3 Signals of “Innovation Theatre” to Watch Out For

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I have been having a number of conversations lately that point to a common theme: we may be reaching peak innovation hype.

It made me wonder: if the critical practice of innovation in creating value and solving problems at scale crosses over into the “Trough of Disillusionment” — just when the world needs it most — then we’re entering a dangerous period.

It is time to be on the lookout for Innovation Theatre, and call it out wherever you see it.

Innovation Labs — Failing?

The rapid proliferation of corporate and public sector innovation labs has been stunning to observe. These vary widely in terms of where they are situated, how they are structured and staffed, what they focus on, and how they relate to the rest of the business.

Here are some common signals from innovation labs that produce more Innovation Theatre than impact:

  • Great furniture and interiors loaded with gadgets designed more for showing well to visiting executives and dignitaries rather than the open, functional, and messy spaces where real work happens
  • A group of technologists and strategists situated in an isolated outpost disconnected from the rest of the business and customers
  • A space without a strategy, the right skills, a clear sense of purpose, or the process discipline to drive impact for the business

Ideation Platforms, Contests, and Challenges — Failing?

A lot of organizations take the opposite approach from the dedicated innovation lab, inspired by the notion that anyone anywhere can innovate, and it’s all about getting a critical mass of ideas to filter and fund with a carrot of money to drive motivation. Everything starts to look like a reality TV show, some combination of Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice. Innovation Theatre.

Open innovation models can work well, under certain circumstances and for particular kinds of innovation challenges. But launching an internal “ideas challenge” or crowdsourcing platform as your big innovation strategy is destined to fail.

This approach has been propagated by two commonly held myths:

  • The key to innovation is somebody (the hero) with a great idea
  • People across the enterprise can be engaged to solve problems in their spare time or side of desk

Innovation is a discipline and a craft. Ideas are raw material, but often the biggest value potential exists in finding the right problem to solve, or combining several ideas in new ways and co-creating solution concepts with customers that can be prototyped, tested, and validated before funding for development.

Ideas are cheap, easy, free and — on their own — useless.

Hackathons and Design Jams — Failing?

As someone who over 10 years ago discovered the power of large scale open creative tech and design events (I co-wrote an article about it featured in HBR Breakthrough Ideas for 2008), I feel some personal responsibility for this part of the innovation hype machine. I’m here to make amends.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a great ideation and design-driven workshop — we do them all the time, as part of our projects with clients. But the thing I need to call out is the use of Hackathons and Design Jams as isolated feel good experiences disconnected from real work, real resources, and real commitment.

Design Jams and Hackathons — some signs you’re doing it wrong:

  • You’ve been asked to be innovative and “run a hackathon” to show how innovative you are as an organization
  • It seems “cool”, especially to people who know the least about the real work of innovation
  • There isn’t a clear purpose as to why you’re opening up to the public or other stakeholders, beyond “sharing ideas” without clear questions you’re looking to answer or explore
  • There isn’t much preliminary research completed, so you’re going in blind and the participants don’t have much to work with
  • There isn’t a realistic plan to follow through on the workshop/event in a feasible way to turn ideas into validated concepts that can be built and adopted at scale
  • You did one, people had a great time, but 4 weeks later nothing has changed

Don’t get me wrong. Design Jams and Hackathons aren’t totally useless. They can serve as opportunities for people to test out innovation design tools, build awareness and learning, assess readiness, and make connections before getting into real work.

But let’s move away from using them as an end in themselves and setup real projects grounded in innovation design practices that are focused and insight-driven, and use co-creation methods wisely in the right moments to drive impact to the business in a strategic way.

Every meaningful innovation challenge or opportunity is unique with surprising complexity under the surface, so stop pretending that a one-time workshop is going to solve a problem.

That being said, an event like this can be a great thing to do to give people a taste of the methods of innovation design, build awareness and learning, assess readiness, and make connections before getting into real work.

Ask Some Key Questions — every time!

If you see these things happening, you are witnessing Innovation Theatre.

Call it out, but more importantly, invite people to be more thoughtful. Ask some key questions:

  • Why do you need to innovate, as an organization?
  • What kinds of things do you need to innovate? Product/service system, customer experiences, business models, back-of-house operations?
  • How will that work unfold? What are the processes, the tools, the projects, and their phases?
  • Who will do that work, in what structure? Are they fully or partially dedicated project teams? How are they staffed, with what capabilities? Who needs to be engaged as part of customer/user research? What internal stakeholders need to be engaged in the work, when and how?
  • When will this work happen? What’s the roadmap? How will you resource the work so it can get done with speed, agility, and urgency?

Avoiding Innovation Theatre
It is because of all these accumulated learnings that I have come to believe so strongly in our approach of joined up innovation teams. We often come into clients that haven’t built an internal innovation design discipline yet, so we act in those roles to get critical project work done — working side-by-side with a client-side, cross-functional team. And by doing this, we help build the capabilities in our clients by sharing our practices and tools with our client side team-mates who learn by doing real innovation work.

When we developed the multi-disciplinary capabilities and role description of the Innovation Designer, it was a solution to the missing pieces we were seeing in a lot of organizations.

Innovation design is a craft that is complex, multi-disciplinary, process-driven, human-centered, evidence-based, iterative, and experimental that bridges human centered design and business thinking. Lets treat this important craft with respect and value it over hype.

An Innovators’ Call to Arms!

For our peers around the world, those who work inside large organizations, develop new ventures, or work on the design agency/consultant side, we need to get real with people.

We need to burst the hype bubble, while challenging leaders, clients, and colleagues to get real about the important work of creating new value for organizations and people during the coming period of disruptive change.

And never ever settle for Innovation Theatre. The world needs better than that.

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