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How Business Innovation Instead Becomes Innovation Theater

It’s an obvious truth: From Bill Gates and Steve Jobs rolling out the software and hardware for the personal computer to Airbnb and Uber disrupting their entire industries to Beyond Meat’s ability to persuade consumers hamburgers don’t have to include beef, innovation has fueled entire sectors and re-envisioned others.

It’s Theater, Not Reality

But the success and popularity of innovation has also fueled a devotion to innovation that is a form of lip service. Many industry observers refer to it as “innovation theater.” Innovation theater is a way of cheerleading and preparing for innovation, but not actually doing anything very innovative.

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At its worst, innovation theater can be the constant use of words like “start-up,” “entrepreneur,” “innovation,” “disrupter,” and “blue-sky thinking” without any real commitment to the qualities those words describe.

At a less pernicious level, it could include embracing digital strategies or even cultural attributes associated with Silicon Valley and technology news (youth, open-plan offices), but again…not committing to actual innovation.

Some Innovation Theater begins when a consulting company is brought in to analyze how and what an established company should innovate. Such a move can result in a highly ritualized set of verbal plans and commitments to innovation, but again, the ritual is theater. It’s not a representation of reality. Senior management does not really take innovative steps. In fact, bringing in a consulting firm itself is quite traditional, and anything but innovative.

Innovation Theater can destroy a business' credibility -- often at a time when that business is trying to build its reputation with investors and customers.

Determine your innovation goals to avoid Innovation Theater.

How To Avoid It

The real problem with Innovation Theater is that it can destroy a business’ credibility — often at a time when that business is trying to build its reputation with investors and customers. It also can sap time, money, and effort from your company without ever really yielding the fruits of innovation. Here are tips on how to avoid it.

1. Determine your innovation needs

Because of the popularity of “innovation” as a buzzword, there’s a profound tendency to believe that innovation is necessary, all the time. There may be a related belief that innovation will include the same measures it has consisted of at other firms. A platform method of doing business, say, or an increased emphasis on digital communication.

But there’s no substitute for determining what a business’ innovation needs really are. Innovation chiefs should survey customers and the competitive marketplace industry-wide. What does the company need to stay competitive over the next six months and the next five years?

Answers, of course, could include highly innovative actions. But they also could include what’s commonly referred to as “blocking and tackling,” basic tasks to reduce costs or better serve clients: New processes to lower-cost raw materials to sustainable outsourcing.

2. Involve a cross-section of employees 

Senior business leadership can often fall victim to the cliche trap — buzzwords that appear to impress the media, investors or board members. But in the drive for authenticity — answering the question “is this truly ‘innovation,’ and does it matter? — including a cross-section of employees can act as an internal smell test. If the innovation smells bad, that will be obvious, and the innovation is likely to fail.

3. Take small steps… with small teams

Sometimes, the most workable system is to begin innovation with small teams. Innovation is supposed to be nimble. Let them work through the proposed innovation. Review the results. Was it successful? If not, how does it need to be changed?

4. Identify key obstacles and develop a plan to overcome them

Innovation runs into obstacles. Sometimes it’s an old guard entrenched in the same old ways. Other times, it’s suppliers who fight being supplanted. But if your smaller steps reveal a set of obstacles, identify them and develop a plan to deal with the obstacles, or your steps toward innovation can be derailed.