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  • Writer's pictureConnar Stratton

How to avoid innovation theatre?

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

In a world where using the words ‘Blockchain’, ‘Web3’, ‘Metaverse’ instantly 100x’s your startup valuation, ‘hype’ has clearly become one of the most desirable investments of 2022. We have entered the age of hype, whether it’s NFTs, streetwear, or corporate innovation initiatives.

You may have heard about ‘innovation theatre’. It’s a fun buzzword that has been thrown around the space, referring to ‘corporate innovation initiatives without real business impact’. Think of it as the innovation hype of the corporate world. We have all attended idea-rich hackathons that result in no discernible business impact just three months later. And yet, we are said to be living in the golden age of innovation (Denning, 2021). Never has innovation been more popular… So why is innovation theatre so common?

There are many reasons why innovation theatre happens, but these are three of the most common reasons:

  1. Capabilities - Ideas are easy, but executing on innovation is hard. Lots of organisations run hackathons to build ideation capabilities, but they do not do enough to build innovation execution capabilities.

  2. Behaviours - Most employees are barely able to put out the fires assigned by their managers, how can they even begin to think about innovation?

  3. Structures - Most organisational structures and KPIs do not support innovation implementation. Organisations leverage scale economics by implementing processes. Initial innovation is intrinsically unscalable, and requires burning resources.

Innovation theatre is not all bad. Paraphrasing Willem Dafoe, “Great [innovation] theatre is about challenging how we think, and encouraging us to fantasize about a world we aspire to.” However, innovation is the key to unlocking humanity’s potential, and we do have the potential to do far more impactful innovation.

So what can you do to move beyond innovation theatre into innovating with impact? In our experience, there are three key areas that you can focus on.

  1. Capabilities - Corporate innovation requires skills, but also confidence in these skills. Start with small innovation experiments, generating stories that can be shared across the organisation. Hackathons are great energy, and capability builders, but get support from a company with a history of successful innovation implementation.

  2. Structures - Organisations have KPIs, and processes that maximise efficiency. Innovation is inefficient and requires different KPIs, teams, and processes. For radical innovation, setting up an innovation hub, or venture building team is recommended. For core business innovation, create an ‘Appendix A’ within each business unit that includes SOPs, and KPIs that specifically accommodate innovation implementation.

  3. Behaviours - Culture is the final missing innovation ingredient. Corporate innovation requires supportive leaders, a celebration of failure, and an experimental mindset. Start with educating your leaders on the behaviours that support innovation. A simple exercise is getting them to share a recent mistake that they have made with their team and what they learnt from it. Normalising failure is a fantastic way to get innovation kick-started in your team.

Innovation is the most powerful force for positive change in our world. Innovation hype can be a tantalising seductress, but stay strong. You can build the capabilities, structures, and behaviours to ensure impactful corporate innovation.


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