Our take: If you’re going to stage some ‘innovation theater,’ make it ‘Hamilton’ and not ‘Carrie’

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By Scott Kirsner, Editor

Are you tired yet of listening to people bash “innovation theater”?

Anytime a company launches an innovation program, names an innovation executive, sends a team out to visit Silicon Valley or Boston, or creates an innovation award, some in the startup world deride it as “innovation theater” — a glitzy effort to look more innovative, without really doing anything substantial.

And that can be true in some cases.

But innovation theater — the term may have been coined by writer and entrepreneur Steve Blank — can also be an overture to a sustained and productive innovation effort.

In startups, everyone comes to work every day focusing on innovation as a way to stay alive. What new features or products do our customers want? How can we collaborate with a more powerful partner to scale quicker? How can we build software faster by embracing a new methodology?

Not so in big companies, where the bulk of employees come to work with operational activities in mind: Keep stoking the boilers, don’t do anything stupid, hit those performance goals to get that bonus. It can be extremely hard to get their attention for anything that feels optional — like a new innovation initiative.

So innovation theater, done creatively, can be a valid way to get employees to focus on innovation, and do things differently. It may be a video series, a board game you design, a new workshop, a brilliant speaker from another industry, a competition or hackathon, a visit to an especially well-designed workspace in your city.

Just don’t make it an e-mail or a pamphlet. Be theatrical, and focus on the best ways to get people engaged with your innovation goals.

Why was “Hamilton,” based on a historical biography by Ron Chernow, such a smash on Broadway? It was a totally fresh, unexpected way to communicate Alexander Hamilton’s life story, through the genres or rap and hip-hop, with actors who don’t look like what we expect the Founding Fathers to look like. It’s so high-energy and well-executed that you don’t ever look at your watch. (It’s also launching a hotly-anticipated national tour next year; not a bad idea for your own “innovation theater” events.)

carrieWhat could you create that had something like that level of buzz, where employees and executives would be scheming to figure out how to get invited? What if the CEO brought 10 employees on the company jet to visit your biggest customer, and run a design thinking exercise with them? What if just one person from each geography got a ticket to a career-advancing workshop with a big name innovation expert or B-school professor? If you’re kicking off your own national or world tour, how will you make it more of a “happening,” as opposed to “yet another workshop run by some know-it-all from HQ”?

Obviously, innovation theater can be a flop. Either it doesn’t get people’s attention, or it doesn’t give them a way to get involved that feels like it is worth their time. It can also be “Carrie” instead of “Hamilton.” (That, for non-Broadway aficionados, was a 1988 musical based on a Stephen King horror novel, which ran for exactly five performances. That was after about $7 million of investment.) In other words, it can be a short-term effort that doesn’t lead anywhere strategic or profitable for the company.

But we think you should ignore the nay-sayers. Innovation theater, done thoughtfully and creatively, can set the stage for more constructive work ahead.

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(By the way, have you seen the original public performance of the song that evolved into “Hamilton,” at the White House Poetry Jam in 2009? Notice the audience snickering at first. Is this guy serious? Then watch to the end to see how the audience reacts.)

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