The mistakes of having a VP of innovation

Hypothesis: if ever a VP of something is created, perhaps a VP of quality or a VP of sarcasm, it means three things:

  1. The company is failing at that activity.
  2. The executives in the company are failing to do their jobs in leading that activity in their divisions.
  3. The company will continue to fail at that activity until a VP dedicated to that activity is no longer needed.

No great company in history, from Amazon to Google, to Apple, began with an innovation team. That word innovation was almost never used early on, as every employee simply built things to solve problems. Innovation, however you define it, in these early efforts isn’t prevented by the lack of a VP in charge of it. Finding new ideas happens simply because people need those new ideas to do their jobs. Just as there’s no VP of Breathing or Thinking people do these things just fine, as needed, to get through the day.

Only when a company has matured and slowed does its culture become conservative and tied to the status quo. This is when the notion of a VP for Innovation becomes even comprehensible. It’s no surprise that the only companies with VP roles focused on innovation are large and slow ones. The most sensible response to to change a company culture is to put people in true leadership roles, managing the major products or services at the center of a company’s business, that are leaders of change. Only by example do cultures progress. But that would require conviction and tough decisions from a CEO about increasing experimentaton, or re-organizing the complany, both highly political and with some risks. However inventing an executive for innovation out of thin air is easy and far less political: nothing much has to change.

These VP of Innovation roles are usually divorced from actual product responsibilities. Somehow from the side, without actually making any products, they are supposed to change the product making culture. How could this work? Common titles include Chief Innovation officers, and VP of Innovation, but they are not the same kind of executive that has to actually ship anything to the world. They also rarely  manage R&D groups that develop specific ideas. Instead they’re supposed to encourage others in the company to be more innovative by what, asking nicely? Throwing innovation parties? I don’t really know (but it’s not clear they know either). Their one certain achievement is they let a company claim they are innovative because they have an “executive” with that word in their job title that clients and the press can talk to.

Like my experience with the Microsoft Values Group (see side story below), it’s flawed to attempt culture change from the side. And I suspect any hard working product team who receives a phone call from a VP of Innovation will be confused as to what their credibility is: “Who are you to tell me what innovation is, or how to do it?” Unless the VP of Innovation has a stellar track record of managing teams that released great products, what credibility can they have? And if they do have that track record, why aren’t they leading by example on an actual product?

The only sensible angle for a VP of innovation to take is to dedicate themselves to eliminating the need for their role (Point #3 above). This doesn’t mean there is no value, only that a healthy creative culture wouldn’t require a VP of Creativity, any more than a VP of Breathing. The VP’s goal then is recovery to health: to help teams rediscover the environments and attitudes they once had about new ideas, reintroducing risk taking and creative dialog, and then getting out of their way. Their job is to use their executive rank to publicize teams that already have healthy systems of innovation in place, and use show others in the company how to learn from their example.

VPs of innovation should have expiration dates. When the company returns to a culture where innovation is natural, or at least comprehensible, the need for a VP of innovation has been satisfied and they should quit and end the role. If innovation doesn’t become a natural part of the environment by the expiration date, then that VP can’t say she’s succeeded, as her role in a progressive company, wouldn’t ever be necessary.

[The kind of a culture a leader who wants creativity must create is explored in Chapter 7 of The Myths of Innovation]

[Side story: Before leaving Microsoft in ’03 I gave a talk titled How not to be stupid: a guide to critical thinking. The title was intended to make people laugh, as humor is a large part of thinking well. Afterwards the director of the Microsoft Company Values Team, a team I did not know existed, contacted me. I was mystified that a team existed with the job of promoting the company’s values to the company. It made as much sense as the suburbs telling the city how to be urban. He suggested I change the title to something less negative and more positive, like “How to be Smart”. This literal, but entirely boring, approach defeated the central premise of what I was trying to say. And his attempt to tell me what the values were had the opposite effect: I considered doing the talk again with a more provocative title. The company I’d known welcomed the free expression of challenging ideas. Perhaps this was just writing on the wall as I left the company months later.]

24 Responses to “The mistakes of having a VP of innovation”

  1. Mike

    Back during the bubble, I worked at one of the ubiquitous dot-coms. At one of our pep rallies/all hands meetings, the CEO made the claim that innovation was one of our “core competencies”. This was before the crash, and was the first reality check that I can consciously recall.

  2. Chris Harbert

    Generally senior staff members set structure, strategy, culture, and goals. I could see a VP of Innovation being valuable for reminding other senior staff members how their actions will affect the innovation capacity of the organization with respect to the organization’s structure, strategy, culture, and goals.

    For example, the senior staff may be thinking about a re-org that would create a vertical organizational structure. The VP of Innovation could “remind” them that horizontal teams tend to be more innovative.

    Ensuring that the organization’s culture is conducive to innovation would also be a very important task for the role. Perhaps encouraging the values police to back off would be a good use for this type of exec?

    There’s also the shareholder benefit. Creating a VP role for something tells shareholders that your company values it (even if the VP doesn’t really do anything). Look at Yahoo’s latest re-org. They’re probably trying to send a clear message to their shareholders that their company’s values have shifted.

  3. Scott (admin)

    Mike: It’s so hard to separate the word innovation from just plain old work. What does it even mean for innovation to be a core competency? And besides, every list of core competencies I’ve seen from various corporations not only seems much like others, but are so vague and broad that many activities can be folded inside them.

    But you suggest it was a wake-up call – so I have to accept that however innovation was used, it had a positive effect on you.

  4. Scott (admin)


    You wrote “There’s also the shareholder benefit. Creating a VP role for something tells shareholders that your company values it (even if the VP doesn’t really do anything). Look at Yahoo’s latest re-org. They’re probably trying to send a clear message to their shareholders that their company’s values have shifted.”

    I think this definitely gives shareholders the perception of benefit – what’s easier than taking a top complain from shareholders and creating a highly visible role for it? But that’s far from having any effect on how new ideas are developed inside the company.

    You also wrote: “I could see a VP of Innovation being valuable for reminding other senior staff members how their actions will affect the innovation capacity of the organization with respect to the organization’s structure, strategy, culture, and goals.”

    But why would any competent VP for a product team need to be reminded of their innovation capacity? If the product team has aggressive goals to improve their product, they’ll be doing fine on trying to maximize their ‘innovation’ capacity. And if their goals aren’t aggressive, why isn’t the CEO simply charging his VPs, through aggressive strategy for the corporation as a whole, to be ambitious and take risks?

    Look at any company in its innovation prime and you wont find any talk of Innovation VPs, or even the word innovation as a concept: they’re innovating naturally to be competitive and aggressive in making their products better.

  5. James Bullock

    Does VP guy own doing the work, or supporting the doing of this work among others?

    Line jobs are easy. Product Development VP has a herd of resources and develops product. Other people don’t. Simple.

    When an organization gets big, and sometimes before that, it can be useful to have someone pushing an agenda across the functional units. I think of “the finance guys” this way, actually. We don’t “do” accounting, most of us, as what our business gets paid for. Nor do we individually get paid, again most of us, to do financial rollups. Yet we do it, and the doing of it is actually spread across the whole organization. Also yet, the doing of it goes to hell without someone giving it some attention because they have that particular monkey on their back.

    You’re more entangled with a paradox than finding an error here. Done right, having a “VP Of Something We All Need To Do Some Of” can help us all do some of that. Done wrong, well, you get people trolling for snarky presentation titles, referring to an internal web site as the authoritative source for the company’s values. (And how much does that little incident tell us about the *actual* culture of that organization. At least half a dozen distinct things about authority, communication, roles, values, folklore, and more. Any anthropologists reading this care to take a shot? Here’s a chance to show off.)

    I don’t have a problem with “VP of Innovation” to hold the agenda, hold some attention, and even perhaps hold a pot of capabilities and some budget both to be spread among the functional units. They are called staff functions, and while everybody has to pay attention to not wasting money, somebody also has to roll-up the books. The trick with staff functions is that their impact isn’t what we do here, but what “they” do out there, and how we help them do more / better than they would otherwise. Staff functions start going to hell when they become confused into thinking that they are in charge.

    When the alleged staff function is the business we are in, or the business we claim to be in, that’s a different problem. So if we’re in the innovation business, but only this slice of the organization rolls up to “VP of Innovation Guy”, well we’re confused about something. But, executives are no more immune to becoming confused than anyone else. So, they screw this up sometimes. And sometimes, perhaps often, the staff folks forget what their role actually is. The real role is a hard one to fill successfully, as Mr. Values VP Guy in your story demonstrated.

  6. Mike


    You misunderstand. My reaction was the same as yours, “What does that even mean?” It was a wake up call in the sense that I saw the ludicrous nature of what was going on. The emperor had no clothes, as it were.

  7. andrew


    You raise interesting points. I infer that the point of your discussion with Scott may be summed up as finding out if organization is applied as a substitute for intelligence.

    If it turns out that it is, we may find that larger structures, which naturally tend towards more organization, would as naturally stifle innovation, to which intelligence is crucial.

    Unsurprisingly, this is how things prove to be in the real world.

    This does not prove that the substitution of intelligence with organization is a necessity on a large scale. Anyway, I’m under the impression that this is what happens.

    Am I oversimplifying? Or just opening a can of worms? :-)

  8. Josh Maher

    These large companies need a way for new ideas to be submitted through the ranks to someone or some group that knows what to do with it. This is especially critical when there are a lot of keep the business running employees who don’t have as much opportunity to innovate in their daily jobs.

    Another way to look at it is like the person who runs the think week site at MS, or the person in who leads the evangelism of using the 20% time at Google. Once all of these people are busy keeping up status quo and implementing someone else’s ideas their own personal ideas should not be lost, but they should be captured and fostered…and that needs at least one person’s time in a large company….

  9. Kris Vockler

    Scott, as always I love the way you put things into perspective. My thought and view on this is that as a company grows, sadly it doesn’t retain that which started it and I doubt one could figure out how to keep it just like it was at the launch day. At the start of a company, you are right on target, it’s started because of a problem to solve or an idea to sell, innovation isn’t hard at that point because what you start with is innovative or it just won’t fly. But as you grow, it’s not just a core group of people or one person it’s now a group of people and no matter what we do we need to hire a manager to take care of the different parts; innovation, R&D, HR, etc. Innovation is just one of those odd concepts that everyone feels they can sustain and just keep cranking out the new stuff (ok, Steve Jobs accepted), it’s not that easy, there were stars in alignment and a stiff breeze the first time you rolled out that innovative product, now, when you get bigger it’s like aiming for the point on shore with your boat and having hope for the best you keep in a straight line.

    But, I do believe that when a group of people all shares the same values and vision then innovations just happens, more like you have more eyes on the opportunities of innovation. It’s no different than how an entrepreneur is able to see opportunities most people can’t.

    That’s the secret right there! A company grows and the entrepreneur becomes removed from the company, entrepreneurs have an ability to see opportunity.

    Maybe on something there.


    Maybe most businesses out there just try to hard.


  10. Timothy Johnson

    Two points, Scott:

    1. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Based on this, I would agree with your premise that most companies create an accountable position for an area of failure. A VP of Innovation…? That’s just scary from a left-brain-right-brain perspective… after all, manage from the left; lead from the right. It sounds like this position is set up for failure. (P.S. I’m sure you see the same thing with the Chief Project Officer position.)

    2. It should be every professional’s goal to make himself or herself obsolete, regardless of role and skillset. If we are not, we are failing ourselves and our organizations. As a consultant, I prefer shorter engagements as they do not allow me the temptation to “burrow in” and become comfortably parasitic. However, many consultants (and FTEs, for that matter) do not share that mindset. And we wonder why we are not good at innovation…

    Great post and good food for thought.

  11. Katie

    I’ve studied innovation for several years and have been working for several months with a creativity guru. From that experience, I can say that many times a large company needs a Chief Innovation Officer or VP of Innovation to actually make innovation happen.

    There are so many companies who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for my employer to come in to give a speech, and when we leave, it is obvious that the company will be enthusiastic for a little about innovation, but will never actually use it. They say to their employees: be creative. But they never make it a requirement and their employees are so busy with other things that the innovation never happens.

    A Chief Innovation Officer, when done correctly, should set up a “Creative Hit-List” of all the things that need innovative thinking within the company. It is the officer’s job to let employees know where innovative thinking is needed, to provide them with tools (yes, tools do exist, email me if you have questions) to help the employees be creative, and to also listen to and act on good ideas. A Chief Innovation Officer should be proactive in making employees think, not just waiting for their ideas.

    Nor should the officer just think of ideas herself. The goal is to enhance innovation within the company, not have only one innovative employee.

    From my observations and that of my employer, a Chief Innovation Officer (or the equivalent) is necessary to make sure that innovation is done within the company. Most companies say they want to be creative, but don’t actually do anything to achieve that goal.

    An effective Chief Innovation Officer needs to focus on bringing innovation into the company, and then keeping it there. This is not a one-time thing. It must be ongoing.

  12. Jeff De Cagna

    Scott, I wholeheartedly agree with your two essential points. The role of the VP of Innovation is to create a favorable context and an internal capability for innovation. It is not his or her job to tell others how to innovate, but to learn with them the best way to make innovation sustainable, to provide support when necessary and to remove barriers.

    I also agree that an expiration date on the VP of Innovation role is a useful idea, but it should be set only after the role is occupied for at least one year. I don’t think you want to make someone a lame duck out of the gate. Instead, you give your person a year to make an assessment of what’s happening in the organization and what is required to move forward. From there, I think no more than a two-year window to create something sustainable. After that, the position is phased out in favor of collective stewardship by non-executive staff through an innovation council or community of practice.

    Scott, on another note, I’ve been trying to reach you to find out more about the book and whether we might do an interview for my blog. Can we touch base at some point? You have my e-mail address as part of my blog post. I look forward to hearing from you.

  13. Scott (admin)

    Wow – you guys are smart. What are you doing here?

    James: Points taken. To show my cards, I’m cynical of staff roles. It’s so rare I’ve seen them effective and rarely are the best senior staff chosen for those roles, vs. product management roles. But yes – I take your point that there is a purpose and a value. But I wonder if you agree these roles should have self-termination conditions.

    Timothy: You’re right – the work yourself out of a job idea is a side-effect of people who trust their orgs/leaders. It means people are trying to make real progress, not just the convenient kinds.

    Jeff: I’ll follow up. Looks like you’re a Giant fan – on that basis alone I’m obligated to chat with you.

  14. EDeFazio

    At the end of the day if any position is created i.e. “Chief Director/ Evangelist of Technology Innovataion” without :
    1) Budget
    2) Staff
    3) Authority/Responsibility/Accountability

    Any grandeous ideas cooked up will never truly be implemented…
    Companies often speak of how important innovation is, but rarely take the appropriate steps to implement an innovative company (I think 3M is one of the few exceptions) When it comes right down to it, it’s about “resource allocation” (How much time, money and people are you going to devote to innovating?) Most of talk about innovation within companies is just rhetoric…

    BTW Scott, I’d imagine you’ve read “the Innovators Dilemma”, and “The Innovators Solution”… both very good on the topic of Innovation (I also liked “What Customers Want”)


  15. ERudd

    There is no blueprint for innovation. If there was, everyone would follow it (by creating a VP of Innovation,etc.) and it would cease to be a competitive advantage. The Innovator’s Dilemma basically says that as soon as a company puts a framework in place that prevents certain types of investment in development, a window of opportunity for the competition is opened. You know where the VP of Innovation really exists? By definition, your competitor is the only one who can staff that role. Think about that.

  16. John

    I am on an innovation team at one of the largest companies in the us. My day to day job is to run the innovative projects in the company directly. We take the company’s top problems/areas of focus, develop solutions for them, and implement them. I have been doing this for over 5 years. I am not sure what other “innovation” groups are doing out there, but the ones I have worked with at other companies have similar roles.

  17. Malcolm De Leo


    My thought is this…you are right on some accounts and wrong on others. I agree with you that the goal of a VP of innovation (I am one) is to obsolete oneself. I preach this in my role all the time. Secondly, you are right companies require this role because they have the lost the true innovation roots that helped them be what they are. Where I believe you are off is in the following. For one, companies live in a world of black and white value and unless they can mesure it they are likely to discard it. I see the innovation leader as the knight of the grey. They help others by challenging the culture to be different. Which leads to I believe is the most critical point…the key overlooked role of an innovation leader is to obsolete themselves of being the culture champion who empowers others. As someone who has produced tangible innovation in the front end of the business his entire career I often say this. Great innovators learn to be just that when they have no budget, no formal authority and no resources at their disposal (people). If under these conditions you can learn the key skills to get it done, you are now capable of innovating in space. And when you can innovate in space, you are equipped to become a true innovation leader. Why? Because as you stated people don’t give a rat’s ass about your opinion because you have the title. You need to help be a muse and knight of the grey to create a strategy that bulids culture, infrastrcuture that can produce the tangible solutions which equal value. You post mixes up in my opinion a company’s focus that innovation is product with a leader who has commanded people to innovate rather than influence others into a direction that makes it better for all. And then yes…you should obsolete yourself. I am trying to everyday, but as you stated most big corporations need a champion or figurehead to spearhead the key elements that begin to empower everyone. why? Because most enterprises are not clear on what they do for me as an employee…which creates an everyman for himself attitude and ultimately reinforces the corporatocracy we now live in. Just watch what Wall street, Enron, BP and others continue to do the average guy. Feel free to email me…I would love to chat some more about the subject….Mal

  18. Phil Simon

    I hear you, Scott. I laugh when I hear about VP of Platform, Chief Revenue Office, and other oddball titles. I’d argue that many of these traits ought to be imbued in the fabric of the culture, not the ostensible purview of someone with a 200k+ salary.

  19. Scott

    The title rightly has a shelf life. At some point the company won’t need someone to oversee innovation for the perception of the shareholders or employees. It will naturally occur or the environment will be reestablished to allow innovation to happen naturally.
    At the end of the life cycle, this person’s role will change to something else, depending on the next need of the company.



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