Innovation Theater People

Don’t get sucked into someone else’s ’dog and pony show’

The tinfoil hat segment of the innovation business has always existed. The new crazies that I see in the innovation business work at corporates. They may lack the wild-eyed look, but many hold equally improbable beliefs – and create just as little value. Beware of becoming too entangled with them unless you have a clear value proposition like, for example, they’re paying for the drinks.

Innovation is a big tent and we give away a lot of love, including to some who may not deserve it. I have a hard time figuring out how lots of these people add value. There may be method to their madness though, and I am straight up envious of much of it. They seem have a ball, make good money, and not be judged too hard on results. Respect.

The Hipster

Everyone’s got a Director of Innovation these days. The young-ish, sneaker-clad corporate head of innovation is on stage everywhere, talking about their company’s digital transformation. When pressed, they struggle to name anything specific that’s been implemented or sold, but the sneakers look good and, hey, their employer is embracing disruption. Mind the gap between the slideshow and reality.

The Dealmaker

The dealmaker is looking for startups that have product-market fit, a great team, billion-dollar potential, and a good cultural fit with their company. On a personal level, their preferred mate is a supermodel with a Stanford PhD, who, in the immortal words of  the boy band One Direction, “doesn’t know she’s beautiful”. Beware of the long distance and many cups of coffee between meeting them and cutting a deal.

The Community… Something

This person doesn’t exactly have a seven-word description of how they create value. Despite this, I’ll admit to anyone that cares to ask that this job sounds awesome. The KPIs seem to be ‘keynotes given’, ‘cups of coffee drunk at conferences’, and ‘LinkedIn connections added’. It looks like fun, but beware of anything they’re giving away for free.

The Garage Boss

Apart from workshops and events, I haven’t quite figured out what these people do, but garages are hot. The crowds trekking through Silicon Valley on innovation tours have seen the Hewlett-Packard garage and decided they need one too. “Innovation labs” and ”creator spaces” are also garages and a rose by any other name still smells as sweet.

The architecture is a key identifier. Look for plywood walls, primary colors, cool light bulbs, and bookshelves full of work by the right authors. The garage boss seems to hold a lot of workshops and those books don’t read themselves. Beware of panel invitations to be the ‘fun startup person’ aka the only person not in a suit.

Slide on up to the bar

The Innovation Theater Crowd can steal a lot of your time, if you’re not clear about how they can add value to you. Don’t be an extra in someone else’s show. Once you can see the value, however, make sure they’re paying for the drinks – and enjoy!

Uncertainty is an Innovator Superpower

Uncertainty is kryptonite for corporate managers, however, and that needs to be addressed.

In this, the buzzword apocalypse, we’re all innovating, being disrupted, and boldly marching into a future where everything will be new, different, and better. Except that we’re not. CEOs may be talking the talk, but most organizations aren’t ready to risk walking the walk. This, unfortunately, makes sense.

There are two key barriers: a lack of training and an aversion to risk. Career success in a big organization is usually tied to performing clearly defined tasks well. Successful innovation is often random and messy.

The future is hard to predict and there are a lot of things that can go wrong. Too many folks think working with innovation is either a matter of trying hard enough – or something to be avoided. It is hard to blame them.

The “trying to plan your way out of uncertainty” trap

A big corporate recently announced the launch of a startup accelerator with a difference. Their innovation: they will choose the participating companies carefully. They will devote all of 2018 to selecting the right handful of startups so they can avoid picking the wrong ones.

Any intern at an accelerator could tell the corporate in question that they’re wasting their time, but the trap they’ve fallen into is difficult for many corporates to avoid. The media make it sound like there are great startups everywhere, but startups are really hard to build. My guess is that there are more startup accelerators than great startups.

The gap between the C-Suite and middle management

The brave speeches CEOs give about innovation often mention the need to push decision-making further down into the organization. But their employees aren’t stupid. They know how big companies work. They know that innovation is a risky business with plenty of opportunities to guess wrong. They also know that mistakes get punished.

Did you really say Steve Jobs?

Poor Steve Jobs gets named over and over in these speeches, but no one ever talks about the Newton. (The what? Exactly. Go Google it.) They seldom mention that his own board of directors fired him. They assume that no one in the audience has read how he could be a nightmare as a boss.

Acknowledge the lack of incentives for the people taking the risks

Middle managers aren’t stupid. They know the odds of hitting a homerun like the iPod are absurdly long. They know innovation often requires working in a minefield of conflicting stakeholder interests. They know success takes time – and that any success produced by the risks they take likely will come on their successor’s watch.

Acknowledge their fear that innovation is dangerous for their career prospects. Give them room to make mistakes. Praise them publicly for taking risks.

Train them

Teach your middle managers to make decisions on the basis of imperfect data. Few of the people who will have to do the innovating have any training in innovation beyond the occasional magazine article. Send them to hands-on workshops. Have them work with actual startups.

Network them

Expand their personal networks to include people who effectively manage uncertainty. Most of the people they know work at the same company. Startups and innovators are used to uncertainty, to not having all the answers. Have your middle managers work with them as mentors, startup competition judges, and at corporate-startup matchmaking events to familiarize them with uncertainty – at a safe arm’s distance.

Let them self-select

Let your innovators volunteer. According to the Kauffmann Foundation, the most successful entrepreneurs are over 40. Every firm has a few risk takers hidden amongst the risk-averse majority. They often leave big corporations that can’t or won’t innovate to create the innovation they wanted to see.

If you train them, network them, and give them the opportunity, they may turn uncertainty into a superpower for you, instead watching them walk away to use their superpowers for themselves or someone else.

One Plus One Equals Three


Mentoring can be a lonely business. If you’re not matching your mentors in pairs, you’re missing out.

Pairing mentors is a straightforward way to give mentors value beyond what they get from meeting one-on-one with startups. Mentor programs are ten a penny these days and programs have to stand out to get the good mentors to commit. Most programs struggle to explain the value their mentors – and often struggle to provide real value in practice. Pair mentoring is a powerful, but often overlooked tool.

Why pair your mentors?

Networking is an oft-listed benefit for mentors, but few programs do it well. It’s one thing to get to know each other over a drink at a mentor event. It is something else entirely to share a mentoring experience – and more professionally relevant than playing golf. Pair your mentors to help them get to know each other. Let them show off what they can do to each other as well as your teams.

Matching your mentors binds them to each other and to your program

It’s a powerful thing when your mentors say, “we met as mentors for X”. It’s even stronger when their common experience isn’t just tied to the teams, but to each other. The answer isn’t more barbecues or more beer. The answer is letting them to work together.

Create commitment

Pairing with other mentors to work with your teams can help drive commitment on a practical level. It’s one thing to cancel on a startup no one knows and another to cancel on a fellow mentor who you know.

Create connection through common experience

Team-building consultancies have known for years that making people do something together that is hard builds bonds. Some of it is cognitive dissonance: we often put greater value on things that are hard. We also tend to value things our peers value, and a second mentor at your mentor sessions can make a big difference in how your mentors experience your sessions.

Your mentor sessions can give mentors something meaningful, especially because they’re built on professional experience with more direct relevance than a building a two-rope bridge or paddling a canoe. The company they help may actually succeed. The lessons they learn may be directly applicable in their work.

Let your mentors show each other what they can do

We all know people who talk a good game over a beer, but then give vanilla mentoring advice. Any fool can tell someone their value proposition is unclear. Give your mentors a chance to show each other how good they are at explaining the options in a term sheet. Let them show each other how they improve a pitch.

Meaningful “In Real Life” experiences are always in short supply. Let your mentors show their skills and you’ll be giving them a unique opportunity. It will help them, your startups and your whole program.

Make the Introduction Instead of the Argument

Introductions are often better than advice

”Don’t touch that!”

”Why not?”

”It’s hot. You’ll burn yourself”

”How do you know?”

Giving advice is usually rather straight forward. Explaining why the advice is valid and should be followed is often the bigger task. Sometimes the best advice a mentor can give a startup is an introduction.

Why should I listen to you?

It’s a good question, and frequently, my answer is ”Don’t”. My network is big enough that I almost always know someone who knows more about what you just asked than me. The same goes for most good mentors.

You want to start a business tracking boxes for moving firms? I know a handful of companies that do that for the retail and delivery industries. Ask them for advice. You want to talk about raising money from Investor X? Let me introduce you to these three companies that have them as investors.

Is your question about legal, accounting or IPR?

Math ain’t just adding and subtracting. There are lots of accountants, but only some of them understand startup accounting, let alone startup investments. IPR is about way more than filing patents. Your copyright may be filed correctly, but making the competition care is another matter.

Lawyers come by the dozen, but only some of them understand startup term sheets. It’s sad to see lawyers aggressively trying to gain every advantage possible for investor clients. They don’t seem realize that an unequal deal does their client no good when it removes the startup’s motivation to work hard.

Some startups are hard to reach

Sometimes it’s not worth the fight to beat knowledge into someone’s head. Sometimes they need time to let the wisdom seep in. Sometimes the best way to get someone to see something is to change the messenger. And sometimes, someone else’s answer is not only better phrased, but just plain better.

Make the introduction instead of the argument.