October 4, 2016
Is Your Company Innovating, Or Are You Only Seeing ‘Innovation Theater’?

When it comes to developing products in today’s tech-driven world, it feels like the sky is the limit. Who doesn’t enjoy sitting down and thinking about all the possibilities, perhaps even creating stunning digital renditions of our ideas?

Ideas are essential, but it’s easy for companies to fall into the trap of “innovation theater.” In this trap, countless ideas and flashy drawings are passed up to the executive level and celebrated — while the actual execution of these ideas is treated like an afterthought.

This sends a strange message to product development teams — one that encourages the presentation of ideas instead of real work that produces real business value.

Putting execution as second to innovative ideas only sets up a company for failure — and innovation theater.

Innovation Is Nothing Without Execution

When innovation theater infects businesses, they’ll spend large amounts of dollars spinning their wheels, celebrating and exploring too many ideas in infancy — and this just isn’t feasible from an execution standpoint.

Think about how much hype bots have stirred up over the past couple of years — yet how little real-life business value has been derived from them thus far. This can be attributed to the innovation theater running rampant through the bot world.

Too many companies are pursing every innovative idea and creating bots that try to do too much — such as personal assistants that claim to be part-time secretaries, part-time jukeboxes, part-time personal shoppers, and part-time life coaches. The world is yet to see a bot of this type that is capable of fulfilling all of these roles.

As a result, the common reaction to bots has ranged from “this is fine” to “this sucks” — and the fact remains that 79 percent of consumers currently think interacting with them is a waste of time.

On the other hand, highly focused bots that accomplish one specific task are seeing much more favorable feedback — and thus hold more potential to drive business value. Clothing company Everlane’s bot, for example, automatically sends a Facebook message to shoppers that confirms their order and provides shipping updates as they become available. It’s simple, it’s limited, but it’s immensely useful — much more so than a bot that says it can do everything under the sun but fails to deliver on this promise.

The Stakes Are High

According to McKinsey, the average IT project ends up costing 45 percent more than its original budget and delivering 56 percent less value than anticipated. However, those statistics solely reference the projects that actually make it to completion. A whopping 68 percent of tech ideas are doomed from the get-go — so it makes sense that investments in innovation don’t necessary promise a return. Innovation theater, in my opinion, is one of the big culprits here.

While afflicted businesses are wasting money, they’re also wasting time and putting themselves behind the competition. They’re losing focus on delivering real-life value to their day-to-day business, and that eventually forces them to pursue a big acquisition in order to catch up with the market — which ends up being even more expensive and presents the additional challenge of making the acquisition successful in the long term.

Ultimately, they wasted the money twice while making their lives more difficult in the process.

Meanwhile, employees will feel demotivated. A company’s execution-focused professionals — its best engineers — will feel undervalued. They’ll feel like they aren’t being put in a position to succeed.

There’s a lot of dirty work that needs to happen in order to make ideas come to life. To actually make innovation meaningful in the market, product development should be seen as 5 percent ideas and 95 percent execution, eliminating any room for innovation theater.

A Few Symptoms of Innovation Theater

Here are three telltale signs a company has fallen into innovation theater:

1. Every idea is worth pursuing.

Capacity is never an issue. Every innovative idea gets celebrated, gets a “yes,” and gets pursued. The company feels like it can accomplish anything and everything, so it pursues everything.

When you say “yes” to everything, there’s no possible way to execute with quality and win in the market. You have a finite capacity, and even if you could do more, it’s better for you to do less more efficiently and get to market sooner.

You can certainly do some things, but you can’t do everything. Whoever is leading the program will inevitably be in the position where he needs to say “no” many times.

2. Too many pictures and prototypes, not enough working iterations of end products.

You see lots of presentations where amazing graphics and renderings are presented, a bright future is painted, and maybe there’s even a clickable prototype, but you (and your clients) never see iterations of the working product.

Even if they’re looking crude and lack redeemable user experience, these early working versions of product matter infinitely more than anything your team creates in Photoshop. You need to prove your ideas actually work across the many disciplines involved (design, scalability, quality, security, reliability, etc.).

3. Requesting just idea generation could lead to unhappy engineers.

Your best engineers are some of the smartest people in the room, but only generating ideas won’t allow them to flex their talents. Maybe a few of them are leaving because they know that without a focus on execution, the product will never deliver results.

When they keep getting bombarded with everything under the sun — and no ideas are being pushed back on — they know the entire program is not going to work.

To Overcome Innovation Theater, Embrace Culture Change

All bad habits are difficult to break, innovation theater included. Reprioritizing between ideas and execution requires a culture change.

A change like this begins with you, the leader. Instead of pursuing every great idea, start by focusing on one or two products per team, and execute them. Deliver them not as prototypes, but instead as iterations of working products. Get into the dirty work. Flesh out the details from a rigorous, thorough perspective of what it would and wouldn’t do and how it would work. And, for the time being, put other ideas on pause. Begin celebrating iterations of working products as opposed to grand visions.

Explain to your team that there is going to be a profound change and that it does change the work environment, but the future business impact will be highly noticeable and rewarding. People will actually be using and willing to pay for your product, and that benefits everyone.

Some people will leave because they’re going to declare that your program isn’t innovative enough. That’s OK — they might belong in marketing rather than bringing business to market.

Your new priority should be execution with momentum, which allows you to generate an idea, bring it to market, and move to the next idea (having learned from the previous one). You won’t overload your team’s bandwidth, and you’ll have happy clients.

In a world that moves this fast, the ability to be high-velocity and high-quality is more important than anything else. Curing your company’s innovation theater doesn’t mean eliminating excitement — it only means you’re becoming excited about what will bring your business real value.

Amit Maimon
Amit Maimon is the SVP of product innovation and development at Lifion, a special venture within ADP that builds the next generation of tech products and services to help organizations and people grow in their professional endeavors.

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