Stop the Innovation Theatre

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The world is changing faster than ever and it will probably never change this slowly again. This means that organizations around the world need to organize for constant change, for always exploring new opportunities – in parallel with successfully running their current core business. 

A common approach to do this is to organize events with the purpose of spurring innovation. The events are called a variety of names: Innovation Week, Hack Day, Innovation Getaway, Innovation Stayaway, Innovation Challenge, Think Tank, or simply Hackathon. Regardless of the name the overall setup is often the same: to generate and explore ideas during a fixed time period.

These well-intentioned events are fun, but too often lead to nothing but a fun day or week for the people invited to take part. It becomes one item on the never-ending to-do list for managers. When done, we can cross it off, feel good about ourselves, and go back to our everyday jobs. Instead of fulfilling its potential for business impact, it becomes another “innovation theatre”, an empty promise about creating the future and reaching that vision far up in the sky. 

How can we avoid this? 

Here are a few things to consider when organizing your next event to avoid it having the feeling of theatre:  

SET A CLEAR PURPOSE

Connect your event to a clear purpose: Why are you investing in this? What do you hope to get out of it?  

Do a quick calculation of the salaries of people you take away from day-to-day operations for the event – it usually adds up to a big investmentbefore  facilitation, venue, catering and transport costs. Even though you want to keep your event open and creative, esnure everyone is moving in the same direction, as this actually makes possible the best creative outcome. 

HAVE A SPONSOR 

Always have an internal sponsor for the event. This adds credibility and reassures the organization that someone is interested in the results. The sponsor should have the budget and authority to move promising ideas forward and should have some presence at the event. 

CONNECT TO STRATEGY

Connect your event to strategic initiatives that have been determined important for the company to explore.  

Innovation is not just a fun side-event we do only to promote employee engagement. It needs to be business-critical, and crucial for survival, future growth, future profit, talent retention, and talent attraction.  

Keep an open track if you wish, but provide guidance to achieve more focused and relevant results. 

SET THE RIGHT EXPECTATIONS

The expression “kill your darlings” comes from the hard process of having to let go of ideas that you really believe or have invested in. This process is, however a necessary part of the process for most ideas.  

We can never know exactly how many ideas will see the light of day, but generally speaking, 5-10% of ideas are taken up and move forward. All ideas are important though in determining which are the promising ones.  

Setting the right expectations is very important to avoid disappointment further down the road: not all ideas will be selected – so making the sure that the selection criteria is transparent and understood is crucialFinally detach the value of your idea from your own value in your role. And celebrate both wins and the learning that comes from failure or invalidation of a hypothesis that you had. 

SUPPORT WITH PROCESS

Provide the necessary structure and tools to guide your teams through the full exploratory processes of ideation and selection 

Exploration requires a radically different approach from incremental improvement approach to day-to-day operations. This will be new to many involved in the process and therefore an innovation process helps teams to organize for the exploration of many different options, to look at ideas and problems from different angles, and to package their pitch in a good way. 

MAKE IT INCLUSIVE 

Your event should not only be for engineers or the one team who happened to have a visionary manager. Innovation happens when different perspectives come together to solve a common challenge.  

Invite the great minds that don’t think alike in HR, Finance, Production, Marketing, Technology, etc. Ensure everyone is contributing to the future instead of a select few.

RUN SMALL EXPERIMENTS 

Give teams the freedom to spend a small amount of money on running experiments.  

By engaging in early, small-scale testing you can collect indicative data to guide decisions about what gets further funding. This means goodbye to decisions based on only gut feeling and opinion. 

Take Care of the Results

Passionate people will pour everything they have into making their ideas come to life. Just leaving these ideas in a folder somewhere in the cloud is a tremendous waste of opportunities, and acts like poison on the company culture.  

If you ask for ideas, act on the promising ones and give feedback with structure to everyone involved. Hence – follow-up and feedback, follow-up and feedback, follow-up and feedback. 

It is easier said than done to organize an event that will spur innovation. If you are not willing to fully commit to what it takes, start small and prototype your way forward.  

If done right an event can have tremendous power to motivate every corner of an organization and deliver genuine value.

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