strengthening creative problem-solving skills. But I have noticed some common traits among people who are innovation leaders in their organizations. So if you want to expand your ability to think imaginatively, these are the traits to develop:


CINOs are responsible for big-picture thinking — spotlighting future possibilities that are aligned with the organization's vision. By its very nature, this kind of thinking demands hope. It requires a belief that the future will be better than today — with a team that is dedicated to pursuing the right work.

How to practice: Some people are naturally optimistic. But I do not think you need to adopt an always-sunny attitude to have hope for the future. Cultivate optimistic realism by looking at a situation from all sides. Think about what could go wrong, what is likely to go right, and how you will respond if the unexpected happens.


CINOs are inherently curious and committed to learning. Every conversation, meeting, and customer idea is an opportunity to understand different perspectives. That thirst for deep understanding fosters more imaginative problem-solving — the willingness to ask "why" every time a new problem or potential solution is revealed.

How to practice: Start by collecting as much information as you can about a given situation. Ask truly revealing questions to capture the insights behind the idea or request.


CINOs care about customers and colleagues. This care goes beyond a superficial level — it is an innate desire to know the heart of who they serve and how the ongoing pursuit of that knowledge can lead to breakthrough opportunities.

How to practice: If you want to be more empathetic, you need to get close to your customers and experience what they feel. Comb through customer requests. See if you can shadow customer-facing teammates. Commit to putting yourself in the customer's position — not just what they are saying, but understanding the beliefs and feelings behind it all.


CINOs take bold risks — trying things that have not been attempted before. This does not mean they are foolhardy. Rather, they have confidence in their vision and inspire others to pursue it no matter the obstacles.

How to practice: When you know something is aligned with your strategic direction, take action quickly. Being decisive helps you accumulate good outcomes and pushes the team towards boldness. The flip side is true too. Speak up when you see new work that does not align with the team's goals.


CINOs think critically. They are able to analyze many inputs — market trends, customer data, stakeholder values — and determine which opportunities are viable. This takes perceptiveness and the ability to tune into the right information.

How to practice: Too many ideas to pursue at once? Good. This just means more opportunity to create value. The key is ruthless prioritization — evaluate what will have the largest impact against the effort required. And question any work that seems tangential to business goals.


CINOs are resilient. The role is demanding and sometimes discouraging — finding the right approach means discarding a lot of good-but-not-great ideas. It takes persistence and an ongoing drive to do better.

How to practice: Avoid fatigue by approaching every new idea or initiative with a clear process. An objective framework for evaluating new ideas and solutions helps remove guesswork and makes idea management a sustainable practice.

Not every new idea will be groundbreaking — but innovative organizations build a culture where every idea is valued.

Take time to reflect on which of the above traits come naturally and where you have room to practice and grow. The true satisfaction is knowing you are prepared to take action, whatever comes next. It is humbling to realize that every decision brings you closer to the next breakthrough innovation.

What other traits define an innovative leader?

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Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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