Tim Kastelle: three flawed ideas that create innovation theatre

By Tim Kastelle

January 18, 2016

“One of my pedagogy professors said an interesting thing once: teachers spend their time in the classroom teaching, while students, who you’d hope would spend the time learning, are actually studenting; that is, performing the gestures they’ve been taught to perform to seem like legitimate students.”

This quote from Christy Wampole (The Other Serious, page 231) is interesting. It lets teachers off the hook a bit — I know a few that simply perform the gestures of teaching. But this idea of “performing the gestures they’ve taught to perform” is useful.

We certainly see this in innovation — maybe there is something like “innovationing: performing the gestures that we’ve been taught to perform to seem like legitimate innovators”. In other words, innovation theatre.

Here is what it looks like in entrepreneurship:

  • Going to meet-ups, being in groups, doing start-up weekends, etc, but never actually building anything;
  • Talking about your idea all the time — but not building it;
  • Forcing everyone to sign an NDA before you’ll tell them about your idea, because you don’t want the idea stolen;
  • Even if you build something, you never put it in front of people or ask for their business, because it’s not ready yet;
  • You focus completely on your idea, not on the problem you’re trying to solve; and
  • You tell everyone what you’re disrupting.

And here are the symptoms of innovation theatre inside an organisation:

  • You talk a lot about what Google Apple would do — or Uber;
  • You buy innovation management software, and expect it to create innovation;
  • You do something that generates a bunch of ideas, without any time or resources allocated to executing them and making them real;
  • You’re willing to consider all new ideas, as long as they don’t cannibalise your existing business; and
  • You treat innovation something you bolt-on to business-as-usual, instead of treating it as core business.

Innovation theatre is bad because when it is performed, the actors can feel as though they are innovating, and making progress, when in fact they’re simply wasting their time. Innovation theatre is a particular danger in a time of great hype. Some may feel a need to get some of that innovation stuff, so they end up performing innovation theatre instead of genuinely changing how they act.

There are three flawed ideas people hold that create innovation theatre …

1. Ideas are the most important part of innovation

This is the most common innovation mistake I run into, and you can see this throughout many of the examples. The way to change this idea is to act. First, start executing ideas rather than just thinking about them. You need to build an innovation process. Second, build a bias towards action, not thinking. As Jerry Sternin said:

“It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.”

2. I know what customers need

None of these innovation theatre actions involve building a deep understanding of what customers actually need. The underlying assumption is that we already know. This is rarely true. The way to change this idea is to engage deeply with the problem you’re trying to solve, rather than getting hung up on your idea, or your features.

When I started out in sales, we were taught to sell benefits, not features. The only way to know what a benefit is is to know what problems your customers are trying to solve. Methods that can help with this include design thinking, ethnography, and customer development.


3. Becoming more innovative doesn’t require any real change in the way we act

Innovation always requires a change in behaviour — and it requires it of both the creators and the users of the new idea. The way to change this idea is to turn innovation into a habit. Innovating requires resources — time, money, and attention. The principles behind it are simple, but implementing them is not easy. Consequently, you don’t get innovation instantly, you build an innovation capability over time.

Innovation is executing new ideas to create value. The remedies to all three flawed ideas behind innovation theatre are embedded in that definition.

Let’s stop performing the gestures we’re taught to perform that make us seem innovative. Instead, let’s act. Innovation, not innovation theatre!

This article was originally published on Tim Kastelle’s blog

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