Avoid Corporate Innovation Theater

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Innovation theater

Innovation theater wastes time both for corporations and startups. It can sour relationships and experiences and tarnish a corporation's reputation among new startups and technologies. Luckily it can be easily avoided by creating an environment biased toward execution.


“Innovation theater wastes time both for corporations and startups.”


Our work with corporations, we’ve taken many roadshows to NY or SF or Boston to meet with startups and venture funds. Some have been purposeful and productive, but others have been more for entertainment value and have fit more into the category of "innovation theater” or a “petting zoo." Innovation theatre refers to work which is largely for show, but doesn’t result in a tangible outcome. It is usually handed down from executives in an ambiguous directive with little weight behind it.


Signs and Symptoms of Innovation Theater

  • Big, ambiguous problem set

  • No or limited budget

  • Lack of specific goals or objectives that will drive the business forward

  • Decision makers largely uninvolved in the work, usually higher level executives not involved in the integration

  • Lots of publicity

  • Too many external partners


Innovation theater wastes a lot of time both for the corporations involved as well as the investors and startups. It can sour relationships and experiences and tarnish a corporation's reputation among new startups and technologies.

As we think about the next generation of roadshows and how to make them more productive, I wanted to provide some foundational steps that we have found essential to creating tangible outcomes and meaningful relationships between corporations and venture managers or startups.

Innovation Brief

We require the corporation to identify a specific innovation need they are seeking to solve. The more specific, the better. Usually specific criteria around the need is essential. Specifications such as corporate technology stack, volume requirements, and security requirements (for enterprise) and demographic targets, engagement type, and channel/manufacturing/supply risk requirements (for consumer) really help hone in on the specific technology, product, or service that will help solve the corporations needs.

Identify Budget Capacity

Identifying budget helps the corporation understand how deep they can go with any identified solution. Also, how broad they can be in their search and trial. From less investment to more investment, corporations can conduct pilots, partnerships, minority investments or acquisitions. All of these range widely in cost depending on scale. Identifying and allocating budget (with proper approvals) ahead of time is essential to avoiding innovation theater.

Establish Goals and Expected Outcomes

Identifying goals can occur before, during, or after identifying goals and outcomes; however the goals and outcomes must match the budget. I.e. an organization shouldn’t hope to do 5 pilots if the budget is only $20,000. It is also important the goals have meaning to the organization as a whole. For instance, the goal of identifying a viable pilot prospect or the goal of establishing a partnership with a startup that has capabilities the corporation needs to implement. Goals that are less impactful include general education of an industry or market mapping as these waste both startup and VC time and can be done in advance. These activities may be a part of the experience, but they shouldn’t be the goal

the goals and outcomes must match the budget.

Bring the Decision Makers

Ensure those who are 1) managing any integration, 2) able to make decision on budget, and 3) handling the day to day execution are able to travel. All too often, only executives travel and bring back ideas and solutions that can’t be executed on for a number of reasons. Bringing those in charge of integration and execution ensures these oversights aren’t missed and creates a smooth process for launch and roll-out. It also avoids mismanagement of relationships and making promises that later can’t be kept, one of the biggest reasons relationships between corporations and startups sour.

Qualify Leads

This is the easiest step in the process and usually takes less than 30 minutes per startup. By pre-screening potential startups, corporations are able to quickly assess if they will be a natural fit or not. Having an introductory call between the startups and corporation can help develop any potential partnership opportunities, further vet if a startup is the right fit, and align on purpose and goals for the meeting. This also reiterates the importance of #1 above. Being specific about criteria helps with screening. In some cases, a screening call may take an unexpected turn where the corporation feels like the startup may not be a solution for the current chalet, but will fit into a different need set. In this case, it may be helpful to connect with them during the trip, time permitting, and with level expectations across the playing field.

Include Venture Investor Meetings

(Not Just Startups)

There are usually many startups that are up and coming, but not yet in a VC’s portfolio and may not have institutional funding, therefore not showing up on typical searches. By meeting with VC’s in the space, you are able to learn if there are other high potential new technologies that should be considered and also talk to these experts about your own thesis and gain their insights on the field.


Venture investors supercharge corporate growth strategies in many ways.

See my post on this here.

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