Executive Summary: Masters of Innovation: What CIOs Can Learn From the World's Best Innovators

Published: 01 May 2011 ID: G00213395

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CIOs can emulate master innovators to become masters themselves, achieving breakthrough results through serial innovation. Changing four behaviors makes this possible: how you focus, how you treat ambiguity, where you spend time and where you start.


It’s long been known that innovation is not achieved through business-as-usual practices. Yet a majority of enterprises still struggle to support it. This report studies master innovators—individuals who create breakthrough results through serial innovation—and analyzes how CIOs can adopt their practices to become master innovators themselves.

This report addresses the question, What can the CIO and other executives learn from the world’s best innovators?

“Masters of Innovation: What CIOs Can Learn From the World’s Best Innovators” was written by members of the CIO & executive leadership research group, led by Mary Mesaglio (vice president and research director), assisted by Dave Aron (vice president and Gartner Fellow) and Cristina Lazaro (executive client manager).

We would like to thank the many organizations and individuals that generously contributed their insights and experiences to the research, including:

  • The contributors to our interviews and case studies: Ferran Adrià and David López, elBulli (Spain); Blanca Alcanda, Fundosa Technosite (Spain); Pete Goss, Goss Ltd. (U.K.); Dr. Simon Reader, McGill and Utrecht universities (Canada and the Netherlands); Alex Kipman and David Dennis, Microsoft (U.S.); and Kiyoshi Amemiya, Yamanashi Hitachi Construction (Japan).

  • Other Gartner colleagues: Antony Chan, Kazunari Konishi, Adam McCormac and Irving Tyler.

  • Other members of the CIO & executive leadership research group: Jackie Fenn, Richard Hunter, Partha Iyengar, Hung LeHong and Mark Raskino.

Executive Summary

Master innovators tackle innovation in a deeply different way from that of most mainstream innovation efforts. Four behaviors distinguish their approach: how they focus, how they treat ambiguity, where they spend their time and where they start.

In a 2010 worldwide survey of 2,000 executives, McKinsey Quarterly found that, though 84% believe innovation is extremely important in their enterprise, 40% said their company chooses innovation ideas on an ad hoc basis. Moreover, though 57% felt they executed existing initiatives well, they think their company needs newer and bigger ideas.

We define “master innovators” as individuals who, together with their teams, create breakthrough results through serial innovation . Master innovators exist in all fields. Indeed, this report centers on four master innovators in fields as varied as yacht racing, land mine removal, gastronomy and gaming. We explore the distinguishing behaviors of master innovators and show how a CIO can become a master innovator by emulating their unique approach.

The framework below contrasts the critical differences between mainstream innovation efforts and the approach of master innovators.

Figure 1. Change four behaviors to become a master innovator
Research image courtesy of Gartner, Inc.

Source: Gartner.

For master innovators, it’s business as un usual

What makes a master innovator? In describing what characterizes master innovators, the first section of the report delves into the framework, underlining that CIOs and other executives can become master innovators themselves if they commit deeply to the effort. Master innovators are not born—they are made. Their approach can be replicated by a CIO willing to make some sacrifices to achieve results.

The stories: Meet the master innovators

The report’s second section introduces our master innovators. We tell the stories of four remarkable individuals and their teams working in four different fields.

Pete Goss is a relentless innovator who has led nearly 20 initiatives, creating multiple innovations in yacht racing that the wider sailing world has adopted. In Cambodia, Kiyoshi Amemiya and a team of volunteers created a system for remote removal of land mines that eight countries around the world are now using to improve the lives of people in heavily mined areas.

Ferran Adrià, one of the most celebrated chefs in the world, has transformed gastronomy with multiple innovations in food, culinary techniques (such as transforming a food into foam), presentation and the entire dining experience. Finally, as general manager of incubation for Microsoft’s highly regarded Interactive Entertainment Business, Alex Kipman has led three major innovation efforts.

The analysis: Master innovators do four things differently

Section 3 analyzes the behavior of master innovators and contrasts their approach with that of typical corporate innovation efforts. We offer advice on what a CIO can do differently to acquire the four distinguishing behaviors of a master innovator. In brief, master innovators differ from mainstream innovators as follows:

  • Rather than divide their focus between different, possibly competing, priorities, master innovators focus exclusively on the area that drives them, tending to figure out the rest as they go.

  • In their approach to ambiguity, master innovators represent the polar opposite of mainstream innovation efforts. While profoundly tolerant and even protective of ambiguity in the process (the “how” of the innovation), master innovators reject any ambiguity of purpose. Our case studies reveal that each master innovator knew exactly what the project was trying to achieve, if not how to reach that goal. In contrast, mainstream innovation efforts tend to start by defining the process a priori while often tolerating an implicit, possibly ambiguous, purpose. Moreover, mainstream efforts often aim for a rather vague objective, such as “increase innovation in the enterprise.”

  • When feeling pressured for quick results, mainstream innovators tend to spend less time examining the problem and more time solving it. Master innovators, however, will often “sink into the problem” to understand its drivers and context before envisaging a solution.

  • The two groups also have different starting points. Even when they lack resources like time and money, master innovators usually take a zero-based approach to the challenge. They ask, “What do we want to achieve?” whereas mainstream innovators tend to start with, “Here’s what we’ve got.” The starting point for master innovators explicitly rejects current assumptions. This helps them find solutions to seemingly intractable problems, often changing the rules as they go.

Become a master innovator

Given the constraints most enterprises place on CIOs seeking consistent innovation, it is tempting to assume that our master innovators began with advantages unavailable in a CIO’s environment. However, as detailed in the final section of the report, our research found this not to be the case. The master innovators we profile had to overcome major, sometimes gargantuan, problems to achieve their objectives. Our research also reveals some CIOs already on the way to becoming master innovators.

Perhaps most important, our findings suggest that it is possible to be a master innovator in every context. At first, limitations in scope are likely, but we believe that every individual is in a position to choose the optimal balance between playing within boundaries and playing with boundaries. In other words, nothing inherent to the role prevents a CIO from becoming a master innovator.

© 2011 Gartner, Inc. and/or its Affiliates. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction and distribution of this publication in any form without prior written permission is forbidden. The information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of such information. Although Gartners research may discuss legal issues related to the information technology business, Gartner does not provide legal advice or services and its research should not be construed or used as such. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof. The opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice.

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