Sometimes, innovation teams will attempt to show fake success in order to hide their real struggles.

Have you ever heard of a Potemkin village?

According to historical stories, in 1787 Prince Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin-Tauricheski of Russia was tasked with settling more Russians into the land of Crimea, which at that time had just been annexed from the Ottoman Empire in 1783. Potemkin was a lover and favourite of Empress Catherine II of Russia, who decided to visit the lands of “New Russia”.

Keen to show the success of his resettlement initiatives, Potemkin took Empress Catherine down the Dnipro river on a royal barge, showing her the villages on the land every day filled with villagers. It looked like resettlement was going very well.

What the Empress did not know is that these villages were nothing more than facades which looked like buildings from the distance of the river. Each night while the Empress slept, Potemkin’s subjects would pack up the facades, move them along to the next stop on the river and build them up again to look like another village.

As a result, a Potemkin village refers to something which is just a facade, to make something look more successful than it is in reality.

While recent historians believe the accuracy of this story to be low and most likely a myth, there are in fact real examples of Potemkin villages today.

For example, Kijong-dong is a village in North Korea visible from South Korea in the Demilitarized Zone. While North Korea claims that over 200 families live there happily, it is believed to in fact be completely empty and just used to portray North Korea positively to potential defectors.

The term can also be used to describe any fake facade used to show success. In 1998, the energy services company Enron built and maintained a fake trading floor on the sixth story of its headquarters in downtown Houston. The trading floor was used to impress Wall Street analysts attending Enron’s annual shareholders meeting.

Potemkin Villages and fake innovation

While it may seem like all of the examples I just described are of physical locations, innovation teams are often just as guilty of trying to look more successful than they really are.

In fact, any project, company or team is often trying to represent themselves and their progress in the best light possible, especially when they are dependent on other more senior decision makers for the resources to continue their work.

Where this becomes problematic is where the decision makers are not 100% sure what progress actually is. Or what success should look like.

Trust me, this happens a lot more frequently than you would expect in innovation teams. If the person providing the budget for your innovation team / lab is a CXO, they often have so much on their plate that they trust you as the innovation expert to tell them what innovation success should be.

As a result, when being asked to show progress, many innovation teams will begin describing things which look like innovation, but are not actually creating any value.

Things such as:

  • How many ideas have been generated in a recent brainstorming session
  • Vanity Metrics, such as followers or website clicks
  • New technology (toys) which the team is “investigating”, like 3D printers and drones
  • Research into innovations happening at other companies
  • Claiming that your innovation is further along in development than it really is
  • Exaggerating demand forecasts and customer feedback

It is like performing innovation theatre.

And while these facades appear in most cases to be relatively harmless, they make it nearly impossible for the decision makers to validate whether the innovation teams are providing any ROI or value.

This is one of the reason so many innovation labs have recently been shut down.

There are however also many examples of where innovation teams have been much more deceptive about the progress their innovations are making. Some individuals and companies truly believe you need to fake it until you make it, and as a result when their innovation projects begin to hit scaling challenges or even enter the valley of death, they outwardly claim that everything is still going great.

One of the best (worst) examples of this recently is Theranos, the biotech company headed by Elizabeth Holmes claiming to revolutionise the way clinical blood tests would be completed. Even after it became clear that the technology was impossible, Holmes and her team claimed the technology was well underway being developed, resulting in investors and the media believing the innovation hype. But this was all a facade, which came crumbling down when it turned out that the US$700 million raised from venture capitalists and private investors had not in fact been able to develop what was described.

So be careful of being too deceptive in how well your own innovation projects are doing.

After all, a facade can be blown over by just a gentle push if someone comes close enough to realise it is not real.

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.