Innovation Theater

ambition creativity != innovation disappointment entrepreneurial orientation failure innovation chain management system lean canvas learning orientation market orientation good problems no growth

The Big Picture…

In the quest to be more innovative we appoint Chief Innovation Officers, run hackathons, change culture (or try to), hold call to actions, establish innovation labs and silicon valley outposts, and more.

But how many call to actions, for example, have you seen that “had great engagement”, and “generated lots of ideas”. Yet result in no business or customer improvement? What actionable results are you getting from open innovation? Are those and other innovation activities successful?

When innovation activities deliver few/no tangible results, we are perhaps only performing what Steve Blank has called innovation theater.

But it’s not the activities themselves that are theatre. They can become theatre if we let them. By, for example:

  • Misaligning innovation ambition and capability
  • Defining poorly where we are looking for innovation
  • Expecting too much from our activities
  • Not supporting closing the business gap enough
  • Operating system of the enterprise struggles with innovations


Innovation theater is one of the “invisible” visible impacts of our innovation problem – where we find 94% of executives are unhappy with innovation performance? We think we’re doing the right thing…but without fundamentally fixing our enterprises, we’re running our car on ice without winter tyres.

The Idea

Imagine you are a CEO and see the need for your enterprise to become more innovative. You’ll probably hire some innovation consultants or spend some time yourself looking into latest trends and what everyone else is doing. You’ll settle on a plan of action. Get your best execution team on the case. And see your innovation output sky rocket. You’re happy; your team is happy; all shareholders are happy. It’s only a matter of time before CEO of the year award is heading your way!

Innovation Theater / Innovation theatre

But in reality, you’re likely joining 94% of executives who are unhappy with innovation performance. And perhaps scratching your head as to why your innovation efforts are not making sufficient progress.

The sad truth is, you’re probably performing what Steve Blank has coined innovation theater:

Innovation theater: performing innovation activities that ultimately deliver few, or no, tangible results.

Where do we perform Innovation Theater?

I genuinely believe we start innovation activities with the best of intentions. And we rarely set out to perform innovation theater. (With perhaps the exception of marketing/copy writers).

Here’s some common innovation activities, and where they might be acts of theater.

NameDescriptionPotential Theater
Call to ActionThese come in a variety of forms. Each, Sofia Lindblom puts as: “regardless of the name the overall setup is often the same: to generate and explore ideas during a fixed time period”.

They work by setting a challenge – the call to action. To which a specific audience responds with ideas.

Often they are managed through a tool that offers social aspects (voting, commenting, group ideation). And usually the tool provides an innovation management process workflow. Typically stages to successively funnel down the ideas.
There is usually a lot of publicity around call to actions. Of course, we need to get the word out that it is happening. And often keep the excitement going through the time it is open.

Sometimes ideators drive their own publicity to get more votes.

Additional theatre comes around down selecting ideas. Perhaps a prize giving happens when a final idea is selected.

But once an idea is selected progress is often slow and interest often lost outside of the winners. A business sponsor can struggle to find how the idea really fits into the enterprise’s offerings.
HackathonA group of people gather for a period of time to build minimal viable products.

Often guided by a broad problem statement or market area and providing access to data/systems they might not normally get.
Great PR and community spirit: Unaligned expectations results in cool, but ultimately un-executable results
Design MeetingsApplying design thinking in a group – which usually involves some kind of end-user observations – to find new ideas.Less potential as ideas are tied to observed customer problems
Innovation RetreatsTaking several days out of day-day business (or even a weekend) to be creative and innovativeAnnouncing retreat is happening can spark interest and signal innovativeness.
Innovation WorkshopsLike retreats, but shorter period.See Innovation Retreats
Open IdeationSimilar to call to actions although open to people outside the organisation.

The idea is to get fresh thinking, unconstrained by the existing organisational culture.
An audience outside your organisation can have good ideas. But you have the same traps as internal calls to action
Innovation spaceSetting up space in the office dedicated to innovation activities and often used for external meetings.Innovation spaces/rooms are about signalling to others how innovative you think you are.

No amount of bean bags, flashy lighting systems and automated orange juice makers are by themselves going to improve your innovation performance
Innovation labYou put together a special team tasked with being innovative. And often this is separate to the day-day business.Great for the team, they feel special (for now).

Sadly, Doblin’s Larry Kelly is quoted as saying “More than 95% of the time when your team is stuck in a room and told “ok, innovate now”, the problem statement you’ve been given is wrong”.
“Silicon valley” outpostOpening an office in a location known for innovative organisations. The intent is to immerse executives in the culture, so they bring that back to the mother organisation when they return.Great for press releases and dropping into conversations (with people and in earnings calls). But there’s little evidence it achieves more than a large expense account. Ask yourself the question – wouldn’t reading a good book on Lean, for example, be cheaper but equally as hard to implement?

Doblin’s Larry Kelly, again on these outposts: “I think it’s mostly a palliative
(cl)aim to be an accelerator/incubatorLooking for innovative companies your organisation can help accelerate to market or even incubate them to leverage potential outcomes.There is a tendency to create PR by announcing you want to accelerate start-ups through your industry positioning. Or even have the cash to invest in incubating them. But can you leverage those strategic relationships you are trying to build for everyone’s advantage?
Giving trendy titlesWhen you make someone a CInO on top of their day job. Or in some cases other crazy titles like Chief Disruptor etc.Unless you are creating the time and space for someone to drive innovation aligned with business strategy, then you are just performing theatre. And they will also end up performing theatre due to lack of time.

But let’s not make a wrong conclusion. The above innovation activities can be very helpful in our innovation journey. We just need to use them in the right way. And to avoid some common pitfalls.

How do we end up performing innovation theater

"We're trying to drive on ice without winter tyres" – most innovation activities become performances of Innovation Theater: fun but with no/few tangible results. And this leads to the innovation problem. http://solvinnov/innovation-problem Click To Tweet

So how do we end up accidentally performing innovation theatre? We do so for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Misaligning innovation ambition and capability
  • Defining poorly where we are looking for innovation
  • Expecting too much from our activities
  • Not supporting closing the business gap enough
  • Operating system of the enterprise struggles with innovations

Lets look at these in a little more detail.

Misaligning innovation ambition and capability

Let’s find the next big thing – challenge the status quo, shake things up

A fictive, but real acting, CEO / CInO

Above is where our innovation activities potentially start becoming innovation theatre. When we as leaders set an ambition for innovation without thinking through the implications on the enterprise.

It’s easy to get excited and ramp up the crowd. Of course we want to find the next big thing. To challenge the status quo and shake things up. But setting that ambition comes with a need to ensure the enterprise can enable those types of innovations.

Seeking radical innovation is a worthy cause, but it will have a bigger impact on your enterprise than incremental innovation. And disruptive innovation – in the true sense of the definition – most likely requires you to set up a new enterprise.

If your enterprise can’t (or is unable to change to) enable your innovation ambition: you are just performing theatre.

Of course, it is hard to communicate your capability without feeling you are dampening the innovative juices. So, you should instead carefully craft your “problem”.

Defining poorly where we are looking for innovation / Look for ideas rather than the big problems to solve.

What would you prefer: many ideas or a few big problems to solve? Our early attempts at innovation will probably fall into the trap of number of ideas. After all, its empowering and morale boosting to have hundreds of ideas in response to your innovation action. And somewhat disappointing to have only a handful.

Yet, we are better off taking some time to refine the problems we are trying to solve. 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

And the way to search for problems is to understand what value is. It is helping beneficiaries make progress (functional and non functional) in some aspect of their life. And innovation is, in a large part, finding and offering ways to better help beneficiaries make progress.

So, identify those big jobs to be done, the problems to be solved, or hindrances to overcome. And seek the value propositions to help.

Expecting too much from our innovation activities

This might be a shock, given the common push for internal innovation calls to action. The Global Innovation Report 2019 identified this:

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

Running innovation competitions in house is something all innovation consultants will tell you to do on day 1. But that is more likely to lead to innovation theater than you think. Internal competitions could be best focussed on internal progress that needs to be made to minimise them turning into theatre.

Not supporting closing the business gap enough

Ideators and business often speak different language. Or risk talking past each other. And in doing so, they get frustrated, lose faith and eventually innovation dies. Modern ideation tools try and fix this by involving business early in the process and socialising ideas.

But I find that is never really enough. I have, however, found using the using the lean canvas iteratively is a surprisingly simple and empowering tool for ideators. As well as being readily understood in the business. I’ve used it many times with great success.

Trailer for the Using Lean Canvas Iteratively article

Operating system of the enterprise fails with innovation

And here is the crux of the matter, in my opinion. Enterprises are just not set up to handle innovation. We treat it as a bolt-on activity. Often disjoint to the business. And not unusually ran/managed as a separate team. A model people could argue worked well in R&D of the ’60s. But think of the story of Xerox and how many R&D items that we use now yet they failed to get picked up by Xerox themselves.

We need to 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 this is only possible by fundamentally changing the operating system of our enterprises to be innovation-first.

Wrapping Up

Innovation theatre, then, is easy to slip into. And often we will do it by accident, and those doing it will not have set out that way.

If we can fix our enterprises’ operating systems to be innovation first then we set ourselves up for less theatre. But we also need to address other things such as setting the right ambition, finding the right problems, and helping ideators bridge the gap to business (investors).

And all this means we need to think about definitions of value, innovation, and the purpose of the enterprise themselves.


Co-create value by leaving your views

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: