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5 ways to escape from innovation theater

What is ‘innovation theater’?

Innovation theater is when someone pretends to do innovation, but they really don’t. Harvard Business Review has written about innovation theater, for example, as well as Forbes and Fortune.

You could probably say that innovation theater is a bit like “employee suggestion program meets white sneakers”.

Why innovation theater is so dangerous

Eventually, most innovation theaters either kind of implode or get shut down. When this happens, there can be ripple effects through an organization. These ripple effects can even lead to a nuclear winter for innovation more generally: Innovation ends up stuck between “I told you so” and misapplied KPI systems. This in turn makes truly innovative people duck and cover; or, even worse, they leave your organization altogether and go somewhere else where they can have real impact (needless to say that the first to leave will be your best people).

Does this sound familiar to you? If it does, then it’s time to orchestrate your ‘great escape’ from innovation theater.

How to orchestrate your ‘great escape’ from innovation theater

Here is what our most successful customers do in order to escape innovation theater. Or, even better, what they do to not even enter innovation theater in the first place.

1. Have lunch or coffee with someone from the operational business.

Having lunch or coffee with someone from the operational business of your organization is a great way to escape innovation theater.

Do this on a regular basis. Identify someone in the operational business of your organization, and reach out. This “someone” should value getting things done over job titles, and they should not be afraid of speaking truth to power. Ideally, they have launched successful products or services before. They are operational, not innovation theater types. They can help you connect your ideas to places in your organization where they actually make a difference to the business. If you want to read more about what kind of person I mean, check out Greg Larkin’s book “This Might Get Me Fired”. Actually, you should get Greg’s book anyways, no matter what.

By the way, Galileo Galilei is a great historical example of this strategy. If you’d like to know more about this, you can read our article about how a strong network and a ‘science and business’ mindset were among the innovation practices that made Galileo Galilei successful.

2. Let an R&D colleague explain an emerging technology to you.

Exploring an emerging technology in-depth helps escape innovation theater.

Take one of those emerging technologies or “technology trends” that you have floating around, and ask an R&D colleague for help. Ask them questions like these:

  • How do you see [your-emerging-tech]? Are the claims that it can do [claim-of-emerging-tech] justified? Why? Why not?
  • Where in our business do you see applications of [your-emerging-tech]?
  • Who else in our organization would you suggest I talk to about [your-emerging-tech]?

Just don’t pick “Dr. No” who suffers from NIH Syndrome (Not Invented Here) for this. Ask someone who is curious, who has a strong technical background but also thinks laterally across R&D and business, and who is humble enough to admit that good ideas may originate from outside your own organization. These traits probably matter more than whether the person is junior or senior.

Connecting with business and R&D people not only gives you a 360° view. It also makes it a lot more likely that innovation actually produces business results.

If you want to read more about how Mergeflow can help you get a 360° view on a topic, you could check out this article on e-waste recycling technologies, or this one on edge computing.

3. Have a user story.

User stories are great innovation theater busters.

User stories are great innovation theater busters. A user story is a short statement that basically describes what you hope to achieve with a technology. User stories go like this:

As a [role] I want to [capability], so that I can [benefit].

For example, let’s say ‘quantum computing’ is an emerging technology that you care about. A user story for quantum computing could be:

As a supply chain manager, I want to optimize shipping routes on the fly, so that I can dynamically decide which shipping route to select.

In this case, ‘optimizing shipping routes on the fly’ is why you’d need quantum computing because you can’t do this with traditional computers.

A user story connects a technology with an application and a business case.

4. Build it.

Building something forces you to address all the small things that you would never see in innovation theater.

Trying to build something is a fantastic way of finding out where you still fall short. It shows you where the true difficulties are. “Big picture” is easy, whereas getting the small stuff to work isn’t, and it certainly does not happen in innovation theater. But all of this small stuff may add up to kill your project. So best find out about the small stuff as soon as you can.

Of course, there are limits to what you can do here. But you can at least try to envision and describe in as much detail as possible what a complete product should look like. You can make a list of ingredients that you would need for building your product. Or run a simulation. Or build a mockup. Good innovation analysts often do this.

Similar to Tips 1 to 3 above, this exercise forces you to consider a project from as many angles as possible, from R&D to business.

“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

Quote attributed to Richard Feynman

5. Once a month, put everything you didn’t touch into the archive.

Information management process hell and innovation theater are closely related.

Or just toss it. Do you think this is too radical? OK…

But don’t hoard stuff. Because if you do, chances are that you end up in information management process hell: As you collect more and more stuff, this stuff becomes more and more complex to categorize, inter-relate, etc.. And all these categories etc. keep changing because the world around you continues to evolve. Soon you will spend a substantial amount of your and your team’s time on trying to categorize old stuff. And all this is time that you then won’t have to actually do something that makes an impact.

Therefore, once a month, move everything that you didn’t touch into an archive. Don’t worry about labels, folders, etc.. Just make it one big archive. Modern archives, such as GDrive or OneDrive, have good search capabilities. So if you really want to, you can still go back and find the old stuff.

In general, at Mergeflow we think that human data labeling should be avoided whenever possible. We think that data labeling should be done by computers. We discuss this point in another article, on collaborative tech discovery, when we compare “managing information” to “using information”.

Also, there is science that backs this up. A group of researchers at IBM around Steve Whittaker showed that sorting emails is a waste of time. And it makes it harder, not easier, to re-find emails. Our thanks go out to Ethan Mollick from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for pointing out this paper on Twitter.

Let’s get started!

Our Tip #5 is less about connecting people, R&D and business than it is about giving you the freedom to move on and dare mighty things.

And the best part of it all? You can start today.