Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

Pretending to innovate

Penny Webb-Smart
Jan 10, 2017 · 3 min read

We are now well into the digital era where the economic ground rules of survival for organisations is radically changing for both the public and the private sector, however most established organisations are yet to fully addressing the threats and opportunities. Many are pretending to innovate — aka innovation theatre — in that while their digital transformation efforts use the words of transformation and innovation, and sometimes the process, their efforts deliver little more than superficial improvement (and sometimes at surprisingly high cost).

Its understandable that organisations are nervous about undermining their existing businesses, however in changing times, not taking meaningful steps to address the threats and opportunities is probably the riskiest strategy of all.

Organisations who are only pretending to innovate usually take one of four approaches:

1) Polishing the outside of the organisation — devoting all your efforts to creating ways for users to interact and transact with you online while real problems, opportunities and threats in the underlying services remain unaddressed.

2) Over-concentrating on new technology — ‘if we just start using [big data, AI, blockchain, drones] good things will happen, customers and revenue will flow, and costs will decrease’. Perhaps. However, over-focussing on the technology itself, ignores that for new technology to deliver better outcomes, the technology needs to solve a real identified user or economic problem, or address a real identified user need, and the organisation needs to be open to the potential that the technology will not align with its current business model.

3) Mindlessly copying what others are doing — running hackathons, innovation programs, being agile and lean, developing a culture of innovation … take your pick. The defining characteristics of this category are the absence of any real purpose about what you are trying to achieve, initiatives are not embedded within a system that learns and improves, and sometimes there is a lack of any sustained effort by people with the necessary skills to make it productive.

4) Going through the motions — unlike the above where the organisation is at least doing something which might lead to more consciously transformative efforts, the last category involves using the language of bold transformation but applying to initiatives that involve low-risk incremental improvement. In a company I used to work for, we described this kind of strategy as the ‘look good, reduce risk, and survive’ approach.

And how do you tell whether something is real or just pretence? The answer lies in the purpose of the change and the measurement of progress. In whether there are clearly articulated goals based on real improvements in outcomes, and real and transparent mechanisms for assessing progress.

Lets be clear that incremental change is a great thing. The trouble is that being satisfied with incremental change in an environment that is by turns threatening your organisation or offering great opportunities for improvement, may well come unstuck, and in the worst case, not at a time or in a manner of your choosing.

Penny Webb-Smart

Written by

design, digital, human behaviour, new ideas, aspires to live up to surname.

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