Spare me the confected 'Innovation Theatre' that is hackfests and their ilk

Sure, the ideas spurt out in a torrent, but they're no longer potent

Secret CIO I had a vasectomy on Tuesday. After the procedure, as I sat sulking on the couch, sipping a cup of tea and clutching an icepack to the affected area, I thought I would quickly check my emails to see if there was anything that would take my mind off the experience.

The first email I opened invited me to participate as the guest of honour in an “Innovation Hackfest” for a large corporate. If I would be so kind as to donate my weekend to this hundred-billion dollar multinational corporation, form a team that can demonstrate subject matter expertise, prepare a detailed business model, and “demonstrate a realistic prospect for implementation”, I would be showered with riches such as “the opportunity to present your concept to our Chief Information Officer”.

“How appropriate,” I thought to myself, from my new perspective as someone possessed of a faculty that felt like it was functioning perfectly, but was actually prevented from achieving its intended result.

HackFests, innovation days, ideas portals and other initiatives of this nature are the same: lots of excited activity, but with no possibility of results.

I call this “innovation theatre” because the activity itself is quite fun. Sure, extra cleaning can be required in Boardroom Two every now and then and, but we emerge satisfied that we are doing our best.

We are not meant to take them seriously, nothing really happens as a result of the effort put into them and the poor young kids who get tricked into participating in this kabuki style thought harvesting are left with an empty and slightly dirty feeling after walking out of the CIO’s office after collecting their “Prize”. We’ve all been there.

It puts me in mind of a young and enthusiastic away team on the starship Enterprise that are training for a particularly gruelling colonisation mission. After weeks or months of vigorous training they hear the klaxon that tells them it is show time. They burst from the insertion craft and begin their treacherous journey through a hazardous, alien environment towards the distant colonisation target.

Zoom out to the captain who is monitoring their progress on a screen in his quarters, smug in the knowledge only he possess that the team was on a holodeck all along and all work is for nought but a pat on the back. The payload was virtual all along. Any real intent had been syphoned from neatly a clipped incision along the vas deferens of corporate culture called inertia.

My mind went back to a strange memory of my procedure. “All gravy and no peas” came the voice of the razor-wielding nurse somewhere south of my field of vision, which I'd narrowed to the ceiling. Just the ceiling.

“It will be a weight off your mind” she continued, I think she could tell that whilst I was prepared and consenting to what was about to happen, at a deeper level I was going through an existential crisis. This was taking a beautiful thing away from me. Yes it was one that I wasn’t going to use any more and something that was going to simplify my life in a meaningful way. The equipment would continue to function. The show would go on. But it would all be for nothing but the joy of doing it.

I deleted the hackfest invitation. Testily. ®

Warren Burns has held senior global roles at Universal Music and the consumer goods giant Unilever, where he served as Head of Innovation and was responsible for leading the Global Innovation practice and was instrumental in delivering high profile projects such as the future Ice Cream Cabinet.

Warren also holds advisory board positions for a number of Australian businesses and is a research associate for the Leading Edge Forum Executive Advisory Programme.

His consultancy, BurnsRED, helps customers understand how emerging technology will impact their business.

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