Why you don’t need a foosball table — and why you may need one

The difference between being innovative and faking it

Gavrilo Bozovic
Jan 12, 2018 · 4 min read

I can’t count my visits to the offices of large multinationals that decided to open an innovation department. The place will invariably be colorful, the furniture tastefully mismatched. There may be some blackboards complete with artful chalk drawings, a slide or a ball pen. Oh, and there is always a foosball table somewhere.

Beautiful as everything may be, it is always hard for me to shake off a deep feeling of cringe when looking at such a space.

Corporate innovation space. We’ve put in the foosball table, innovation should be here any minute now.

It’s always kind-of, sort-of what a start-up is supposed to look like, without ever feeling quite right. It never does, because the creators of such spaces are engaging in an innovation Cargo Cult.

A primer on Cargo Cults

Cargo Cults are one of the most interesting human phenomena, ever, and they are much too little known. In the 1940s, during the war in the Pacific, the US built air bases on small islands in Melanesia. Airplanes started landing and unloading tons of supplies: the Cargo. Local populations had in many cases never been contacted by an industrialised society, and no one took the time to explain them what was going on ; they just saw the airplanes arrive and suddenly had access to fantastic manufactured goods.

When the war was over, these bases were abandoned, and, again, no one explained why. As a result, multiple cults appeared independently in which the locals mimicked the day-to-day activities of American soldiers: they carved rifles and headphones out of wood, built bamboo control towers, waved landing signals from the end of dummy runways.

Airplane replica in a cargo cult. The airplane sits next to a dummy runway, complete with bamboo control tower.

Does that seem silly? Maybe, but put yourselves in the shoes of a Ni-Vanuatu tribesman (i.e. probably barefoot). All you see are those weird looking men arrive from the sea, do their ritual, until huge machines appear from the skies, vomiting untold riches. You have no idea of the society behind it all, the scientists who discovered flight, the engineers who designed the airplanes and the factories which built them: all you see is a man dressed in green waving at the end of a runway.

From your perspective, you’re perpetuating the ritual, you’re doing everything required to make these beasts come back with their goods.

Back to innovation

When a company decides it has to be innovative and starts by buying a foosball table, they are engaging in cargo cult behaviour: they are copying what they have seen others do, without understanding why. They are replicating the visible part of a process they do not understand.

Cargo cult behaviour: reproducing the visible part of a process whose underlying logic you do not understand.

Richard Feynman had talked about cargo cult science, developers speak about cargo cult programming, but cargo cult behaviour can be found anywhere: politics, medicine, art, you name it.

Cargo cultism breeds these cringeworthy innovation spaces, which are poor imitations of what an innovative company made, not what made it innovative. As the bamboo control tower of a cargo cult, it may look like the real thing from a distance, but it doesn’t take much to see through the illusion.

Where innovation happens

To create an environment fertile for innovation one should replicate what makes companies innovative, not what innovative companies look like. At its core, the recipe is quite simple: have a vision, hire the best, and treat them like adults. Creative and productive teams are constituted of skilled and dedicated professionals, pursuing a common goal, and unimpeded by red tape, politicking, dress codes or other such corporate nonsense.

Creative and productive teams are constituted of skilled and dedicated professionals, pursuing a common goal, and unimpeded by red tape, politicking, dress codes or other such corporate nonsense.

This is very unnatural for most large companies, and chances are that any such initiative will be nipped in the bud unless it comes from the very top of the organisation. On the other hand, any middle manager can decide to throw in a couple of colourful sofas and a PlayStation and give the illusion of innovation.

If you can build a competent and unfettered team in your organisation, chances are it will be productive and innovative. The workspace of such a team will adapt: employees will choose the best suited tools, they will experiment with different configurations, and their environment will get the organic, messy-but-in-a-good-way look of a good start-up.

At some point, someone may even want to buy a foosball table. You should let them.

Ideo’s San Francisco office. Looks like isht? Maybe: it grew to be efficient, not to look nice, unlike corporate pretend-innovation-spaces

About me

I’m an engineer and entrepreneur, 500 Startups alumnus and consultant.

I work with large companies in early stage development projects, and coach some start-ups in my spare time.

In my spare spare time, I read random books and cook vast amounts of food.

Connect with me through my website, Twitter, LinkedIn.

Gavrilo Bozovic

Written by

I design products and the teams that make them. Passionate about interdisciplinarity, early stage product development, and conditions where innovation happens

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