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  • Danny

In Toto we trust

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

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Who would have thought The Wizard of Oz could teach us so much about Employee Innovation?

Hopefully, you've all seen the movie Wizard of Oz, given it’s about 900 years old, hopefully, you remember how it ends, but just in case you don’t, let me give you a recap...

Dorothy and the team end the witch and take her broomstick to the Wizard of Oz, the wizard accepts the gift and tells the team to come back tomorrow and he may let them go home.

Dorothy’s dog Toto (who let's be honest is the real hero of the movie) is having none of it and runs off from Dorothy towards the wizard and pulls back the curtain to reveal that the wizard is nothing more than a white guy (it was the 30s) putting on a show in a theatrical way with the use of some cheap magic tricks and operating a machine what a scumbag!!!

Quick reminder, I see employee experience as a collection of experiences, products, and services. To build these, I apply design thinking, product management, experience design, and service design. When I mention innovation, I am referring to using these skills to create better experiences, products, and services.

The following areas are examples of said products: Joiner & Leaver Experience/ EVP/ Benefits & Rewards/ Performance/ Processes

Today my thinking by writing is on the art of make-believe. Well, Innovation Theatre, having worked internally and externally often there is a collection of boobytraps I see many organisations fall into when it comes to Employee Experience & Innovation:

  • Creating an Experience & Innovation Team

  • Innovation Capabilities

  • EX & Innovation Strategy

  • Creating a measurement engine

  • Frameworks, Methods, Practices and Patterns

Yet the biggest boobytrap, one that I imagine feels like swallowing a hedgehog, is when you pull back the organisational curtain and show them they’re not actually doing EX innovation, they’re actually just doing innovation theatre.

It’s a question you have to address first, often by holding a mirror up to the organisation, so it makes sense to start at the beginning like all good stories:

What is Innovation Theatre

Innovation theatre is the art of make-believe, which basically refers to when organisations do a front-of-stage show on innovation but when you look behind the curtain they’re not actually doing anything with it. Perhaps they have the desire to do something with it but once they come out of an ideation session and hit the real world most people tend to run into deck chairs (fold under the pressure of BAU working life) and all the extra work they did in the ideation session gets dropped because they just don’t have the time.

The results from innovation theatre often tend to come in the form of a brainstorm with little to no thought on measurement, impact or follow through. It can also be overlooked as a tangible effort to drive impact, growth or change in the org and is usually seen as a ideation jams.

While the ideation sessions are fun, full of energy, and have a nice feel-good factor, if you are in innovation you can find yourself frustrated as others around you use it as a PR stunt or simply jump on the hype of buzzwords (hence the term theatre aka make believe)

So now we know what the term innovation theatre means let's get armed with our Sharpies and sticky notes and zoom in on the various types of innovation seen in organisations

Side note: I use innovation and Employee Innovation interchangeably throughout, at a high level they are often the same just separated by the direction of focus i.e.

  • White space innovation is a crucial aspect of business development that involves identifying new and untapped areas of growth within a given industry. By exploring these unchartered territories businesses can discover new market opportunities and gain a competitive edge,

  • Employee innovation focuses on applying the mindset, behaviours, and methods of product management, design thinking, and innovation to employee products, services and experiences in the end-to-end overall employee experience again to gain a competitive edge.

The Innovation Spectrum

I like to think of innovation on a spectrum when it comes to an Employee Innovation Team (EX Innovation).

  • X-axes: to the left is a high distribution to the right low,

  • Y axes: At the top is a high risk of innovation theatre, to the bottom, you guessed it lower risk

Commoditised - The Rush

This is where the business asks its people to help come up with lots of ideas for ‘innovation’, often this is seen in idea competitions, but it lacks any form of rigour these ideas are more just commodities and lack any real-life as nothing is there to grow them. It may involve an ideation workshop here or there but often they tend not to go anywhere due to lack of structure after the initial idea. It often creates a lot of niceties with no impact. This doesn't always happen, Adobe kickbox is an example of it is done well with structure and clear next steps i.e. the blue box

= High Distribution, High Theatre Risk

Localised - The Squaddies

Innovation is happening, but only in certain teams. It is usually owned by one person in that team, which is sometimes brought in as the "cool kids" to work with other teams like them. The risk here is that there is no set global innovation process, and everyone wants to do it their own way. The business at this stage doesn't really value innovation and is not doing any form of measurement. They have no innovation manifesto and usually are still living in their current business model

= Lesser distribution, Medium Theatre risk

Tribalised - The Guild

This is where a small group of people have formed an informal team or tribe for their love of innovation. They usually have shared values on the impact of innovation and design. Often, they are more like partners to other businesses and are seen as SMEs or partners. Often, this is an unofficial thing in the business, and when it comes to resource allocation, their approach is to be creative with the resources they have, often skimming from other projects. The downside here is there is still no set innovation process. It can be seen as elitist and can drive others in the business to be protective. It can run the risk of offending the wrong people. This is the tipping point, and as Steve Jobs summed it up perfectly, "It's better to be a pirate than join the navy." Many times, it can feel like you're a little rebel tribe or a group of pirates in a big system.

= More Focused, Less distribution, medium theatre risk

Stabilised - The Zoo

This is where innovation starts to be noticed and valued. At this point, innovation has an identity, other parts of the business tend to come here to be wowed or have their thinking stretched. The people here can sometimes be deemed rebels, pirates, radical thinkers etc. (which isn’t actually the DNA of an innovation team), the team may have a space and an innovation framework in place. The team has set ways of working and has mapped out their team accounting and KPIs. At this point, innovation is robust and near anti-fragile. Here the team are partnering and creating awareness with the business to help identify moments of opportunity where to add value, or proactively find the products services and experience that need retiring or rebuilding from the ground up. Often the team has a very proactive approach and can often feel like a bit of a push approach to the business.

= Higher focus, lower distribution, medium to low theatre risk

Globalised -The Network

Innovation is now taken seriously from the top down, and there is a process that is firmly established. The business has tested and put a mature process in place with how to partner and engage with the innovation function, the partnership has moved from a push to a push and pull.

At this point, innovation is no longer stuck in local areas, the value is seen from the CEO downwards. Here, the function should be focusing on continued communication and sharing stories with the business while also looking at how to grow the team's skill set through speculative and future thinking. At this point once everything is aligned with frameworks, practises, patterns measurements should we then look at sharing and up-skilling our people to scale EX innovation across the whole of the business with democratised innovation.

The team should be looking at how to scale the team globally but also make sure it is diverse in its talent pool to avoid groupthink. They should be identifying team gaps and sandbags and doing some team accounting. Sharing knowledge, the team should be looking at how they can scale capabilities out into the organisation, leading to faster discovery of opportunities and inventions.

= Highest focus, lowest distribution, lowest risk of theatre

Here the Rub

Innovation is best pursued in a decentralized manner, but within any organization, there must be a clear owner who is accountable for it. Otherwise, it may devolve into a chaotic free-for-all. Rather than stifling innovation, the aim should be to establish a consistent framework for navigating the entire process, from identifying opportunities and listening actively to fostering discovery, testing, and experimentation. A structured approach enhances the benefits of innovation. I believe to do that, we first need to add solid foundations by moving to the right of the spectrum.

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