Before we talk about how we can identify and avoid innovation theatre, it’s important to understand what we mean by innovation theatre. This was the first question we posed to our panel. Our panel described innovation theatre as something that ‘looks and smells like innovation’ but delivers no genuine outcome. This might look like lots of activity, events, and people involved while not creating any meaningful difference to help the organisation or team produce more impactful outcomes. The panellists also shared that expectations about what innovation looks like can get in the way of meaningful innovation work. The need for a shiny new product or service can impede work that may be innovative in a less visible way.
To help us sort out the meaningful from the meaningless, our panel shared some innovation theatre red flags to look out for.
🚩 Not having a shared understanding of what innovation means.
If your team or organisation doesn’t have a shared understanding of what innovation means for you, then this can often lead to innovation theatre. This manifest itself in having the wrong metrics measured, for example, KPIs for things like the number of ideas produced or the number of events run. These vanity metrics help to uphold the facade of innovation without producing meaningful outcomes to help your organisation.
🚩 Innovation is not embedded within your organisation’s culture.
Another common thread throughout our panel discussion was the importance of embedding innovation within an organisation’s culture. A panellist shared that one way to spot this red flag is to look where innovation is placed within the organisation. If there is no direct link to the executive level, then any innovation efforts can easily end up being innovation theatre since there is no buy-in from the top or links to overall organisational strategy. This can also look like innovation training or capacity building without ever putting anything learnt into practice.
🚩 Avoiding the tough stuff.
Through any design process, there are the fun parts - the energetic discussion, the ideation, the whiteboards awash with sketches and sticky notes. And then there are the not-so-fun parts - the testing, the pivoting, and having to throw ideas out. The final red flag shared by our panel is when we convince ourselves that we’re innovating without putting in the hard yards. This can be seen when we come into a design process with preconceived ideas, without an open mind. It looks like not properly testing our assumptions and ideas and hearing what we want to hear, not what our users are really saying. When we get too attached to ideas that aren’t working, we perpetuate innovation theatre by distancing the user and inserting our ego instead. As innovators, we need to be honest about what isn’t working so we can make room for the breakthroughs our users deserve.
Finally, we asked our panel for their top tips on how to avoid innovation theatre in order to use innovation to create outcomes that matter:
💡 Katrina stressed the importance of ensuring you have executive-level sponsors for innovation, which can be easier when you find ways to make them shine. She also said to be sure to celebrate the little wins along the way!
💡 Nikki highlighted the importance of doing the work to define what innovation is and isn’t in your organisation and to ensure this is communicated effectively to everyone involved.
💡 Jethro said you should find opportunities to include some innovation work into something you’re already doing. By giving people an experience of the change and what it could look or feel like, he says you can help to create broader buy-in.
💡 Kate recommended avoiding getting too caught up in whether you’re following the process exactly and what it should look like and rather, ensuring you focus on the user. She also reiterated the importance of prototyping before you get too attached to things and not being afraid to let ideas go.
If you want to avoid innovation theatre and start making a real impact, SOMA is here to support you. We want to help you cut through the bullsh*t of the innovation world to enable you to create real, meaningful outcomes through innovation.
We also run a range of design and innovation online workshops for free, check out what's coming up next!
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