by Nicholas D. Evans

4 considerations for navigating ‘innovation antibodies’ and ‘innovation theater’

May 03, 2017
Digital TransformationEmerging TechnologyInnovation

innovation idea
Credit: Thinkstock

In recent years, we’ve started to see terms such as “innovation antibodies” and “innovation theater” being used to describe some of the challenges in managing innovation, particularly in larger organizations trying to find their own innovation culture. Today, many innovation leaders must carefully navigate the waters between too much resistance to innovation from corporate antibodies and, conversely, too much enthusiasm for innovation from those wishing to put on theater.

So-called “innovation antibodies” are well-known for their ability to stifle ideas or even kill off ideas completely. The antibodies are typically corporate departments and personnel that see new ideas coming from another part of the business as risk elements that need to be carefully managed and mitigated. Harvard Business Review published a useful article a few years ago about how to get the corporate antibodies on your side by making these departments and staff part of the solution.

More recently, so-called “innovation theater” has been used to describe companies trying to look innovative to one or more of their various stakeholder constituencies — essentially putting on a show for appearance’s sake. Research firm CB Insights published an amusing infographic in late 2015 on some of the song-and-dance routines that corporations use when trying to look innovative. These routines ranged all the way from hiring a chef, to inventing new titles, to adopting jargon, to launching an innovation lab or accelerator. 

Clearly, the ideal approach for any chief innovation officer (CINO) (or anyone involved in managing innovation for their organization) is to design and deploy a program that’s cognizant of these dangerous waters and which can move quickly and confidently forward. It’s important to understand the corporate antibodies that may be at work — or lurking in the shallows — and to get them on your side. It’s also important to understand the pitfalls of innovation theater and to avoid any techniques that could be misconstrued or branded as such.

In the spirit of navigating between innovation antibodies and innovation theater, here are four considerations that may be useful as part of your overall approach.

Strengthening labs

Since innovation labs tend to come into fashion every 10 years or so — much like a remake of a Hollywood blockbuster for a new generation of moviegoers — it’s important to have an extremely well-thought-out strategy.

The lab should have a crystal-clear mission statement, scope, set of objectives and target outcomes. Since the lab is the key part of any innovation program most prone to theater, ensure you have well-defined deliverables and milestones, as well as measurements and metrics, and a road map for how you envision the lab will evolve and mature over time.

As Steve Blank has pointed out in his blog titled “How to avoid innovation theater,” it’s also critical to get hands-on management and involvement by the CEO and the senior executive team.

Ralph Welborn, CEO of innovation software company Imaginatik, sees a changing role for the CINO: that of helping executives bridge the gap between strategic intent and everyday execution.

A vacuum often exists between calls for transformational change (or strategic intent) and what actually gets done. Traditionally, the chief strategy officer undertook this role but, in many organizations, strategy is becoming more of a planning role than a directional role.

This directional role still has to be filled, and it’s often being filled by the CINO. The reason is that the CINO has insight into what’s going on in the market in terms of new possibilities, new technologies and new ways to use them to capture new sources of value. Executed correctly, therefore, an innovation lab can be a powerful tool in the CINO’s arsenal to execute on transformational change initiatives, as well as a great way to engage the broader innovation ecosystem.

Strengthening idea management

Since ideas are the part of innovation programs most prone to attack by corporate antibodies, it’s important to have a robust approach for idea management as well. This is primarily for the benefit of your program and to accelerate innovation initiatives, but secondly, it is an approach that can stand up to attack by those antibodies and bring them into the mix where they can lend their own unique expertise.

Recommendations here relate to my earlier posts about designing lean innovation workshops, as well as having a variety of ideation techniques that support the rhythm of innovation required from the business. These can range from event-based sessions, workshops and campaigns, all the way to ongoing capabilities such as innovation databases and repositories. Be highly collaborative in terms of teaming across the company as well as with your open innovation ecosystem to pull in appropriate subject matter experts on industry as well as technology topics. Clarity on roles and responsibilities, as well as risks and assumptions, and overall expectations is key.

It’s also important to have detailed approaches for what comes after the workshop or campaign in terms of how you turn your ideas into minimal viable products (MVPs), pilots and proofs of concept. This may be yet another way to engage former antibodies and team with them to accelerate innovation. For example, if you have an application development team that’s great at knocking out MVPs in short order, you can team with them to take the most promising ideas coming out of innovation workshops and turn them into tangible experiments or products.

Strengthening programs

Innovation programs themselves can also come under attack by corporate antibodies. In this case, rather than the risk management focus on ideas, it may be a competitive focus on programs. Rival groups may wish to bring your program into the fold of their own programs via corporate politics. It’s these internal political aspects, as well as organizational culture aspects, that Gartner has stated are the biggest threat to innovation.

Recommendations here include ensuring you have sponsorship from the top of the organization, and that you get the antibodies on your side by connecting your program into strategy and execution with clearly defined roles and responsibilities.

As I mentioned in “The future of innovation management software,” it’s important to focus on the front end and back end of the innovation life cycle so that you focus on “where to play” and “how to scale” in addition to the table stakes of idea management. Teaming with other parts of the organization can be a great way to enable these connections and turn them into valuable pathways for innovation.

You should also ensure your innovation program is laser-focused in support of your corporate objectives and has an intrinsic ability to adapt over time. Fine-tuning may well include digital transformation in all of its forms across business models, processes, products and services.

Continuous improvement

Finally, continuous improvement is vital both for the ongoing health and advancement of your program as well as for a counter to antibodies and theater.

Ongoing training and education can help to counter myths and even false arguments. Cases studies can help to prove the value of the program, which can be an ongoing requirement as new hires come into the organization or as roles and responsibilities change. Best practices are also highly useful to share experience gained over the years and across hundreds of innovation sessions, so that trainees can quickly come up to speed and learn why certain approaches are favored over others.

Overall, navigating the waters between innovation antibodies and theater simply comes down to sound management practice, governance and a lot of communication. The corporate innovation program needs to be operated much like other corporate initiatives: with a highly collaborative approach that works smoothly across business units and departments for the benefit of the overall organization.

After all, innovation is a healthy business to be in, so in the end any “antibodies” should become champions, and any “theater” should be much more than just entertainment.