We talked in our Innovation Rockstars Podcast with Noelia Almanza Ahari about the "Innovation Theater", what it is, her experiences, and how to avoid it.
Noelia Almanza Ahari is someone who can easily be considered an Innovation Rockstar. She has held several positions at the intersection of foresight, strategy, and people management in various industries, including health tech and defence.
Currently, Noelia is the Senior Development Manager at one of the worlds' largest game companies. The podcast marks a special anniversary for her; as she celebrates 20 years as an innovation practitioner, she speaks to us about the phenomenon of the "innovation theater". In this episode, she unpacks what it is, how she has encountered it, and the dangers it can cause to companies as well as innovation managers.
Understanding the Innovation Theater
I would say that innovation theater can be seen as a collection of concepts [that] can range from… companies that only use innovation as a selling point to large corporations that call regular linear product development as innovation. I would say directing their efforts of innovation, setting the structure or something like that which has no… outputs from all of the initiatives driven within the company.
Noelia Almanza Ahari
Noelia’s analysis of the innovation theater highlights the relationship between intention and output. An organization may set up an infrastructure that appears to be prioritizing innovation from the outside looking in, but when innovation managers are not empowered then projects and departments are doomed to fail. In Ahari’s words, the theatrical element is when “you state that you're doing something that you're really not doing or just trying to put up a facade around it.”
Let's look at some of the ways that practitioners can identify the innovation theater so as to avoid it and enact effective innovation strategies.
#1 - Look Behind the Scenes
Noelia highlights critical factors which may signal to innovation managers that they might be part of the innovation theater. A lack of leadership buy-in is one of the crucial barriers in effectively enacting innovation strategies. Suppose the C-Suite is not invested in the project, is seen to be constantly rejecting ideas developed, or does not empower innovation departments to access other departments within an organization. In that case, there may be systemic or purposefully created blockages that undermine innovation departments.
Noelia highlights an additional factor that may indicate that an innovation theater is at play: a lack of finances invested into an innovation project. She elaborates that for these “exploration units” undertaking novel product development to flourish, they “need to own the budget.. and actually be able to carry out what they want to do and what they believe in” .
#2 - Understand that Everything Called Innovation Is not Necessarily Innovation
Noelia discusses that practitioners need to be aware that there are organizations that wish to be seen as having thriving innovation departments but in reality do not have the desire to follow through with any of the initiatives developed by innovation departments. This is a facet of the innovation theater. Such organizations may market business-as-usual activities as groundbreaking initiatives and this can harm innovation managers whose actual groundbreaking initiatives may have been shelved or did not succeed due to lack of adequate financing. Noelia goes on to list examples such as making negligible adjustments to a product and positioning it as an innovative product to the public even though the product development process was identical to previous processes as ways organizations may stifle actual innovation.
#3 - Know the Part You Play as an Innovation Practitioner
An additional key variable contributing to the innovation theater is a misalignment in expectations between innovation departments and others in the company. The expectation that innovation departments must be constant ideators who provide an endless stream of creative ideas that may or may not be used betrays other critical functions that innovation practitioners bring to organizations.
As Noelia elaborates, a vital role of innovation practitioners is to add “structure to the organization, setting a direction” and “executing and facilitating” innovation initiatives. Noelia reiterates that an advantage of facilitating the innovation process cross-departmentally is that innovation managers can engage “people within the organization who have been around for… a long time and [know] what the end-users, the customers... need and the value we need to create … into whatever we want to do.” Merely viewing innovation departments as ideation centers exacerbates the notion of the Innovation Theater.
The innovation manager uses their foresight competency across various departments to drive new initiatives that can be disruptive. Noelia also clearly states that her job is not that of a genie; there are no lamps to rub, nor are there any alchemic spells to be conjured by innovation managers. She underscores the point by stating that she is sometimes expected to have “a hotline to Silicon Valley,”
#4 - Get Comfortable with the Discomfort
The process of innovation is about exploring unknown territories and developing a picture of the future. Innovation is also about meeting the moment, whether political instability, the advent of disruptive technological advancements, or a global pandemic. This can become an uncomfortable process, particularly for organizations that have historically not stepped outside their comfort zone regarding innovation strategies.
Noelia encourages innovation practitioners to continue pushing boundaries and not be constrained by failed projects, but rather to treat these as learnings and “blessings”. Conversely, she challenges corporate leaders to “shake [off] their own egos” and “try new things”. In this way, a combination of bravery, meeting the current moment globally, and being willing to follow through on lofty innovation initiatives is the antidote for evading the innovation theater.
Closing the Curtain on the Innovation Theater
Unfulfilled innovation projects can cause damage on several levels; they can rob organizations of opportunities to initiate new solution drivers and meet changing consumer preferences. In addition, abandoned innovation activities can create deep chasms between leadership and the employees working to bring the ideas to life.
Noelia’s reflections reveal something deeper about the innovation theater; it can harm innovators too. As someone who has spent two decades in innovation telling her story, she is sending a message to less-seasoned innovation practitioners about the occupational hazards of the industry. The clear inspirational message is that she is still in the industry, plying her trade in organizations focused on following through on innovation strategies. This highlights that companies do exist that buy into the merits of innovation, empower innovators to do their best work, and are willing to, in Ahari’s words, “try new things” that will take them “far into the future”.
We thank Noelia for this insightful interview!
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