How to Avoid Innovation Theatre

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It’s very common in mid-sized firms and larger: when a big review is coming up, particularly with the analyst community or a larger customer, there is a need to have a few slides that position the firm as a leader.  The R&D team is tapped for “some content” and many times a project is dusted off and the slideware refreshed and presented as evidence of innovation leadership.

These “sizzle” decks are very common and make the rounds inside most firms.  Usually commissioned for larger events, they then cascade through the firm, and eventually become content for department meetings and perhaps recruitment.

The issue comes in when the sizzle deck gets to the people who are charged with making it happen, and everyone realizes that they’ve inadvertently been a participant in what we have come to call “innovation theatre.”  This happens when the gap between actual commitment and the lofty vision come into sharp contrast.

The danger here is two fold: first is the eventual disappointment in the external community when they realize that the vision they have been sold was only partially committed.  Secondly, but perhaps more importantly, is the layer of cynicism that appears when later the leadership needs to rally the group, and everyone waits to see if the move is “real.”

While it seems simple to close this gap (as Nike says,  Just Do It), there is a deeper issue that deserves to be unpacked.  

Just how do we make sure we mean what we say and commit to putting it in motion?

The pace and the distraction level of the modern firm creates a huge undertow for those leaders that work hard to find new organic growth.  Constant requests from SlackTM, texts and deadline constrained work leads to focus that is equal parts needed and in self defense.  

While many new ideas come forward, it takes a substantial commitment to move them from PowerPoint to something that has gravitas and learning associated with it.  Short of that, and well it’s easy to be the unwitting director of a one-act play of innovation theatre.

So how do we short cycle this loop and make real progress?

#1:  Joint Agendas

One of the first things a group can do is to step back and take a look at the bigger picture.  In operations, the context and paybacks are well understood, so there is no need to agree on the domains and underlying assumptions.  But in the world of building growth, trying to make selections at the project level often leaves the team with significant passive resistance that will quickly be discovered when the work needs to move from the lab to scale for a client or customer.

When I had the opportunity to facilitate joint agendas between R&D teams and product groups for a large public firm, one of the biggest breakthroughs was the understanding that it was impossible to “push” R&D into the product team.  The learning was that the op’s team would only get behind those projects that had voice of customer “pull.” This shift in thinking caused us to invest in joint sessions to identify key offering gaps and domains for innovation across the teams.  Setting the R&D agenda and getting “tech transfer” became seamless.

The investment in time to agree the domains and boundaries for the new services and products work paid for itself many times over as deep commitments were made.  For more on this, check out the articles here and here).

#2:  Play as a Team

Many growth teams are cross-functional committees instead of teams.  When a group plays as a team, the only measurement that applies is winning as a team.  Committees on the other hand are always playing as independent practitioners first, with allegiance to their home function, rather than making sure that their team mission comes first.

Once you have a mission, things begin to come into focus, and the next big event is to structure the group for success – this includes both the end objective and meaningful mid-term objectives that allow the group to measure itself on more than breaking the tape at the end of the race.  I have seen teams use proof of concepts, production of IP and completion of first paid beta as useful mid-level objectives.

Some of the truly powerful teams I have had the privilege to work with had the most selfless individuals on them.  Several times when key beta demonstrations and commitments were on the line, senior specialists rolled up their sleeves to do hands-on work, sometimes giving up sleep and time with their families so that the larger program milestones could be achieved.  This “surge” is one of the marks of a committed group, and while you cannot overuse it, the camaraderie established is powerful.

#3: Build the Bench

A remarkable number of firms don’t realize the long-term dividends from investing in promising mid-senior leaders who can sense early customer needs and organically develop projects and programs.  By providing developmental paths (programs and projects are by far the best tool), and along with cohort learning groups, significant progress can be made in months.

The most memorable personal example I have of recovering from “an empty bench”  was launching a full suite of new products with a lab full of new hires, one experienced tech, one amazing member of the technical staff and myself.  We met all the program milestones, and I still run into many of those new recruits who are now senior leaders across the industry – and part of the reason they are, is  because of their experience and early empowerment (out of sheer necessity).

Pulling it All Together

It’s that simple and that hard: the Right Project, Right Team and Right Plan.  When you are faced with a bout of innovation theatre, ask yourself which piece is missing or out of sync.  If we are unable to get behind this project, have we chosen wisely and as a team?  If we can’t field a team, and the group we have working on it makes only sporadic individual progress, have we been unable to establish a mission with good intermediate and risk-adjusted goals?  And lastly, if we are just not getting enough organic formation of new project ideas, have we let our bench strength sag?

If you would like to know more about the templates and diagnostics we use with growth program leaders and teams, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or click here to set up a no-strings-attached phone call.

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