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When the Innovation Theater Kills Innovation

Noelia Almanza Ahari, Senior Executive Advisory Innovation

 "The worst thing about working in innovation is innovation theater, and innovation fatigue, which you can sort of die from as an innovation manager."

In this episode, we are joined by charming Noelia Almanza Ahari, a true innovation rockstar, who has held several positions at the intersection of foresight, strategy, and people management in various industries, including health tech and defense. Most recently, Noelia accepted a contract working as Senior Development Manager at the world’s largest game & mobile game development company. 

As this podcast marks a special anniversary for Noelia; as she celebrates 20 years as an innovation practitioner, Noelia speaks to us about the phenomenon of the “Innovation Theater”; what it is, why people avoid discussing it, as well as the danger it can cause to companies and innovation managers.

If you want to learn more about this phenomenon and hear from someone with two decades’ experience on how companies should utilize innovation managers to reach strategic goals, then stay tuned for this illuminating and vivid conversation.

Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.

When the innovation theater kills innovation

Chris: Hi, and welcome back to the Innovation Rockstars show. My name is Chris Mühlroth, and in this episode I am pleased to welcome Noelia Almanza. Noelia has 20 years of experience in innovation leadership and complex endeavors across several countries, as well as experience in engaging and advising C-level executives across various industries, and her personal code of conduct is actually made up of two concepts. Number one, say, do an act, and number two, people, profit, and value, so that's great, and Noelia, thank you so much for joining us on the show.

Noelia: Thank you so much for having me. It's really a pleasure to be here talking to you. Finally, I would say.

Chris: Finally, all right, let's start with a 60-second introduction sprint about your career and your experiences. So, for the next 60 seconds, the stage is all yours. Let's go to.

Noelia: Yeah, so I have been in innovation since 2001, which is now 20 years ago. I have been working internationally for over a year, and I've been managing everything from small projects to large corporate C-level innovation departments in multinational companies, mainly in healthcare and health tech, and in the blue light and civil defense industries, which was very fun. I've also been a people manager, and I like to describe myself as having two legs. One is managing people, and the other one is managing organizations and parts of organizations. Oftentimes, leadership comes hand in hand with how we make organizations thrive, I would say, and kind of grow. And all of this puts the people first, as you can see from my code of conduct. At the moment, I have taken a short break from innovation due to innovation fatigue and will return soon. This comes from all the innovation theatre. So I was kind of offered a six-month assignment which I took on in the gaming industry, and that was really something scary, but I put my money where my mouth was, and I stepped out of my comfort zone and went into something that I really didn't know about.

“I like to describe myself as having two legs. One is managing people, and the other one is managing organizations and parts of organizations.”

Chris: Alright, thanks. So next up, I will now give you three sentence starters to complete, and let's see what your reply is. The first one goes like this: The best thing about working in innovation is …

Noelia: … the opportunity to have an impact on the company's business and drive change in our society, I would say.

Chris: It's all about impact and driving change. Perfect. Number two: One thing nobody knows about me is…

Noelia: … that I was stolen from my mother as a child. In Colombia, Bogota, I was kidnapped and sold, and that is actually how I ended up in Sweden in the 80s.

Chris: That is an impressive story, and finally number three: The worst thing about working in innovation is that …

Noelia: ... innovation theater and innovation fatigue, which you can sort of die from as an innovation manager.

Illusion and reality in corporate innovation

Chris: Yeah, and this will certainly be the focus topic, the core topic of today, so Noelia. Yeah, as we've learned, you've already gone through many career stages as maybe head of innovation, or comparable roles. So, first, we came across you through an article on the online magazine media side called sifted, which I guess is backed by the Financial Times, so the article features your story, which mainly revolves around what you have just mentioned: innovation theater and innovation fatigue. And for those who are not too familiar with this term or with these two terms, can you please explain what innovation theater actually is?

“Innovation theater can range from companies that only use innovation as a selling point to large corporations that call regular and linear product developments as innovation.”

Noelia: I would say that innovation theater can be seen as a collection of concepts, to be fair, and innovation theater can range from companies that only use innovation as a selling point to large corporations that call regular and linear product developments as innovation. And also, when you can see different companies, I would say, directing their efforts towards innovation, setting a structure or something like that, that has no whatsoever output from all of the initiatives driven within the company, it can also be companies that might hire a chief of innovation, or chief innovation officer, to drive innovation efforts. But they are restrained by money. There is no money put into the organization and that leads up to the fact that you don't get anything out of any of the efforts that you do and also to the fact that the output will be no gain for the users or customers either. So I would say to scope it out together. I would say it is a collection of concepts, and it can be very different from organization to organization as well.

Chris: Would you maybe argue that there is some sort of parallel to the term "greenwashing" that we see these days? I mean, it's also putting a cover, a green cover on some activities. Would you maybe argue that the innovation theater could be compared to that or do you see that differently?

Noelia: In some ways, I can say that if you're using the word innovation as a selling point, I would say that, you know, that's when we come close to being less than the same thing as greenwashing, but I don't think that you can actually harm people and organizations as you would do by greenwashing. When you state that you're doing something that you're really not doing, or just trying to put up a facade around it, it's more or less the same, but different.

Chris: Interesting perspective, thanks. So, in a somewhat metaphorical sense, about the innovation of theater. If we would actually imagine it to be a theater and a stage: So, who is there on and behind the stage and in which acts does theater actually takes place?

Noelia: Yeah, I would, if we were going to go metaphorical here, I would say that, as on a stage and behind the scenes of a theater, you have the professionals actually running the lights and sound. And I would say that the people and professionals on the stage here are the innovation managers and innovation leaders, and they are the people who are actually driving the initiatives who are appointed to do something. But, you know, you don't have your spotlight there without the other people behind. You can have the people running the sound. If they don't take care of the herd, or if the people selling the tickets stop selling tickets and so you run out of audience.... So it's so much more. It's a good metaphor, I would say, when it comes to this. And when you have these kinds of people in the background, not doing their job, it's becoming very, very easy for you, as the innovation manager or the actor on stage, to also become the person that is going to be hit by all the tomatoes thrown by the audience, if you will have any kind of audience. So I would say that that would pretty much express or explain my take on this one. I would say.

“When the people in the background are not doing their job, it's becoming very, very easy for you, as the innovation manager or the actor on stage, to become the person that is going to be hit by all the tomatoes thrown by the audience.”

The WHY behind the innovation theater

Chris: Yeah, And I mean, the question or the “why” is probably hard to explain, but maybe we can talk about some of the aspects of it. So why do you think companies actually fail to execute innovation projects, innovation initiatives, and innovation programs that they originally set out to do, or at least that they said that they want to set out to do them? What do you think? What's the “why” behind the innovation theater?

Noelia: Well, I would say that there are so many different reasons, and I think it's hard to just point out one, because I think it can be a series of hedges, hazards or even restraints, as well as prestige fullness from your key stakeholders or the C suit or any other person within the company that can create some sort of obstacle, a road bump to where you want to go. And that can be very dangerous for the organization's ability to actually be able to execute innovation projects. And even if you have all of your owners' buy-in for the organization or anything like that, you can actually have people within the organization trying to shoot you down in whatever you do, so that's one thing I've actually lived through to see the prestige play out that way.

Chris: And can you maybe tell us a story of maybe one concrete example where the innovation theater was actually highly present and dominant?

Noelia: It's a hard one, but I would say that when working in an organization where you have this linear product development thing that I was talking about earlier... So when you state that you're super innovative, and you're trying to get into the future by just changing small bits of the product and not even being incremental about it - That's a good example of innovation theater. And I can't mention a specific company, but I had one AI solution going on very well for a company, which could really be, I would say, could have been disruptive. When I was working in intensive care units back in the early 2010s, we were always looking into ways of measuring the blood glucose levels in the blood of the patient without pinching the patient or making a hole in the patient's skin. So this is a solution that can actually measure your blood glucose levels by only using the camera or your smartphone or something like that. And as a company, when you set out to be very innovative, you use the word "innovation" as if you know your unique selling point, but you don't even want to look into something like this, which is sort of the holy grail to whatever you want to do, and you know it's right in front of you. You don't do it, and then you say, "We are super innovative." We have a software solution for doing some things that have been around for maybe 2000 years.

Chris: So that's interesting. And I'm certainly, you know, drawing your experience from real life. Why don't more people with similar experiences as you, publicly speak about all this innovation theater? What do you think?

Noelia: Well, let's say I go by myself. I mean, I've been in innovation for the past 20 years and I think that the sense of your own failure when you can actually drive an initiative through or implement an innovation strategy within a company or when you get kicked out or if you're failing, I think the sense of the failure itself can be very hindering to you getting out there to speak publicly about where the blame actually belongs, because you don't want to be seen as somebody who pushes the reasons for somebody else's fault or the right circumstances weren't really existing in the company. Another thing I heard and was contacted about from different parts of the world when this article was published is that many people are afraid of losing their jobs or even being blacklisted as innovation professionals. I have always been very sure of myself and I felt the need to raise awareness here. This is something that actually applies to all innovation managers, and I think if we share this kind of experience, we can make it much better for all of us in the industry.

Chris: And maybe one additional aspect to it. I'm not sure if you can relate to that, but I would be interested in your opinion on this. Also, the article's content relies on this. It sounds as if there is still a misunderstanding of what an innovation manager, or a head of innovation, or a chief innovation officer, actually does. So, in your opinion, can you relate to that? Can you tell me a little bit about your perspective on what the job to be done actually is in such a role?

Noelia: I can very much relate to that. The people who listen to this episode will also recognize what I stated in the article. When I was hired for one of these positions, one of the largest things that I identified as the discrepancy between what I had in mind and what my job was to be was when I presented them with the strategy and the strategic planning for the coming three years, they were like, "But we hired you because we thought you were going to be a very creative person and come up with all these good ideas." Maybe even so, when I think that what I see as a job to be done is putting some structure into the organization and setting a direction, and also executing and facilitating for innovation to happen. And by doing that, you have to use some structures and processes around it as well. But the most important thing is to never forget about the people within the organization who have been around for such a long time and know, sort of, what the end users, the customers, and the value we need to create for this are and bring those aspects into whatever we want to do when we're trying to find new ways into the future for the business side, but that's in this particular place that was not really thought about, just throwing away all the competence, I would say.

“One of the biggest discrepancies was when I presented them with the strategy and the strategic planning for the next three years, they said, ‘But we hired you because we thought you were going to be a very creative person and come up with all these good ideas’.”

Chris: So I think the importance of that statement should not be underestimated, right? So the innovation manager, as it says, the head of innovation, the CIO, Chief Innovation Officer, Chief digitization officer, whatever you call it, does not necessarily have to be the creative girl or the creative guy. It's about managing, it's about facilitating, it's about connecting the dots, it's about getting the right capabilities, competencies, frameworks, processes, governance, whatever in place, but not actually coming up with the next best idea or with the next best disruption. That's not the job to be done. I think that I can summarize it like this?

Noelia: Yeah, that's a really good summary. Very good. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Chris: So Noelia, and, okay, no, what does that “do” to a company, to its innovation culture, to the mindsets? I mean, it sounds dramatic and drastic that if you continue to innovation theater your way through the company, how does it change the cultural mindset in the long run?

Noelia: Yeah, I think it's very dangerous for a company not to take all these aspects into account when trying to plan for the future. And one of the key things to stay relevant in the market is to take into account all the skills that you have in the company, because everyone in the company will have an idea of what the best way forward is and then what the best way to do things is. There are two perspectives on innovation theatre and the dangers of engaging in innovation theatre. One is from the manager's side. I would say. You know, from my point of view, when I was appointed as head of innovation, I suffered from this kind of theatre. I was suffering a lot from fatigue. I was suffering from not being able to do what I set out to do and what I wanted to do, because I always have the passion to do my best for the company when I do something. And the other side of the coin is if you have people in the organization who are always trying to do things better, but they are never seen or taken seriously and the efforts they want to drive end up losing people to other companies. So are you going to drive your organisation with other people? I think that's one of the biggest risks that you run. Apart from the fact that the products that you're doing, and everything that you're basically doing in the company, will become irrelevant to the market in the long run.

Chris: So That’s a clearly jeopardizing the future readiness, especially in the long run for the company. That's important to state. So, what is the cure for that for the innovation theater? How can someone or some organization not only talk the talk but actually walk the talk?

Noelia: I mean, there are a lot of different aspects to take into consideration here. You can look into the organizational or configuration or the setup of the organization to actually facilitate for innovation and innovation efforts to actually take place. And one of the things that I have been diving very deeply into throughout the past three years or something like that, is the organizational setup where you have an ambidextrousness to the organization where you detach the explorative things that you do within an organization and put them aside and continue on doing all the exploitive activities that constitute the core business. But the important thing here is that you need to have something in between there to scale up or scale in or modify whatever you can come up with in this exploration unit. So we can fit into the overall core business and take you on the journey into the future. But this is something that I rarely see. You have this kind of twitch to it where you have intrapreneurs within a company coming up with good ideas, and then you have a spin-off effect where they create their own small companies, and the larger mother company invests in this company, and that's a meta-worsened version of what I just said. But to be able to do this, I also think it's very important that you know that you will have to put the money into this kind of organization as well. But they need to own the budget within itself to actually be able to carry out what they want to do and what they believe in. And that's the best side of it. But if you are integrating all of these parts within an existing organization, I think it's really important that you maybe even have the goals set, the failure rate of all the projects that you want to be driving within the organization so that when you look back, you can't be punished for having wasted this amount of money on just failures, because failures should be a blessing to the company, and you should have put your money there to learn the lesson.

Facilitating innovation in a highly regulated environment

Chris: So okay, now we can definitely state, and also with that context, that the disruptive power  of the innovation theater may unfold, but it can be disastrous. Especially in the long term, I would like to turn to a few more positive examples. If there is a possibility to maybe specialize a bit in the health or health tech sector, of course, this industry in this sector is highly regulated due to perfectly valid reasons. So if you turn that upside down, not talking about the innovation theater but actually thinking of innovation success and innovation facilitation, how could one, for example, continuously facilitate innovation in such an industry like health tech or the public healthcare sector, even as it's so highly regulated?

Noelia: I would say that, since it's such a regulated industry, you need to keep on taking these baby steps. Keep on moving forward by nudging the legality of the entire scope in which you are operating, and I believe that we have seen that has been pushed by external factors, such as the pandemic, which has been a pusher to make innovation happen, and I believe that these baby steps actually consist of taking the very lowest hanging fruit, such as looking into remote patient monitoring and things like that, which is not very innovative, but the value they create by enabling a patient to stay home and being remotely monitored is actually very innovative in such a way that you have this value stream that is being created, and you're using video streaming and sound streaming in a completely different way than it was thought for from the beginning. And then we have the 5G coming in here and play a big role in the IoT society too.

Chris: What are some of the special rules or specialties that you actually need to take into account in this industry? Can you just give some examples?

Noelia: Of course, I'm referring to internet security and cybersecurity, which we must always keep in mind. Can we have someone bugging the system or something like that? But then there's the GDPR, HIPAA, MDR, software, and medical device regulations to contend with as well. So I think that we need to always have these kinds of rules and regulations always on top of mind to stay compliant with what you need to be doing because if you don't stay compliant with these rules and regulations, I think that you will put a lot of money into something that is taking the entirely wrong direction, or you are developing some things that are not going to be working. And I have actually seen this very often when companies are trying to get into the healthcare industry but coming from maybe retail or something like that, when you try to take something that's very well working within the retail industry, and then you try to apply it to the healthcare industry, but you don't take this into consideration and that will, that can actually cause you to be sued or anything like that, which will cost you a lot of money just by simple mistakes and not having informed yourself and what the most important regulatory obstacles here, I would say.

Chris: Yeah, definitely. And you’ve just stated it a couple of minutes before. We recently heve witnessed many changes and also innovations in the shadow of the recent pandemic. So, once again, what does this change, the speed of change, the acceleration, do to the perception of innovation processes in the healthcare sector? Do you think that on the medium to long term horizon, they will actually speed up, they will maybe shorten innovation cycles, maybe stay as they are with the current pandemic, or do you think this is actually a change and an acceleration, which will not be lasting for longer?

Noelia: As well as so many other questions and answers here during our episode, I would say that there are so many different aspects to this, and I think one of the reasons why things have been so slow in the past is that the healthcare industry has been so regulated and everything needs to be so controlled. There should be studies carried out for whatever things you want to be doing since you have, you're engaging with medicine and all of these kinds of things. What I can see that has happened here in terms of suffering from this pandemic is that we have seen a vast exposure of the parts of the healthcare system that are not very functioning. Because, and this has actually driven, the allover innovation efforts, because it might not seem as innovation to be standards maybe, but for us in the healthcare industry, we can see that we're taking some things that are being used in other industries and taking them in and translating them into our needs and the needs of the patients and then being able to create this value for all the people involved. Plus we have seen during the pandemic very high gain within the socio-economic aspects of it and freeing up time from doctors and looking into how we can use AI to free up even more time and resources from within the healthcare systems across the world. I would say.

Chris: Highly interesting. Thank you for these insights. So, no way. With all of this experience you've had so far in those various innovation roles, if there can be even one, what is your one final message to the corporate world that you really want to get across?

“The corporate world should shake their own egos off and try to stay on top of things while wanting to try new things and step out of their comfort zone.”

Noelia: I would say that the corporate world should shake their own egos off and try to stay on top of things while wanting to try new things and step out of their comfort zone. I would say that that's a cliche, but it's very true, and I think that just being brave and courageous about new things is going to take you far into the future.

Chris: It is a great statement! And finally, Noelia, when we look back on your professional career so far, it is a great statement. And since this is our signature, recurring question, what would you say was your greatest Innovation Rockstar moment to date?

Noelia: I would say that my biggest Innovation Rockstar moment was when I was 16 years old in 2001 and I started an organisation and I thought that we were trying to have an impact on the health system in Cochabamba and we created this organisation called Movimiento Sonrisa, which is still an existing organisation that works to take care of the poorest people in Cochabamba, where we created everything from a pharmacy to a medical clinic to a patient, hospital or a patient hotel where the parents of the children could stay for free. To be able to have that impact on the whole health system in Cochabamba was the coolest thing I've ever seen. I worked with us for ten years, and we never used the words 'innovation' or 'social innovation', but looking back on it, it certainly was innovation.

Chris: It was definitely innovation, so we're done with the innovation theater for today. On the one hand, and with the highly impactful Innovation Rockstar moment on the other hand, I think we have covered quite a lot, and with that, we also have reached the end of this episode. So Noelia, thank you for the honest words and the insights from your decades of experience in the areas of innovation. And it was a pleasure to listen to you.

Noelia: Thank you so much, and it was a pleasure to finally meet with you. And finally, having to be able to do this rock star moment in my life. This is the new one.

Chris: Great. And to everyone listening or watching, if you want to learn more about the innovation theater, innovation fatigue, or the highly special Innovation Rockstar moment we just witnessed, simply leave a comment on this episode, or send us an email at Now that's it. Thanks for listening. See you in the next episode, take care and bye-bye.

About the authors

Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Noelia Almanza is a true innovation rockstar with over 20 years of experience in leading innovation and complex projects in various countries and industries.

The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!



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