#8 Seven ways to avoid Innovation Theater

Innovation Theater refers to a situation where an organization claims to be doing innovation or promoting innovation but in truth, they are doing very little or whatever they’re doing has very little impact on the organization or its environment. The organization is really just putting on a show, a facade.

What is innovation theater

Innovation Theater refers to a situation where an organization claims to be doing innovation or promoting innovation but in truth, they are doing very little or whatever they’re doing has very little impact on the organization or its environment. The organization is really just putting on a show, a facade.

  • Company X announces that they’re opening an innovation lab with a multi-million dollar budget to develop disruptive solutions in area Y. After the lab opens, it stands empty on most days, with the occasional visit from other corporates who are thinking of opening a lab of their own.
  • Company X partners with a brand name startup accelerator to develop a joint program. After the program is launched, startups who try to pilot their solution with the company give up after nearly being killed by bureaucracy and internal politics.
  • Company X takes all its senior management on a 3-day retreat hosted by a Silicon Valley think tank (like Singularity University). When management comes back to work, the first thing they ask to see is a P&L.

In recent years, the term, innovation theater, has become so popular, especially in the corporate world, that a lot of folks have started making fun of it. If you follow CB Insights, they released a brief at the end of 2015 titled Corporate Innovation Theater in 8 Acts and it’s hilarious. In 2018, they released an updated version of that brief called “A Guide To Corporate Innovation: 19 Strategies To Drive Innovation Now.”
If you haven’t read these, I don’t wanna spoil it for you. I’ll just add a link to both articles in the show notes and you should definitely check them out.

What’s also happening right now is that a lot of companies that launch an innovation project of some sorts, openly declare that their project will not be another act of innovation theater. They are different.

....and, of course, it turns out to be more of an innovation theater...LOL.

So, if you’re about to launch a new innovation project, here is my list of 7 ways you can avoid putting on a show.

#1 Have a plan

I cannot stress this enough. So many of my clients when they first come to me haven’t really thought through what it means to build an innovation lab, or an acceleration program, or launch (and sustain) innovation within their organization for that matter. They know innovation is important, they see what others are doing, and they say “I want that.” But the thing is that successfully launching and sustaining innovation is (a) hard and (b) personal. There is no cookie-cutter solution. So, if you don’t have a plan...things are going to get real messy, real fast….and that’s when folks usually default to innovation theater...because it’s easy.

Keep it simple, or you won’t follow it, or have trouble following it, or make it difficult for others to follow it.

The plan will probably include:
  • Vision
  • Goals
  • OKRs or KPIs
  • People/Stakeholders
  • Activities
  • Timeline/Calendar
  • Budget/Cost structure

#2 Figure out your MVA (Minimum Viable Audience)

A concept I stole from the wonderful Seth Godin.
When you are launching something new and risky, you don’t need a large audience. You need the right audience. You need the people who get you, who want what you have and are willing to give.

In your plan you should list your audience (or stakeholders), what it is that they need/want, and how are you going to give it to them (ie, the value you provide).

Your audience will probably include:
  • People you report to
  • People who report to you
  • Influencers in your organization
  • Business unit heads in your organization
  • Media, conference organizers, etc.
  • Startups (if you plan to work with startups)

Innovation is a team sport, so make sure anyone who can contribute to your success (and the success of the project) feels included.

Let’s take an example. The people you report to, maybe even your direct boss, do you know why he cares about this project? What does he want to get out of it? Why is he supporting you and the project? If you can’t answer and plan for these questions, then soon enough your boss will start to feel left out and that’s when he or she will start sabotaging your project.

#3 Be authentic

This one is kind of obvious, but I still see a lot of organizations hiding behind jargon and corporate BS. That’s because corporate comms (communications) will typically deliver the message to your audience or tell your story. Most comms are not interested in your story or the success of your innovation project. Their main concern is covering the organization’s ass. Your audience is not stupid, they know this. So, you either have to find someone within comms who “gets it”...there are more and more of these types of folks in comms today. Or, you have to tell your own story. You have to be your own comms.
Regardless, you must find your voice and speak the truth.
For example, don’t spin everything as a success story. Being optimistic and positive is one thing, but having a 100% success rate is just unrealistic and will expose you as a fraud. Share your mistakes, be vulnerable, ask for help, don’t pretend to know everything. No one does.

#4 Know thy self

As human beings, we have an amazing ability to overestimate our capabilities and underestimate the resources required to do something. Organizations are just the same.
In Israel, for example, a government-sponsored organization launched 22 early-stage accelerators all at once. That organization has never previously launched a single accelerator, then all of a sudden (boom) 22 accelerators scattered across Israel and operated by different contractors. How do you think that ended up?
Run an honest audit of your organization’s capabilities. Map the weak spots and be realistic about what kind and how many projects you can launch and sustain. When in doubt, go for less, and give yourself room to make mistakes. If you do that, make sure to frame what you’re doing as an experiment and let people know that your decision to focus on a small number of projects (maybe even just one) is intentional and that the goal is to first learn through experimentation. You can always complicate things later or scale them after you’ve learned from the mistakes of the first (small) experiment.

#5 Find the right talent

I love this quote from CB Insights:
Take someone who has plateaued in their career and give them “innovation.”
It’s funny and it’s sad and it’s true.
Who you put on the innovation team matters. It sends a message not just to the people within the organization but outside as well. This is also where knowing your MVA really helps. Make sure the people you put on the team resonate well with your MVA. If your MVA includes working with startups, then don’t put some senior person from sales in charge of leading the innovation efforts. Most organizations will recruit someone from the inside to head their innovation efforts and that makes sense. Bringing someone from the outside is risky - you don’t know if they’ll fit in and even if they do they’ll need time to learn about the organization, develop relationships, etc. All of that is important, but to get the job done, you must pick the right tools. When an inside recruit has all the experience and relationships but lacks certain skills and background, you must help them to acquire that which is missing before they assume their position on the innovation team. It could be as simple as sending your team to mentor or take an active part in an accelerator.

#6 Get help

More often than not you won’t be able to do everything yourself. That’s when you’ll need help. If you’ve put together a plan and know who your MVA is, then getting help should be your next priority. Reach out to influencers inside your organizations and ask them for help. Maybe you need to convince a business unit head to take a chance on a new process or integrate a startup solution...an inside influencer can help.
You’re also going to need someone to hold you accountable. Ask a colleague you trust for help. You could ask your boss, but he already has his own way of holding you accountable which might be biased against you.
Finally, for professional help, seek out other innovation professionals, take courses, read books, attend conferences. Make sure you’re learning something new every day.

#7 Actions speak louder than words

We’ve come to the last item on the list….and it’s probably the most important one.
There isn’t anything that prevents the innovation theater label sticking to your project than action, something that you’ve done. A small pilot, a successful case study - anything to demonstrate (a) your value proposition and (b) that you’re the one to get things done.
When it comes to organizations, you have to remember that they were not built for innovation. Their goal is to keep doing what’s profitable and avoid risk at all costs.
Innovation is a bag full of risk and if you ask for permission the answer will typically be “No.” So, if you want to get things done...and you do...it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

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