June 1, 2021

Innovation theatre doesn’t just kill startups. It kills innovation managers, too

Four innovation manager roles where the company failed to back her plans have left Noelia Almanza feeling burned-out. It is not an uncommon story.

Maija Palmer

8 min read

“I feel really burned, violated — fooled, really,” says Noelia Almanza, reflecting on a series of recent roles as the head of innovation at companies that started with big plans for innovation but which then fizzled out, with no budget or staff to carry them out.

“This is the fourth time I have experienced this in healthcare, with a company not backing me up. It has left me thinking I don’t want to work in innovation anymore.”

Almanza is a long-time health professional turned innovation manager. Having worked first to modernise the Bolivian healthcare system and then for several years in emergency medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, she became interested in using technology to push the boundaries of healthcare.

We had a vision that the ambulance would ring on your doorbell 10 minutes before you had a heart attack.

“When I worked with the ambulance service in Sweden we had this vision that the ambulance would become something that would ring on your doorbell 10 minutes before you were about to have a heart attack — because we would be so good at monitoring and taking a preventative approach to health,” she says.

Almanza first started her own healthtech consultancy and then was headhunted several times to lead innovation efforts at various healthcare organisations. But a disturbing pattern of behaviour emerged at these companies — despite having headhunted Almanza at great cost, the companies would fail to commit to carrying out the projects she suggested. It was all so-called “innovation theatre”, where there would be a lot of talk about transformation but very little actually done.

“I don’t even know if you could call it innovation theatre, because we didn’t really do anything, we just talked about it,” she says.

It isn’t an uncommon problem for heads of innovation — especially when this is a newly-created role at a company. Innovation professionals from consultant Tendayi Viki to Hugo Bongers at ABN Amro have told Sifted about their struggle to get innovation plans accepted within a big company.

Few people want to speak publicly about how burned-out this leaves them, but Almanza was happy to share her story to kick off a better conversation about the problem.

“Innovation theatre is not only killing startups,” she says, “It is also killing innovation managers at companies.”

Reflecting on her various experiences, Almanza can pick out several reasons for the resistance she encountered.

Money and risk-aversion

A lack of money is nothing new to anyone used to working in a public healthcare setting.

It was hard to get people to put money into innovation because they were worried about being seen to waste money.

“Healthcare is particularly difficult because these are organisations funded by taxes,” says Almanza. “When I worked with a lot of publicly-funded healthcare organisations, it was hard to get people to put money into innovation projects because they were so worried about failing and being seen to waste that money.”

At one national conference on innovation in the public sector, she suggested trying to get over the fear of failure by building in an expectation from the outset that 8 out of 10 projects would fail. It caused outrage.

“Nobody could understand why I had even put that suggestion out there.”

A lack of budget often left Alamza having to run innovation projects as semi-official sidelines in her spare time. She tried, for example, to get all of Stockholm’s emergency services to collaborate more on innovation but this was reduced to the relatively modest goal of getting a small group of interested stakeholders meeting three times a month, things that could be done without spending any money.


Management teams feeling overwhelmed by the innovation task

Private sector companies potentially had more budget for innovation, but sometimes would retreat when they realised the size of the task. Almanza would come in, write an innovation strategy and present it, only to have senior managers feel overwhelmed by it.

When I presented the new strategy my manager froze. Three weeks later he said they would have to dismiss me.

“My boss, the CTO of the company, was initially emailing me to say how well I was doing. But when I presented the new strategy he froze, like he had turned into ice. Three weeks later he said they would have to dismiss me.”

Almanza’s strategy had been pretty standard fare: A first year goal of completing one or two pilot projects, a second year of establishing a wider programme of open innovation and some planning for more transformative innovation down the line.

“It felt like they were in over their heads. The CTO told me it was too much,” she says.

This was surprising because much of what Almanza initially suggested was fairly low-hanging fruit. For example, she suggested buying some symptom-checking software from an external provider to improve the service.

“It was the coolest thing the company had seen, and I thought we should just go ahead and do it, this was just incremental innovation.”

But although using the symptom checker only involved creating an API to interface with the startup providing the service — ie there was virtually no internal development work — the IT department struggled with making the changes.

It was then that Almanza realised that the company really wasn’t willing to commit the headcount or budget to put innovation ideas in action.

“Often innovation ideas are not so heavy in investment, but they do take up headcount,” Almanza says. “It felt like the company hadn’t foreseen what doing the work would mean.”

Misunderstanding what a head of innovation does

Companies often expect innovation teams to be all about bringing in drones and AI.

“The company said that we needed to start working with “cool” stuff,” says Almanza. “They were disappointed when we said we needed to first learn how to measure the impact of what we were doing and decide what innovation really means to the company.”

They expected me to be the person that was creative.

Or companies expected Almanza to be a one-woman idea generator with a hotline straight to Silicon Valley, and, again, were disappointed when she made it clear she was there mainly to organise and coordinate the efforts.

“I was really questioned as to why the company had hired me as an innovation manager when it was the departments that were coming up with the ideas. They expected me to be the person that was creative, while I would explain that there were a lot of ideas already existing in the market that we could bring in and ideas that were developed inside by people who knew the business best.

“I told them I would help bring these ideas in and manage them, but this was hard for them to grasp,” Almanza says.

Internal politics

At the same time, Almanza says, she often had to deal with people who saw the innovation function as a power grab and a potential threat to their own position.

People working for a healthtech company don’t like it when you tell them that they are not innovating.

“One of the comments, after I presented my strategy, was that it felt like I was trying to build my own department,” says Almanza. In fact, with no budget and no headcount, it was often anything but a power grab — Almanza was in fact highly dependent on cooperating with other departments to get anything done. But it would take a while to explain this to the various business units and smooth things over.

“I can be a very direct person and I can see that my personality can be intimidating. People working for a healthtech company think it is obvious that they are innovating, and don’t like it when you tell them that they are not. I stepped on a whole bunch of toes,” she says. “But I have always taken the view that we are there for the company, to figure out what we need to do, not to have a feel-good cake party.”

Can we do better?

The worst thing about innovation theatre, says Almanza, is not her own bruised ego, but how wasteful it is.

I had a very good salary and they wasted all that money that they put down on me.

“I had a very good salary and they wasted all that money that they put down on me,” she says. “Letting me go without even trying one or two projects would have been a big economic wound for them. I don’t think they will work with innovation again because this will have made them frightened of it.”

In hindsight, Almanza says she should have spent even more time getting a clear mandate for the innovation job before taking on any role.

“It would have been good to have some document to point to to say that this was the mission we agreed on,” she says. But even that may not have worked. “I might have come across even more direct and firm. And in any case, it might not have made any difference because plans do change at companies.”

Have you found any good ways to get through the problem of innovation theatre? We’d love to hear any thoughts and tips.