Unmasking the Dangers of Innovation Theatre: A Call for Genuine Progress

In today’s dynamic business landscape, the concept of innovation has morphed into a resounding buzzword that resonates across industries in Zambia.

Many organisations are racing to claim the mantle of trailblazers, disruptors, and pioneers in their quest to stay ahead of the curve but amidst the flurry of innovation initiatives, there’s a perilous pitfall that threatens to erode the very essence of innovation—it’s called “Innovation Theater.”

Innovation Theater: A Facade of Progress

Innovation Theater, as the name suggests, is the art of putting on a show. This occurs when a company, often a large one, creates an elaborate “Innovation Lab” that exudes a futuristic aura, complete with a team of trendy, tech-savvy individuals.

These labs host high-profile events and presentations, showcasing groundbreaking technologies that dazzle the eye. However, behind this facade lies a stark reality: a lack of clear strategy and focus, with most showcased innovations existing solely in the realm of concepts. The core products and services of the company remain largely unchanged, and the impact on the organization, if any, is minimal.

The primary aim of this theatrical performance is to impress stakeholders and maintain a glossy public image, all while real innovation takes a back seat.

The Pitfalls of Innovation Theater

1. Necessary as a gateway but not sustainable: Innovation Theater often begins with good intentions. Companies wish to demonstrate their commitment to innovation, but if this show is not supported by a genuine culture of innovation throughout the organization, it quickly fades into insignificance.

2. Shifts focus: This superficial form of innovation diverts attention and valuable resources away from critical issues that require genuine, long-lasting innovation. Particularly when resources are limited, it’s wiser to concentrate efforts on those areas that can drive meaningful change.

3. Breaks trust: Employees or interested stakeholders quickly recognize the difference between substance and spectacle. Trust erodes over time when they perceive these initiatives as mere publicity stunts, and their willingness to engage in meaningful activities dwindles.

4. Just another activity: Reducing innovation to a checkbox activity undermines its true potential as a transformative force within an organization.

Transitioning from Theater to Substance

To transcend the tricky world of Innovation Theater and foster genuine progress, several key considerations come to the fore:

1. Innovation with a purpose: It’s paramount that innovation efforts align with a clear purpose and strategic objectives, ensuring they contribute to the organization’s mission and long-term goals. The team must understand the “why” behind innovation.

2. Culture of innovation: Encourage a culture of experimentation and rapid testing. Embrace the philosophy of “Fail fast, fail forward,” which encourages a culture where employees are empowered to take risks, learn from their mistakes quickly, and use those lessons to innovate and progress, as it’s through these failures that true innovation often blossoms.

3. User-centered approach: Innovation should stem from the actual, data-backed needs of the people you serve, rather than being driven solely by hype and clout.

4. Planning and resource allocation: Innovation should not be relegated to the sidelines of “left-over” funds. Adequate financial and human resources should be planned and allocated to drive innovation initiatives effectively.

Shifting Focus: From Showcase to Progress

Let’s shift our focus from the glittering showcases of innovation to fostering an environment where meaningful progress can thrive. By embracing the principles outlined above, your organization can begin transitioning away from Innovation Theater and towards driving meaningful change. This shift promises to usher in more effective and responsible innovation practices, ultimately benefiting your organization, the broader ecosystem, and our nation as a whole.

If you’re keen on unlocking the true potential of innovation within your organization or assessing your current innovation standing, don’t hesitate to reach out to us for an innovation audit at [email protected]. Together, we can dismantle the façade of Innovation Theater and embrace the authentic power of innovation.

Taonga Grace Banda-Chizyuka
Manager – Innovation Consulting