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How Corporate Leaders Can Avoid Innovation Theater

In a previous article, I wrote about innovation theater. This happens in organizations that have teams engaged in various disconnected innovation activities, none of which are creating value for the organization. Some of these activities have really cool names like idea jams, hackathons, sprints, accelerators and incubators. However, what they are lacking is a consistent process of taking innovation projects from idea to profitable business model. This is why they create no added value to the company (i.e. innovation theater).  

More Action, Less Impact

In 2017,  I was working with a global fast-moving consumer goods company. They had asked me to help them develop a strategy for rolling out an innovation framework within their company. One of their biggest challenges was with an innovation accelerator program that they had been running for over a year. 

In that period they had invested in over 150 teams all over the world. These teams would get resources and time away from their day jobs to work on innovation projects. The program lasted three months, with support and coaching in lean startup best practices for the teams. The program was so good that it had attracted interest from a large number of employees. Most Popular In: Leadership Strategy

The biggest challenge the program faced was supporting the innovation teams after they had left the program. When they got back to their day jobs, very few of the innovation teams were able to carry on working on their ideas. This meant that, although the activity metrics showed loads of engagement, the impact metrics hardly moved. Looking at the company’s bottom line, it was as if the program had never happened. 

This story is repeated over and over in many organizations. Sometimes it is the training that people receive on design thinking and lean startup, that they then never use in their day jobs. Sometimes it is the idea competitions and hackathons that produce loads of ideas that never get developed into products, value propositions or business models. 

Whatever it is, the only cure for innovation theater is for leaders to deliberately think about how they can put in place the right ecosystem to support innovation teams beyond the accelerator program, training workshops and hackathons. The goal of such an ecosystem is to help innovation teams move from idea to value propositions that resonate with customers and business models that create revenues and profit for the company.  

Less Action, More Impact

The right ecosystem to support innovation teams requires leadership support. One way that leaders can stop the proliferation of disconnected activities is to have clear strategic guidance about what innovation teams should be working on. Such guidance can help teams know what matters to the company. It also gives teams the confidence that if they put effort into their work and succeed, their ideas will be taken to scale by company leaders.  

In addition to clear strategic guidance, leaders also need to outline a clear framework of how teams can move from idea to business model. The best innovation frameworks start with small investments in multiple ideas. These investments then increase as teams show traction and progress towards finding a business model that works. 

What leaders need to make clear are the criteria for investment decision making. These criteria should be based on evidence of progress, rather leaders’ preferences and gut feelings. The framework must provide clear guidelines as to how teams get resources to work on projects, how decisions are made to increase investments in good ideas and how those ideas get taken to scale. Without a clear repeatable process, innovation will remain stuck in theater and succeed only as one-off projects.

Creating repeatable innovation processes also means that companies have to change their organizational design. We have to create incentives that celebrate good innovation practice rather than innovation theater. This means that we have to celebrate and reward teams that quickly discover that their business ideas do not work. If we punish failure, we are inadvertently encouraging innovation theater. Failure has to be viewed as part of the journey towards finding the right business ideas that create value.  

And Now For The Show   

It is fantastic that leaders have become more interested in innovation. As intrapreneurs, this is a great opportunity to change the companies we work for. However, we will not succeed in the long term if our innovation activities produce no tangible results. Such an outcome will actually set us back. Leaders will simply say that they tried the “innovation thing” and it does not work. So as we get back to our work post Covid-19, let’s make sure we are engaged in authentic innovation practices that create value for the companies we work for.
This article was first published on Forbes where Tendayi Viki is a regular contributor. Learn more at

One Response

  1. Good insights, Tendayi….

    Certainly consistent with my experiences and work. The right innovation scaffolding is required to give corporate innovation a chance. This scaffolding needs to be sympathetic to the organisational context – eg culture, process, etc. That said, there are critical elements to good innovation scaffolding design. Interestingly, much of the innovation scaffolding required has nothing/little to do with innovation tools/processes etc.


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