Innovation, it seems, is a rather difficult term to pin down. Few CIOs or IT Leaders would admit to not being innovative, and yet ask them to define exactly what it means (and as headhunters that's exactly what we do!) and you will get a wide variety of responses.

When attempting to pin down the definition of innovation you find yourself chasing a moving target.

Ten years ago innovating wasn't much different to experimenting and often sat on the fringes of an IT department; perhaps as an hour-a-week project of enthusiasts.

We certainly didn't see much formal need for innovation in the job requirements we gathered from clients when recruiting CIOs and digital leaders.

However, as the years progressed, innovation has come to mean a whole lot more to companies and their IT departments. Web 2.0, mobile, the cloud have all presented genuinely new ways to do business both internally and with external customers, not to mention opening out new markets and revenue streams.

In fact in the latest Harvey Nash and PA Consulting Group CIO Survey published May 2011, three-quarters of CIOs believe their company will lose market share if they fail to innovate.

Three-quarters is a figure worth dwelling on; there has never been a time when innovation has been more important, and for most companies it is the CIO or IT Leader that CEOs turn to.

This has fundamentally changed the DNA of the people that we now look for.

A job specification for a CIO ten years ago would have focused strongly on project management, technical understanding and the ability to relate to internal customers.

Today important new traits are being added that reflect the more interconnected, multifarious, externally focused and fast-changing world we live in.

The CIO Survey also revealed CIOs who described themselves as innovative tend to:

- Report to the CEO (25 per cent more likely than the overall CIO population)
- Have realistic aspirations to become a CEO (26 per cent more likely)
- Have had budget increases in the last year (18 per cent more likely)
- Are a member of the operational board or executive management team (22 per cent more likely)
- Use innovation as a source of competitive advantage rather than focus on cost savings (29 per cent more likely)
- Find their job very fulfilling (24 per cent more likely)
- Invest to a great extent in training for your team (36 per cent more likely)

So, what is the DNA of a digital innovator?

Well, through interviewing hundreds of IT leaders — some innovative, others less so — I list the eight characteristics that I see make a digital innovator stand out.

1. Searches in dark places
Innovative CIOs are able to find innovation possibilities in both the likely places (social media, cloud or mobile) but also in the some rather more unexpected, dark places, which are of real interest. CIOs are one of the few people in an organisation who have their fingers in just about every pie and, by connecting things together, can identify really new possibilities.

For instance one CIO of a major professional services company I know realised that through a change in tax laws in one country it was possible — through technology — to relocate the processing of certain functions to that country and save significant costs. This might not be big-scale or glamorous innovation, but it's innovation all the same, and many CIOs are rather good at it.

2. Open minded and agile
As technologies and business models continue to evolve, it is becoming increasingly difficult to come up with long, or even medium term strategies. Successful digital leaders embrace this uncertain world and can live with fuzzy strategies and changing priorities. They are open minded, agile and are able to switch gears quickly.

They are prepared to pursue multiple streams of projects, killing off the unsuccessful, and evolving the most promising. Even the primary business objective of a project is not sacrosanct to a digital innovator. This may also change during the project. It may not even exist formally at the start of a project. In lieu of this lack of certainty, digital innovators are guided by a feel for what is right.

3. Old school business acumen
Innovation is no longer synonymous with star gazing. More than ever, it is rooted in sound commercial principals and a focus return on investment.

Whilst our clients do look for people who are can create a vision, they are also looking for pragmatic people who are able to translate creative concepts into commercial value. They understand how to make a business case.

4. Mixes form and function
In a world increasingly being defined by products that have a strong design ethos from companies like Apple and Google, digital innovators know that even the very best functioning product is likely to have limited success if its user interface is not up to scratch.

Product design is central and often the start point to the project, rather than a stage further down the project life cycle. Interestingly look-and-feel seems to be in a digital innovator's DNA, even down to the way they dress. Digital innovators do not dress like techies, they dress like the rest of the business.

5. Healthy attitude to failure
True innovators are not afraid to take calculated risks. Rather like a venture capitalist they see their projects as a portfolio that they nurture. They accept and embrace the idea that many of these projects will not result in a big return.

They see failure as a learning experience, and are clever enough to have enough successes to stay in the game.

6. Embraces the inner geek
At the end of the day it is about technology, and digital innovators have a surprisingly firm grasp of the technical detail. They understand that whilst new technology can create new opportunities, it can also create new competitors and threats.

Innovators are passionate about understanding the technical landscape that they operate in, not just because they are genuinely interested, but because they know their innovation will lack longevity without it.

7. Shepherd's instinct
Digital innovators tend to foster innovation, rather than own or manage it. For instance, they will empower other people to work out how to use social networks, and then work back from the successes achieved to formulate a company wide policy or ground rules.

They are capable of guiding from the distance, without stamping out passion and innovation elsewhere. The attitude of encouraging other people to take the glory makes them attractive people to work for.

8. Trusted Advisor
For many CEOs, investing in a digital innovation is a leap of faith. Which is why it is so important that the person leading the innovation has the trust of the CEO and board.

This person must also ensure that the CEO and board understand innovation and how in many ways it is different from traditional technology projects.

Jekyll and Hyde?
To find an individual with all of these skills is difficult enough, but to then add to that the traditional IT skills you have an almost impossible task.

The trouble is that some of these new innovation skills don't naturally sit alongside the traditional IT ones. It takes a very rare person, who in one breath can control a company's security policy, and yet actively encourage an ecosystem of social networks they have little influence over.

Some argue that trying to squeeze too much into one role risks exploding it and that the job of CIO simply can't contain both an innovation and traditional IT remit.

For now, whilst companies are still exploring with innovation, most can live with this Jekyll and Hyde situation. But there are strong indicators that the future might be quite different.

Bridget Gray is principal consultant in Harvey Nash's CIO Practice. She specialises in recruiting CIOs and IT Leaders into roles focused around opening new revenue streams and markets through the use of digital technology.

Pic: andriux-uk cc2.0