Innovation Lab Theater: No Room For Thought

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Sam Maule Managing Partner, North America
5min read

Sam delivers insight on what fintech can learn from Hollywood failure and why innovation labs are an awful move for any company. All discovered through two films, one flight, and one keynote address.

I had the opportunity to watch the movie ‘The Disaster Artist’ on one of my recent transatlantic flights. The movie, starring and directed by James Franco, is based on the true story of the making of the cult film ‘The Room’, which has some odd similarities to every innovation lab I've ever seen. 'The Room' is a film that many critics consider to be one of the worst films written and released over the past twenty-five years. If you’ve ever heard the quote “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”, or come across “Oh hi Mark!”, well, this is the unintentionally hilarious cinematic train wreck that spawned them.

Innovation Lab Without the Innovation

One scene in particular reminded me of what many of us often call “innovation theater” in financial services. The movie’s writer/director/producer/star, Tommy Wiseau, is about to begin shooting the very first scene of his film which takes place in an alley. He had instructed his design crew to build an alley set on the production lot that looked almost identical to a real alley literally within a few feet of where they were about to film. His Production Assistant, one of the few professionals with any real experience on his film crew, pointed this very fact out to him. When the Production Assistant asked why they weren’t filming in the actual alley, Tommy replied: “Because this is a real Hollywood movie and this is how it is done in Hollywood! You don’t understand my vision!”.

Paying for Nothing

I was asked to give a short keynote on innovation by a top tier global consulting powerhouse, and it was on the flight to Europe to give this keynote that I watched this movie. The consulting firm (who shall remain nameless) had an over-the-top corporate office, obviously designed by a first class interior corporate decorator. The office had multiple rooms specially set up to inspire innovative thinking, or at least that’s what a senior director at the consulting firm believed when they paid the invoice, and the clever sayings and inspirational quotes on their room walls certainly indicated a desire to be 'innovative'. What made me wince the most, and what the firm’s executive team seemed to be most proud of judging by how many times I heard them describe the rooms to their clients, were their innovation lab rooms. The consultancy firm actually paid a designer to build several different replica shops, kitchens, and home living rooms on site at their office, all to allow their highly-paid consultants to think differently, experiment, and come up with world-class ideas they could bedazzle and charge their clients for.

Paper Towns

Basically, they paid a fortune to build Tommy Wiseau’s alley set, when all along their office building is actually part of a high-end retail mall and housing center. The only difference between what they spent a fortune on building and the actual retail space at their feet is reality. Welcome to innovation theater. This is why so many of us hate innovation labs and don’t believe they actually do anything other than cost a bloody fortune to build and staff. These innovation lab “stores” don’t have real customers with real life issues they bring with them while shopping. They don’t have real life staffing problems such as retail staff that don’t know how to work a tablet or who really don’t give a shit about their job. They don’t have real customers who are trying to calm their screaming two year old who needs a diaper change while at the same time staring down the other customers judging them for the obvious lack of parenting skills while they try to shop. They don’t have the messy, dirty, chaotic elements of real life that provide the real challenges in designing real solutions and that only come up once the product is in the real production environment. The innovation lab is just a paper town. It looks like the real thing but it's purely superficial.


I remember listening to an interview with the leadership team behind the only true successful digital wallet in the U.S: the Starbucks app. Their approach to product design was incredibly simplistic. Researchers spent six months sitting at various Starbucks stores across the nation, observing customers. They watched how the customers stood in line, ordered, chatted with each other, and hung out. They observed the stores’ staff, how they worked the till, took orders, and prepared the various products. That’s it. There were no innovation labs, no store sets with paid participants acting as if they were ordering or were wait staff. No role-playing. Instead of solely relying on post client interviews or transaction surveys, they simply observed the customer and store team interaction in the real world. What a concept. I have all the confidence in the world in the incredible potential of 11:FS. That we will become a highly disruptive and successful challenger consultancy firm on a global scale across multiple industries. I have no doubt our success will mean we will have more money than God, and we will have the opportunity to design and build out our corporate offices. Offices that can bedazzle our clients with our incredibly creative thinking and approaches. But if we ever, ever, ever build an innovation lab that replicates the real world I will be the first to burn that sucker to the ground. Just saying… Sam Maule is the Managing Director for 11:FS North America. You can contact him for more innovation lab dissections at or follow him on Twitter @sammaule.