The Big Picture…

When innovation activities deliver few/no tangible results, we are performing Innovation Theatre.

How many call to actions have you seen that “had great engagement”, and “generated lots of ideas”, yet resulted in no improvements, new service or product?

We appoint Chief Innovation Officers, run hackathons and call to actions, establish innovation labs and silicon valley outposts, and more. Still, we find 94% of executives are unhappy with innovation performance. All of this happens in our quest to be innovative yet run the risk of just being performances.

Can we avoid/minimise our innovation activities becoming pure theatre? Yes. We can:

  1. Stop mistaking creativity for innovation – implement an innovation chain; use the lean canvas iteratively, measure the right things.
  2. Become an innovation-forward organisation – an organisation still has only two tasks: marketing and innovation. Set an innovation ambition level and address the gap. Increase your market-, learning- and entrepreneurial orientation. And drive the change from C level.
  3. Look for the big problems to solve (rather than ideas). And help by adopting a service-based definition of innovation – helping the beneficiary make progress.
  4. Use an innovation management system

Innovation theatre is:

"when innovation activities deliver few tangible results."

We see countless organisations performing and telling the world about their innovation activities. Yet, we also know that 94% of executives are unhappy with innovation performance.

Let’s look at what innovation theatre is by considering a common innovation approach – a call to action. And more importantly, what we can do to prevent the theatre.

Roll up, roll up – Exciting News!

Next week we launch a call to action to get your great ideas to help us solve our key vaguely and broadly defined problem.

Just log in to our exciting new tool and give your suggestions. And don’t forget to vote and comment on your colleagues’ ideas!

We’re excited to have assembled a panel of leading experts (your very own line managers) who will select one idea to go through to the next phase.

And we’ve even put some money set aside to invest in the idea that wins!

Are you Performing Innovation Theatre?

I genuinely believe we start innovation activities with the best of intentions. We rarely set out to do something just to show we are doing something. With, perhaps, the exception of marketing’s tendency to overuse the word innovation.

The above (in “roll up, roll up!”) is a typical innovation activity. We’d refer to it as a call to action. And you’ve probably seen, or even been involved in, one before. Let’s explore it a little.

Innovation Activity: Call to Action

In a call to action, we want to get a specific audience to propose solutions to a problem we pose. Quite often, that audience is your own organisation. But it could be customers, the wider public, or another group you feel is best positioned to respond.

Typically, we run and manage call to actions using an online platform. On that platform, we publish our call to action, and the audience submits their ideas. And the platforms usually support social commenting, as well as voting, on those ideas. To incentivise our audience to provide ideas, we offer a prize. That might be monetary, further funding (money / time / expertise) for idea exploration or similar.

Our call to action will finish after a fixed period. And then a panel of experts – typically managers in the organisation – will pick one or more winning ideas.

Figure 1: Steps in a generic call to action

On the surface, a call to action is easy to set up and run. You identify where you want to get ideas, create and publicise the call to action, and watch the results flood in from your engaged audience. Given the impression of action, progress and a result, call to actions are often the innovation consultant’s tool of choice.

And there’s no doubt that running a call to action creates a buzz in the organisation. Launched, usually, by a senior manager and with ongoing marketing – newsletter updates, reminder emails, posters etc.

Add the social nature of the tools, and there is the hope that an innovation culture will emerge in the organisation. People getting engaged through commenting on ideas, building on those ideas, voting and getting your friends, colleagues, team members to vote for your idea. They can be a lot of fun.

But call to actions can readily become innovation theatre.

Innovation Theatre: Call to Action

OK. Now for the sceptical view.

When did you last hear of a call to action that truly delivered? One that captured an idea and resulted in a successful new (or updated) offering?

Figure 2: The oft truth of a call to action innovation theatre

More likely, you’ve heard of many call to action activities that “worked really well”. Where “lots of exciting ideas were generated”. And “there was great engagement”. But, unfortunately, no one can really point to anything that actually came out of it. Ideas were collected, fun was had, some ideas were further developed. Yet no new product was launched, no cost improvements made, nor were any differences made for more people.

There is a multitude of reasons for this. In no particular order, we could come up with the following:

  • We often mistake creativity for innovation
    • we look for ideas rather than real problems to solve
    • we believe creativity is the hard part
  • Our organisation cannot cope (or decides it will not cope) with ideas created.
    • we might look for and favour radical innovations in the call to action but the organisation will (currently) struggle with anything more than incremental innovation.
    • or the organisation has not bought into the process
  • We’re not clear to the audience what we mean by innovation
  • We have no innovation management system in place.

Additionally, we might find that our expectations are too high. Bret Waters’ noted in The Global Innovation Report 2019:

The consensus view from our discussions [with 100 corporate innovation executives at leading organizations] is that while internally-sourced ideas do have merit, product innovation is more likely to come from customer insights than from employee opinions”

The Innovation Trends Report 2019
Figure 3: Customer insights vs Employee opinions

Sorry to rain on the parade of innovation consultants and perhaps your own well-intended research. But it is too easy to run a call to action and have it turn into innovation theatre. And it’s not just calls to action. There are many opportunities for accidentally, or deliberately, performing innovation theatre, which we will look at on the next page.

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Call to actions are a useful tool in the overall innovation process. And there are steps we can take to reduce (or even avoid) innovation theatre.

Reducing Innovation Theatre

We agree that the purpose of an innovation activity is to get a tangible result, right? Something that reduces our costs, increases our revenue, or allows us to make a difference to more people.

Innovation theatre then needs to be minimised, and best, be avoided. To achieve that, we need to tackle three areas:

  • Stop mistaking creativity for innovation
  • Become an innovation-forward company
  • Look for the big problems to solve

In an ideal world, we would implement a complete innovation management system. But there are also some steps on the way.

1. Stop Mistaking Creativity for Innovation

Many believe that creativity is the hardest part of innovation. Perhaps because we spend so long in organisations that minimise creativity through focussing on following processes and driving efficiency.

Having an idea – the moment of creativity – is an essential step towards innovation. But creativity is not innovation. If we focus only on ideas and fail at implementation then we are performing theatre. We need to:

  • implement a full innovation chain – idea generation, idea selection, idea conversion and idea diffusion
  • help/support ideators flesh out ideas into more implementable ideas.
  • measure the right things – not just how many ideas were generated

Let’s look at these in turn.

Implement a full innovation-chain

We can increase the success of our innovation approach by implementing a complete innovation chain. In Figure 4, you can see my enhancements to the original innovation chain; which I describe further in this article

Figure 4: The Enhances Value Chain

We can see that idea generation is just one component. The complete innovation chain consists of:

  • innovation scoping – defining the type of innovation we are looking for (and can cope with), and the problem we wish to solve.
  • idea generation – is where we come up with the ideas. And a call to action is one option to achieve this.
  • idea selection – which ideas will we take forwards; what innovation portfolio strategy will we use (3 horizons, for example)
  • idea conversion – taking the idea forwards into an innovation. This may require pivots, pilots, demos, validations etc. It is also dependent upon the organisation set up and will.
  • idea diffusion – how do we spread the innovation. This is a whole topic in itself, see my article on diffusion, adoption and resistance.

Let’s think again of a typical call to action. It helps with idea generation and selection. But often scoping is missed or inadequate – we are bad at defining a useful problem and understanding what the organisation can cope with. And the selection phase can be questioned – do you have the right experts on the panel. Finally, call to actions don’t help idea conversion or diffusion.

We can help ideators and idea management by providing a framework to improve ideas.

Help ideators craft better ideas

Using the lean canvas iteratively is a surprisingly simple and empowering tool for ideators. I’ve used it many times with great success.

Trailer for the Using Lean Canvas Iteratively article

Starting with the spark of creativity – a high-level idea meeting a problem – it empowers ideators to flesh out an idea. Additional parts of the canvas can be filled in (a breadth move). Or existing parts can be further developed (a depth move). Both movements typically trigger the thinking process to make another move.

The result is an enhanced idea that talks to conversion, diffusion and business model. All without being scary and off-putting. And where the ideator goes as far as they feel comfortable. In my experience, the ideators relish the ability to develop their ideas within a simple guideline.

Measure the right things

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it


Drucker is right, but we can fall into the trap of measuring the wrong things. An easy and common mistake is to get stuck on the number of ideas generated. It is not an unimportant number, but it needs to stand in relation to other metrics. Such as number of ideas converted, and ultimately, number of ideas that launch a change.

We can look at sales management for some ideas. You wouldn’t, for example, measure sales team performance only on the number of leads entered into the sales system. And we can ideas from sales, such as the sales funnel, to help us with innovation.

Figure 5: Innovation Pipeline

2. Be an innovation-forward organisation

Once we get traction with creativity is not innovation then we can focus on transforming our organisation to be innovation-forward. And by that, I mean run our organisation with innovation as a core function. 

“A company only exists to get a customer. As such, a company has two, and only two, functions: marketing and innovation”

Drucker (1969) The Practice of Management

We need to get back to Drucker’s observation that our organisation has only two functions: marketing and innovation. And get away from thinking of innovation as a separate box.

To do that, we need to be clear about three aspects:

  1. Understand innovation types, and which ones we wish to predominantly search for.
  2. Develop an innovation ambition level. As well as determine how to close the gap from where we are today.
  3. Increase innovativeness by increasing market-, learning-, and entrepreneurial-orientations.

Understand innovation types

What type of innovation are you looking for? I split this into two subsets

  • innovation ambition – incremental, radical, disruptive
  • innovation types

We’ll look at the innovation ambition subset in the next section. It’s important to have an ambition and strategy around those. If you don’t you risk chasing ideas that you’ll never be able to convert.

When it comes to the second type, you shouldn’t be prescriptive. But you can use models to help you find ideas. Two that spring to mind are the innovation radar [link to tool when added] and the ten-types of innovation [link to tool when added]. You may have reasons for excluding particular innovation types; or for steering ideates towards some of them.

Figure 6: Innovation Radar

Set an innovation ambition level – and address the current gap

What is your innovation ambition level? Are you seeking incremental innovations or disruptive innovations (although you probably mean radical rather than disruptive, in its true definition)? What is your organisation’s capability to deal with different types of innovation?

By setting your ambition level and understanding the capability gap you have to that ambition, you can plan to get where you want to be. And you also avoid getting ideas that are irrelevant to you or unusable. Both of which lead your innovation activity to look like innovation theatre.

Figure 7: Common innovation ambition level problems

If an established organisation wants to get radical/disruptive, then it needs to consider how to become ambidextrous – to be able to explore and exploit at the same time.

On the other hand, a common issue is for an organisation to create an innovation department/section when the ambition is really for incremental innovation. This just results in ideas/innovations that are disjoint to the organisation. Ideas that rarely get adopted and taken forwards since they lack an anchor. That is to say, more innovation theatre.

Increase your organisation’s market, learning, and entrepreneurial orientation

A sure-fire way of increasing the innovativeness of an organisation is to increase its market, learning and entrepreneurial orientation.

Trailer for the Increasing Innovativeness article

3. Look for the good problems to solve

When we start innovation activities for the first time, there’s a tendency to focus on gathering ideas. And less focus on the actual problem(s) to be solved.

However, we should do this the other way around. Gregg Satell puts it well in his article “Don’t look for a Great Idea, look for a good problem“:

“In researching my book, Mapping Innovation, I found that the most innovative firms aren’t necessarily any more creative or even better at solving problems than most. Rather, what set them apart was how they aggressively sought out new problems to solve.”

Don’t look for a Great Idea, look for a good problem – G. Satell

Searching for ideas without a good problem leads to innovation theatre as you have no solution that is needed. A way to help guide towards problems is to take a service-forward definition of innovation.

Adopt a service-forward definition of innovation

Too often we have the mindset of innovation in terms of internal benefits. For example, a need to innovate to increase profits or stay relevant. Or, we think we have a great idea and we retrospectively imagine the size of the problem it will solve.

We need to have a mindset that focusses on helping the beneficiary make progress with something. And to do so in a better way than they currently can. That we can get by using an evolved definition of innovation.

Figure 8: An improved definition of innovation

This beneficiary can be your current customers, your future customers, or even departments in your organisation.

And this requires senior buy-in and drive from the top. As in many cases, we are talking change in the organisation’s vision, actions, metrics and performance scoring. Changes that can only come from C level downwards.

4. Implement an Innovation Management System

If you want to get serious with innovation, then you should look at implementing an innovation management system (IMS). ISO released its technical guidelines on this in 2019. An IMS covers 7 elements: context, leadership, planning, support, operations, evaluation, and improvement. And here is a great overview.

Wrapping Up

It’s easy to jump into innovation with an ideas-first mentality. That you are looking for great ideas and that some great insight will pop out that will save the world.

In reality it is much harder than that and requires a lot more than idea collection. If you can’t solve the conversion and diffusion challenges then you are just performing innovation theatre.

Luckily, you can implement a full innovation management system to potentially avoid innovation theatre. And if that is too much, then there are steps you can take to minimise the theatre. Such as to stop treating creativity as innovation. To become an innovation-forward organisation. And to look for the big problems to solve.

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