Stop requiring innovation heroism!

Rita McGrath
6 min readApr 17

Rewarding Innovation heroes. Launching accelerators with great fanfare, then not following through. Making big claims about organizational transformation that never amount to anything. It’s all innovation theater and it won’t drive long-term benefits for organizations. A better approach is to make innovation a proficiency, using the principles of discovery driven growth.

We can do better at innovation than Orphans and “Hail Mary” passes

Last week, we wrote about the episodic way in which innovation is managed in most organizations. Or not managed. In fact, it’s innovation theater. Based on Stanford’s Robert Burgelman’s research, we described ways in which innovations can end up being treated like orphans, being the subject of an all-hands drive, being irrelevant or being the subject of a rushed and desperate effort to make something new happen, often in response to some kind of burning platform memo.

As veteran entrepreneur Steve Blank has said forever, when you get to the stage where innovation is seen as a heroic act, that is a clear sign that you have no control over your innovation process. Innovators should not be singled out for their battles royal against the corporation. The financial function of a firm should not be able to dismiss efforts at anything that can’t produce a predictable net present value calculation. Budgets should not be so inflexible that finding resources for a small experiment is continually blocked, as our good friend Bjarte Bogsnes points out.

All this against an environment in which it is clear that innovation is at the heart of returns and growth, and is even publicly acknowledged as essential. For instance, the Drucker Institute’s list of the 250 best-managed companies put innovation at the core of performance. Even further, as Alexander Osterwalder and others have observed, we know a lot about how to create an innovation proficiency that doesn’t require some kind of corporate mountain-climbing.

And yet, here we are again

The boom of the past few years has had predictable consequences. VC’s flooded new ventures with cash. Firms like Facebook and Google were seemingly printing money out of thin air. Even in the face of the pandemic, many companies were thriving. So what happened? An enormous amount of…

Rita McGrath

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.