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Exploring the Psyches of Chief Innovation Officers at CSAA and PA Consulting

PA Consulting’s Chief Innovation Officer Frazer Bennett discusses best practices for crafting an effective innovation strategy with Kaitlin Milliken from Innovation Leader.

Click here to listen to the full Innovation Leader podcast. Frazer’s interview starts at the 20:05 mark.

Kaitlin Milliken: To get us started, what are some common challenges that Chief Innovation Officers face?

Frazer Bennett: Chief Innovation Officers — and I can say this because I am one — I think Chief Innovation Officers have been going through something of an existential crisis. In recent years, we have a sort of an era where the Chief Innovation Officer was seen as the great white hope to help, in particular, large organizations face the challenge of a competitive threat from a digital revolution and from the rise of the internet era. And in many cases, I think there’s been a frustration because it’s been seeing that the Chief Innovation Officer has perhaps failed to deliver on the promise. But in no way should that land at the feet of the Chief Innovation Officer, because in some ways, it comes back to some pretty simple things like ensuring that the objectives were measurable. It’s a big challenge to help organizations to make the kind of shift that they want to. It’s 50 percent cultural change. It’s 50 percent inspiring and driving innovation in product and service. And it’s also 50 percent in trying to help shift the company purpose, and many of these things are very difficult to measure. So once we get that piece right, I think it will be a whole lot easier.

Kaitlin Milliken: Fifty percent for each, 150 percent in total, that can be quite the challenge to figure out how to balance it, define a mandate. What are some other things that chief innovation officers can be doing or should be doing to overcome those roadblocks?

Frazer Bennett: We have a role to inspire our people, but importantly to inspire the leadership. We inspire change, by inspiring changing amongst our peers, as much as we do amongst our people, if you like. It’s probably 80 percent a leadership challenge. Okay? To what extent can we inspire our colleagues across the organization to come on this journey with us. That takes bravery, it takes willingness to take risk and get stuff wrong and evidence that it’s okay to get stuff wrong. And something that we can discuss a little bit later, I think, and that’s about the willingness to operate within constraints.

Kaitlin Milliken: So Frazer, you mentioned that constraints can be a really powerful tool in helping unlock innovation. Do you have any examples of that at these larger companies?

Frazer Bennett: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because the larger companies look with envy at these young, nimble small startups and say, “Well, that’s the reason we can’t innovate.” And yet the small, nimble young companies look with envy on the large corporations that you know, “If only we had the might of Amazon behind us or Microsoft.” So actually, the scale of your organization does not… It introduces different constraints. But it doesn’t mean it’s any harder or easier to innovate.

I’ll give you one example. We’ve worked with a company in Europe called BDR Thermea. They are a 400 year… I think, 400-year-old company that make domestic boilers. And innovating with them to develop a digital connected thermostat product, not only inspire them think differently about their product offer, but also helps them to completely think differently about the kind of organization they need to be the kind of sales force they need to have the kind of way they market themselves. And indeed, whether they are a product business after all, or are they actually going to transform their service business.

So from a really simple innovation, operating in very high constraints, because they had a tiny amount of budget and very little time, it became a catalyst to inspire much more transformational change within that company.

Kaitlin Milliken: What should innovators and Chief Innovation Officers be doing to gain that support from other C-suite leaders?

Frazer Bennett: The vast majority of the C-suite have a really clearly defined mandate and role. And that’s not always the case for the Chief Innovation Officer. And so building trust, being mindful of and in tune with the corporate objectives of a firm — living and breathing the purpose, yes, but also being in tune with those tangible objectives. That’s a great way of building trust with colleagues, in my experience.

Kaitlin Milliken: At large organizations, there’s a risk of having innovation siloed in one department, how can innovators better communicate wins?

Frazer Bennett: My heart sinks often when I go into an organization and see that they’ve created an innovation area. We observe repeatedly that innovation is a mindset and not a department. You know, it’s almost an oxymoron to have a Chief Innovation Officer.

My primary objective is to put myself out of a job, inspiring creativity, inspiring people to think differently, and challenge convention.

Kaitlin Milliken: This particular role is quite interesting. We’ve seen that they get created and then sometimes that position goes away and then they get recreated. How do you create a position, and create that innovation person, and follow a career path in that when there’s so much instability, for how these roles get created, how long they stick around?

Frazer Bennett: Let’s come back to the point that it isn’t a department and in some sense, therefore, it isn’t about having a senior role. If you are an innovator, or if you are the person that inspired others to look at the world from a different perspective and in doing so create the new, you’re never going to be out of a job. Our planet needs these people, [LAUGHS] desperately. You may not take that role, that job title, but you certainly aren’t going to be out of a job.

Maybe the career path, as you describe it for a Chief Innovation Officer is less pertinent, is less important. And it’s about being one of those people that perhaps has been able to inspire many, many more people to recognize the value of innovation in everything that they do in their role.

Kaitlin Milliken: What can innovators do at large companies to shift the culture at their organization to allow new ideas to blossom?

Frazer Bennett: Culture is the thing that when you’re in it, you don’t notice it, right? Think about the fun you have at Thanksgiving sitting around the table with your family and the family culture. You don’t even notice it. You feel more at home there than anywhere else.

So inspiring a cultural change is the thing that must start at the top. So I mentioned that kind of 80 percent interacting with peers and seniors role of a Chief Innovation Officer. If we are going to inspire a cultural change, we must start at the top of the organization. And as a Chief Innovation Officer, if I haven’t inspired my peers to aspire to the kind of change that we’re talking about, then I haven’t even started yet.

Kaitlin Milliken: You mentioned that innovation is a mindset, what are some of the most important qualities that are a part of that innovator’s mindset?

Frazer Bennett: I founded three companies, two semiconductor companies, and a software company. I founded a semiconductor company without venture finance, which — ask anybody in a semiconductor company — that’s a bonkers thing to try and do. And yet, I learned so much about innovation and how to inspire creativity because of that. And that’s around operating within constraints.

When you operate within an environment with many constraints. That’s one thing that does force you to be innovative. In this little company that I started, we didn’t have enough money, we didn’t have enough people. We didn’t have the infrastructure and equipment that we needed to design and deliver the product. And what did that do? It forced us to think differently about what’s the product that we’re going to build? How are we going to build it? How are we going to market it when we don’t have any marketing budget? Well, we go to the trade shows, and we operate in a guerrilla fashion.

PA has a product development lab in Cambridge in the UK. And again, we actually enjoy operating in the constraints of limited resources and limited time, because it every day inspires us to solve problems in a new way because we have to. And so if I was to pick one thing, I would pick the willingness and ability to operate in a constrained environment as the kind of secret sauce of innovation if you like.

Kaitlin Milliken: That’s a great note to end on. Thank you Frazer for your time.

Frazer Bennett: No problem. Thank you. Nice to speak to you.

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