The Cargo Cult of Innovation: the toxic habits of corporate innovation

Update August 7th 2019: This will become a book, published by Apress in 2020. Follow #writingabook on @iotwatch on Twitter to hear more as I write it!

NB: I have an idea for a second book about the cargo cult of corporate innovation but I’m not totally sure how I’d get people to contribute to it without getting in trouble. So I’m trying the topic out as a blog post first and there’s an ask at the end. 

My experience of working with large scale clients as a consultant for the past 9 years (and before that running an innovation design studio) means I know horror stories are out there (probably hiding behind a Glassdoor review) about how innovation actually happens in a business.

Why cargo cult?

I think that most large-scale organisations try to enact patterns of innovation created before them by smaller organisations or at a time when those patterns were disruptive. Repeating those patterns without understanding the context that created them amounts to engaging in a cargo cult of innovation. From the cornering of innovation into specific departments, dedicated client-facing innovation spaces, internal maker spaces, exhibition-like showcase spaces, business incubators, mergers and acquisition departments, open plan offices with free food and flat communication structures, the means by which large organisations define and manage innovation are often the same. The by-product of a Silicon Valley led business mono culture, these tropes now pollute almost every large-scale organisation.

Ways to make internal teams more creative and innovative often come down to using a commonly-understood and repetitive set of tools: post-its, brainstorming, design thinking, conferences, training, external consultants.

Furthermore the mechanisms used to talk about the innovation that is developed is often repetitive and meaningless. From tradeshow booths, PR campaigns and social media engagement, most companies use the same approaches to sharing the work they do.

So by using the same mechanisms of innovation, the same ways of extracting innovation and the same means of talking about it, most companies do not, in fact, innovate.

Hiding outside of established time management structures, away from a specific innovation budget, outside of the innovation hubs and relying on more than free lunch meals, I know that some employees eventually fight the systems of innovation to really build new products and solutions. I would love to capture these stories too. 

Here are 5 ways I’ve personally seen corporate innovation culture fail:

1. Setting the conditions
From the way a space is laid out (probably open plan because it’s cheaper), how teams communicate (probably in silence in the open space with Slack open all day), where they sit (probably hot-desking because it’s also cheaper) and how they eat (communal kitchens, free food) these can act as a toxic mixture that imposes ways of working and thinking on teams.

I’ve seen people over-invest in the wrong kind of furniture. I’ve seen offices filled with people with noise cancelling headphones, even emergency sirens and hats when people needed to tell others to keep quiet or not disturb them. I’ve heard of people hiding in parts of a building to make sure they weren’t found. I’ve seen people book themselves fake meetings so their open calendar wasn’t filled by other people and they could go hide in a room on their own to actually do work. I’ve heard of people fighting hot-desking culture. I’ve seen people use post-its for no other reason than others use them too. I’ve seen post-it sessions documented to an inch of that rapporteur’s life only for the results never to be revisited again because the group lead had already made up their mind. Some of this also applies to normal work life in the knowledge economy but when applied to innovation work, they become really counter productive.

2. Job titles and vendors
From ‘Master Inventor’, ‘Head of Labs’, ‘Intra-preneur’, ‘Futurist-in-residence’, ‘gurus’ and others are ways companies use to assign power to people and departments in charge of innovation and segregate them from the rest of the business. This not only shapes how that work happens but also how it is perceived by everyone. Titles can also contribute a culture of youth around innovation and isolate people who have been in the business for a long time. Businesses often punish someone for their loyalty by working with innovation consultants or design agencies outside the business, trusting that the ‘real world’ will bring something to a team that they can’t see for themselves. This ‘real world’ is also drip-fed internally in the form of ‘brown bag lunches’ or sending executives to conferences (TED, Davos, SXSW, etc.) so they can come back enlightened by what others are doing. The people who are chosen to contribute a talk or are sent to Vegas for CES are again isolated, picked out as more innovative or more receptive to new ideas. This, I believe, is dangerous for the social cohesion of a team and collaboration across the business. It creates haves and have-nots emotionally and sometimes even financially. ‘My budget against yours’, ‘my ideas are better than yours’, are unhealthy by-products of these titles and reliance on other people’s ideas.

3. Showing off
Finally innovation isn’t recognised unless it is shared with the world. Many executives treat innovation as a marketing activity rather than the future of their business. Here again the patterns most companies adopt are the same: client-facing dedicated physical spaces with blue LEDs to PR stunts at CES, sponsoring events run by startups, hiring an evangelist, and more. The effectiveness of these efforts is rarely measured because the results would probably be dismal.

Makerspaces/accelerators/hubs/incubators are a cheaper opportunity to network with future employees (via aqui-hires) or competitors without anyone leaving the building. They make for great articles or case studies but these spaces may be rarely used by staff or dropped at the end of a bad quarter. They are fickle because they are not based on an indigenous corporate culture, they are borrowed from other, much more nimble and cash-strapped environments where new ideas are not an option but they are the only way to survive. How these spaces are spun out is also often a failure too with an innovation hub/lab/whatever working in one geography but totally failing in another.

Innovation culture is primarily about permissions, power, and setting the right conditions for new ideas. Finding champions internally, holding on through corporate restructuring exercises, holding on no matter how much money is dedicated to innovation, that’s what makes new ideas come to life, over time, when everybody believes a new idea can thrive. It’s damn hard.

I don’t think many businesses do this right and I’d like to write about your corporate innovation success against the odds or horrible failure if you have any. Please comment anonymously below, the comment will not be published but will go directly to me for moderation. I won’t publish anything or use it in my book without your consent. Thanks!

By designswarm

Blogging since 2005.