Cargo cult innovation, play buzzword bingo to spot it

What if simulating innovation was an option? What if you could just fake it until you make it in innovation? I am talking about cargo cult innovation. You know, the kind of innovationism where everything is called innovation, digital or disruptive. The kind of innovationism where you go through all the motions but get none of the results. You can easily spot cargo cult innovationism. Keep reading to find out how or scroll directly to my innovation buzzword bingo for a more entertaining view of the problem.

When Gene Hughson wrote about using simulation to speed up innovation, I was going to respond with a post taking a deeper look at the subject. Instead I came up with this post about cargo cult innovation. I do agree with Gene that simulation is a powerful — and underused — tool to facilitate innovation. But cargo cult innovationism is a much bigger problem. Instead of using simulation to help innovation, these people simulate innovation to maintain the status quo.

Spotting the innovation cargo cultists

You can easily spot the cargo cultists and snake oil salesmen in innovation. All you need to do is listen for certain memes they keep repeating. They will talk to you about how others have been innovative but they will get it wrong. They will quote famous people to borrow some of their magic. They will say some of the following things.

This is not a picture of cargo cult innovation, but it feels appropriate anyway. There is something about the cemetary that just reminds me of cultism.

Uber, AirBnB and Ali Baba have no…


They will tell you that they know the secret behind Uber, AirBnB and Ali Baba but they will be wrong. You have already heard them say that “Uber is the biggest taxi company in the world but that they have no cars” and so on and so forth. The secrect behind Uber is not that they do not own cars. Taxi companies do not own cars, they own a switchboard and a brand. The difference is not in what they are or in what they have but in what they do.

The failfast fallacy

Before you know it, they will start telling you about the importance of experimentalism. Experimentalism, they say, is the best source of truth. You need to send your innovations into reality. It will either fail fast and die or come out stronger for the experience. At least, that is what they say. After that, they will be more specific about how you should test your innovation. They will tell you about minimum viable products. You will hear about the importance of A/B-testing and blue/green-deployments.

What they will not tell you is that innovations are not lemmings. Of course, if you had hundreds and thousands of innovations and you knew that hidden in there somewhere was one or two really great ones. But you don’t, do you? In reality you only have a few innovations and you cannot really afford to have most of them fail.

A/B-testing is supposed to solve all your problems. In reality it is not that powerful. Even with a huge user base to test on, it is more often than not that the tests do not give conclusive results. Let’s not get started on the (limited) ethics of A/B-testing.

Innovation exceptionalism

Another thing that will help you spot them is their attitude of exceptionalism. Innovation is not a fringe activity. Let me tell you upfront: there is really no external “layer of innovation” in your business where you can tinker a little. True innovation happens at the core of your business. It is about what you offer to whom and how they reward you for it. Innovation is not limited to millenials or any other group. People are people, no matter how much or how little they are chronologically challenged.

Why it matters

I am not saying that there is no basis of truth in what they say. The problem is that innovation is much more complex than they would have you believe. If you fall for the siren song of cargo cult innovationism, you will have all the effort and all the trouble of real innovation work but you will have none of the benefits.

Instead, you should do what we always do when we want to get good at something: practice, practice and then practice some more. Not just blind practicce, but practice in a conscious way. But wait, how is that different from fail fast, you might ask? As I said, these things are not devoid of truth. However, as you practice, you will discover that the deeper meaning is not what you thought at first.

Cargo cult innovation bingo

Have a go at innovation buzzword bingo. It might tell you if you are doing real innovation or cargo cult innovation.

I do listen to the occasional presentation about innovation. The same buzzwords keep coming up. For your convenience, I have created a cargo cult innovation buzzword bingo that you can play on your phone the next time you need to listen to an innovationism presentation.

The innovation conversation

This post is part 32 of an ongoing conversation between me and Gene on Innovation. You are most welcome to join the conversation. Do it here in the comment fields or join us on social media. You will find both of us on Twitter. If you feel like making a bit more of an effort, go ahead and write your own blog post or even record a video with your contribution to the innovation conversation. I’m here to learn, connect and converse and I hope you are too.

Have a go at innovation buzzword bingo. It might tell you if you are doing real innovation or cargo cult innovation.

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About Greger Wikstrand

Greger Wikstrand, Ph.D. M.Sc. is a TOGAF 9 certified enterprise architect with an interest in e-heatlh, m-health and all things agile as well as processes, methods and tools. Greger Wikstrand works as a consultant at Capgemini where he alternates between enterprise agile coaching, problem solving and designing large scale e-health services ...

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