Innovation Theater: Pulling Back The Curtain and Setting The Stage for Success

Craig Haney points out the spectacular shows that companies put on when they should instead be working to bring true innovation to the table.

innovation theater

Large corporations, particularly those without a history of being on the cutting edge, have a tendency to hop on the latest trends, whether it’s going green for the environment, knocking down cubicles, or adding kale to the cafeteria menu.

These initiatives are all well and good, but they don’t really do much for innovation, culture, or the company’s bottom line.

The Innovation Bandwagon

Lately, we’ve seen more and more big companies hop on the innovation bandwagon. Everyone is doing it — from AT&T and Microsoft, to Nordstrom and Hyatt. They hope that by partnering with startups or giving startup culture a foothold within the company, some of that entrepreneurial spirit will spread throughout the corporate ranks.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great goal. The problem is that all too often companies talk a big game but don’t put the resources behind it. Either that or they put the resources behind it without doing the hard work…and it really does take a lot of hard work to make it successful.

“Innovative” activities like these that are all about show and less about the creation of the necessary environment for true innovation fall under the category of innovation theater.

Unveiling The Work Behind The Curtain

The nickname innovation theater frankly does a disservice to theater itself, because anyone who has glimpsed behind the scenes of a stage or film production knows that it takes a lot of hard work to put on a great show.

The actors on stage may get all the glory – like the executives in the C-suite of an “innovative” company – but the show would never succeed without the hard work of writers, set builders, and costume designers. Maybe 25% of the work steals 90% of the spotlight, while the heavy lifting happens behind the curtain.

When it comes to corporate innovation, things like hiring a leader, training the team, holding events and partnering with startups take visible roles. Meanwhile, behind the curtain, the work gets done establishing the process, aligning goals with the corporate strategy, productizing innovation, storytelling, and measuring success.

These elements are among the critical pieces required to get results. Let’s examine a few of them and why they are worth the effort.

Process: No one is going to claim that creating the innovation process is sexy or exciting, but it is necessary. Startups don’t dwell much on repeatable processes, but big companies rely on them to keep operations smooth, consistent, and predictable. They also help ensure success.

Just like great artists use the creative process to produce hit after hit, corporate innovation labs need process to get more than just another one-hit wonder. These processes help align activities, get buy-in from multiple teams, and allow innovation to live beyond a charismatic leader.

Aligning goals: This one can sound a little counterintuitive because the whole reason for starting an innovation hub is to do things differently from the rest of the company.

Regardless of the different approach, the goals for the innovation lab need to accrue to the larger organization’s goals. Hyatt didn’t start an innovation lab to build a self-driving car. Nordstrom wasn’t trying to privatize space flight. They simply wanted to tap into technology to find the future of their respective industries.

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If nothing else, the goal is to stay relevant before some outside startup comes in and disrupts the business. This increases that chance for early wins, which large organizations can build on to create disruptions.

Productizing innovation: This transitions well from talking about aligning goals, because, when it comes time to turn innovation into a product the company can sell, you’re dead on arrival if you haven’t been aligned up to this point.

Innovation labs are pointless if they create something that no other part of the company wants to support or carry forward. In one of the most egregious examples of this, a generation ago Xerox’s innovation center invented what became the Apple Macintosh. No one at Xerox thought it was worth the investment so they let it go. Ah, hindsight.

Measurement: Perhaps just a step ahead of process in terms of excitement, measurement is another unsung hero of corporate innovation. In our theater analogy, you might think of measurement as the audience — without it, no one knows whether the show was worth doing. Without an audience, what’s the point? In corporate innovation, gauging success isn’t as easy as waiting for the applause when the curtain falls. You have to establish what you’re measuring.

Start by learning how to innovate inside. Experiment and learn what works. The next step is to accept incremental success, because, a lot of the time, you’ll be celebrating baby steps before hitting a big breakthrough.

It takes more than checking a few boxes to create real innovation in companies that don’t have it in their DNA. Just remember that no one wins Oscars or Tony awards without considering the entire production. Short-cutting a single detail could derail the whole show. You’ll need a whole cast and supporting crew to be successful, but when you put in the time and effort to do it right, you’ll be ready to put on one heck of a show.

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