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The Innovation Rain Dance: if you want to innovate, putting on a show just isn’t enough


For thousands of years, and continuing to this very day, people have performed rituals and ceremonies intended to bring about a change in their fortunes. They’ve made animal sacrifices to appease volcanic gods, beat drums to ward off evil spirits and tossed spilled salt over their shoulders to avoid bad luck! Most famous of these ancient rites is the Rain Dance, popularly associated with the native american peoples.

A Rain Dance is, as its name suggests, a dance based ritual designed to bring rain. Of course dancing doesn’t bring rain, but that didn’t stop this and superstitions like it from taking root in many cultures around the world. Fortunately most of us are more enlightened these days. Right?

Rain is a vital resource; without it crops fail and people die. But you can’t control it. I suppose it made tribal leaders in ancient times feel pretty powerless that all their strong leadership, all their able stewardship, would be for nothing if the fickle finger of fate flipped them the bird, climatically speaking. Remind you of anything?

Innovation, like rain, is vital. Without it products fail and companies die. Of course innovation isn’t entirely like rain; we can influence it, but it does share a rain-like unpredictability. You can do all the right things but you can’t make innovation happen just when you want it to. In this way our modern tribal leaders, our CXOs, might have some sympathy with their ancient forebears. So are we surprised that many of them partake in the Innovation Rain Dance?

The Innovation Rain Dance is what leaders do if they’re expected to “drive innovation” but either have no idea how to do that in a systematic way (by the way, the only way you can drive innovation is root and branch) or they just don’t have the stomach for the hard work that this entails and, more to the point, haven’t accepted that innovation isn’t something you can control in a neat and tidy way, that it requires you to have faith in hard to measure things like culture and attitudes which take a long time to change.

These leaders have decided that they can’t or at least can’t be bothered to make it rain but they know that their people are looking to them to be, well, leaders. So they have to at least be seen to be doing something…innovation-y. So the dance begins.

The dance can take many forms but most include one or more of the following:

1. Bringing in an innovation or creativity guru – this can be split into two subcategories

a)    Hiring an actual expert who runs workshops and training for the leadership team. In a more enlightened organisation this would actually contribute to innovation but in this one just serves to make the leaders feel all creative and dynamic and give them something fun to talk about at their next networking event while ticking the “drive innovation”box for the shareholders.

b)    Appointing a high profile celebrity creativity champion like Ashton Kutcher or Alicia Keys who won’t actually do anything other than to give the CEO the chance to meet Ashton Kutcher or Alicia Keys and impress his kids.

2. Running company wide Idea Gathering Events – this is a fun one. It’s a paradoxical and annoying fact of creativity that ideas aren’t actually the hard part. People have ideas literally all the time. The tricky part is getting people to have ideas that are both relevant to a specific problem and actually novel. So gathering ideas is easy and looks innovation-y but gathering useful ideas focused on real problems is hard. Many, sadly, opt for the former.

3. Building some sort innovation facility somewhere – either a special skunk-works style lab full of blue sky thinking moon shooters who’s minds have been entirely removed from their boxes or an innovation centric museum-cum-meeting room where you look at innovation-y things in order to encourage the emergence of an “innovation culture”, presumably through some sort of osmosis.

And then our dancers wait. And hope.

They hope that at some point within the next business cycle something will happen in the company which they can stick the innovation label on; some new idea will emerge by chance or some new product will take off unexpectedly because a client sees a use for it that no one else predicted. Then our dancing leaders take advantage of the fuzzy front end, the fog of innovation if you will, to draw a false causal relationship between all the dancing and whatever it is they’re calling now innovation.

They do the dance and, if it rains, they take credit for it.

Rain Dances and other rituals, while hardly effective and achieving rain or preventing volcanic eruptions, did serve a purpose. They distracted people from how powerless they really were to control their own fate. So it would be unfair of me to scoff. But the Innovation Rain Dance isn’t a distraction from the powerlessness of organisations to save themselves, it’s actually a distraction from doing something meaningful!

We aren’t like the native americans hoping for rain, completely at the mercy of that which we cannot control, because real leadership can encourage innovation. Training, collaboration, mentoring and even the odd consciousness raising stunt with a B-List celebrity can help to deliver innovation but only if they are teamed with real company wide changes which free people from the fear of failure, enable people to pursue their hunches and reward and recognise risk taking and achievement within groups, not just the flashiest individuals.

Now for the trap!

You didn’t think I was telling you all this just to be a nice guy did ya? P’ah! You see, it is my contention that once you’ve learned about something it is impossible to not see it whenever it happens. And, if you care about that thing, just as you care about innovation and creativity, you can’t see it without feeling an overwhelming urge to do something about it. As an innovator this is your sacred moral duty; your sworn oath. Go forth from this place and shout it from the roof-tops; if you want to innovate, putting on a good show just isn’t enough.

Photo Credit: mark sebastian via Compfight cc

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