Innovation Theater: Part One

burlesque (noun): any ludicrous parody or grotesque caricature

I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, Dude. Characterizing innovation theater as burlesque is a little over the top, no?” In truth, it depends what the stakes are. Consider:

Innovation theater is anything that signals something innovative is going on. It’s not. And the louder the fanfare, the greater the hoopla, and the more numerous the press releases, the less likely it is that anything at all is actually going on.

The term, innovation theater, was coined by Steve Blank in 2015. It can be fairly characterized as burlesque because it’s a ludicrous exercise with potentially grotesque consequences — like going out of business.


When Sylvester Stallone was shooting Rambo III in Thailand, cast and crew members were reportedly dropping like flies from dehydration and heat exhaustion. Stallone said it was so hot that by the time you realized you were thirsty, it was too late. The same can be said of innovation: If you wait until you realize you need to innovate, if you treat innovation like a once-in-a-while thing — if you wait until you need it to make sure innovation is systemic, systematic, and sustainable — it’s too late.

How do you know if you’re thirsty? Here are some symptoms:

  • Revenues are down
  • Market share is shrinking
  • You’re selling nice-to-haves instead of need-to-haves
  • You don’t have a process by which all your employees can contribute ideas
  • You don’t have a framework in which those ideas can be vetted, qualified, capitalized, and brought to market
  • The lion’s share of your revenue isn’t being generated by products or services developed within the last three years.

A Rose by Any Other Name …

You might not think engaging in innovation theater is tantamount to burlesque. But it’s a safe bet your soon-to-be-former customers do. It’s a safe bet your shareholders, who are no longer getting returns on their investments do. And it’s an equally safe bet your frustrated employees — the ones who are brimming with unexpressed ideas and unrealized opportunities — are thinking there’s something grotesque about it, too.

If you’re engaged in innovation theater — if you’re going through the motions, spouting the jargon, and checking the virtue-signal boxes — it may not be the end. But it’s the beginning of the end.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

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