Innovation, or just innovation theatre?

Photo by scooter.john on flickrA while ago I wrote about action theatre. It was inspired by Bruce Schneier’s term security theatre, to describe tiresome security measures at airports etc that might create a sense of security but don’t actually work.

Action theatre is what happens in organisations where there are lots of rituals to do with action happening, and lots of posturing about not being a talking shop. Innovation theatre is… well you get the idea, right?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong good theatre, if that’s what we’re paying to see. Trouble is, most of innovation theatre is pretty poor stuff.

So I’m going to start throwing out ideas on why, in this post and others to follow.

Process

I’m not the first person to suggest that the idea of an “innovation process” is an oxymoron. Michael Schrage has a good post at HBR – The Delicate Art of Unauthorized Innovation.

Because innovation is often messy, unplanned, and serendipitous, companies should be careful about how much order, discipline, and oversight to impose on individuals who bring urgency and initiative.

And Robert Brook has a good take on this too:

So. Innovation. We should have an innovation unit, shouldn’t we? We could do that. We could totally do that! We could innovate until the cows come home. We could innovate until our ears bleed! Most likely, we’ll innovate until the innovation budget runs out…Oh, sorry – didn’t I say? Ah, yes, innovation has a budget. And a timescale. And a board – you know, just to check that we’re innovating in the right way. Nothing too … er … innovative.

Keith Sawyer has a few good suggestions in his book, Group Genius, about the dangers of creating skunkworks that get separated off from the organisation, rather than having a steady churn of people passing through and keeping it real.

Photo by Thomsas Shahan on flickrPolitics

In organisations, innovation is bound up with politics. In my experience, nothing is more toxic to innovation than hierarchy. Or to be a little more precise, the reverence for hierarchy. Some blogs ostensibly about innovation seem mostly to be about getting management buy-in, “talking the language of the boardroom” – you know the kind of thing. This is a sell out. Institutions almost inevitably become about the preservation of the status quo and if you’re not willing to disrupt it, you’re probably not going to make much difference.

Trouble is, there’s more job security selling ointment than in being a fly.

Or as the consummate politician, Machiavelli put it

… nothing is more difficult than to introduce a new order. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new…

superhero by adaction on flickrThere’s a flip side to this as well. Because some of the biggest tubthumpers for innovation are just bullies who use disruptive thinking as a cover story. Styling themselves as challengers of complacency, they crash about the organisation cultivating the image of superhero.

I like the metaphor of the fly because flies are small creatures that mostly get overlooked, and more often swatted when they’re actually noticed.

If you have innovation in your job title, or style yourself as an innovation champion, you may already have deterred people with ideas from approaching you. And be tempted into grandiose projects to try to prove your worth.

More to follow…

Photo credits:Panto dame by scooter.jon; Fly by Thomas Shahan; Superhero by adactio – all on flickr

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