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  • Writer's pictureJP Nicols

Beyond Innovation Theatre

Innovation is all about value creation.

Or at least it should be.

It’s easy to get caught up in the front end of the process. Brainstorming new ideas, drawing on whiteboards, and moving different colored sticky notes around the wall is fun. But all of that should be a means to an end. That end should be about creating value; whether it’s improving the customer experience, taking the cost out of a process, or creating a new feature or a completely new product category.

Most of the work we do is centered in financial services, which is not exactly known as an industry that excitedly embraces change. I spend a lot of time trying to convince leaders that they need to innovate, and that maintaining the status quo is a slow train to irrelevancy (and that the train is heading down a steep grade and picking up speed).

Over the past ten years (most of) the industry has gotten the message, helped more than a little bit by the perceived threats and opportunities of FinTech. A recent PWC survey showed that 83% of bankers said that at least part of their current business is at risk of being lost to standalone FinTech companies.

In 2013 I wrote on my personal blog that the innovation maturity of the financial services industry is best represented by a power curve, with a very small group of Leaders, followed by a small but growing group of Learners, and a long tail of Laggards. Five years later, all three groups are still represented, but there has been some fattening in the middle as more and more Laggards have entered the status of Learners.

Learners understand that just doing the same old same old is a sinking proposition within a rising tide, even if they’re not sure exactly what to do or how to get started. Naturally, they are often inspired by the cool and interesting things that the Leaders are doing.

Tempering Inspiration with Reality

This inspiration should be tempered with a strong chaser of reality. Some of the flashier things are simply what I like to call “Innovation Theatre”. Sometimes that’s intentional, part branding exercise to position the company as a thought leader in the minds of its customers (and/or competitors). Other times it’s unintended, a result of losing track of the whole purpose of innovation.

Shiny new objects can be compelling, especially to those people whose job description contains the word “innovation”. Don’t get me wrong, innovation labs that look like Silicon Valley startups, hackathons, and teams of bearded hipsters in hoodies leading design workshops are a few of my favorite things. But they too are just means to an end. (The great Steve Blank has his own deep thoughts on this. Read this if you’re thinking of standing up an innovation outpost. )

Innovation Is Implementing New Ideas That Create Value

If you ask a group of people in a room their individual definitions of innovation (which we have done on many occasions), you often get back nearly as many definitions as there are people in the room. Some people cite examples of innovative companies or products, othesr mention technology, most people say something about "new ideas".

So let's level-set right here, our working definition for innovation at the highest level is this: Innovation is Implementing New Ideas That Create Value. We agree about the "new ideas" part, but everyone has new ideas. In order to count as innovation in our book, they have to be implemented, and they need to create value.

The test and learn nature of the innovation process will generate lots of ideas that end up not being implemented for a variety of reasons, and even the best ideas sometimes fail to add the expected value. But if you don't have a clear plan to implement the new ideas, or if they consistently fail to create value, you may be engaging in Innovation Theatre.

That value can be defined in a lot of different ways- new products or services, reduced costs, better customer experiences, extending the life of mature products, etc. - so organizations (and managers) will and should have differing views on value creation. More on that in future posts.

The Real Work of Innovation

With that as a working definition of innovation in the broadest sense, most innovation work— at least that which is truly about value creation, not just branding— is usually much more bland and quotidian than the flashy activities of Innovation Theatre. “Blue Collar innovation” is how one innovation leader of a top 10 U.S. Bank recently described it to us. With one eye firmly fixed on a few key questions:

  • What value are we creating for whom?

  • What job does our customer need us to do here?

  • How do we know when we get there?

Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma turned 20 years old last year. The lessons of how new technologies disrupt mature industries are still being played out today in financial services, media, transportation, and just about any other industry you can name.

In his latest book Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice, he focuses on making innovation a reliable engine for growth, and it is centered on the Theory of Jobs to Be Done— “What exactly did you hire this product to do?”

Christensen points out that a primary reason why some new innovations don’t reach wide market adoption is because the new offering does not do a better job than the existing thing that the customer “hired” to get a specific job done (let alone overcoming the cost and pain of making a change).

Knowing that you are being disrupted and committing to doing something about it is an important first step. Focusing on the Jobs to be Done ensures that you’re solving the right problems for the right people in the right way at the right time.

That is value creation.

Anything less is just Innovation Theatre.


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