“Fake Innovation”: Lessons from Fake Work


Fake Work: Why People Are Working Harder Than Ever but Accomplishing Less, and How to Fix the Problem by Brent D. Peterson and Gaylan D. Nielson (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009) strikes a chord in most anybody who has been in Corporate America – or most anybody who works, for that matter. Dr. Brent Peterson from the Marriott School of Engineering (Brigham Young University) and Gaylan Nielson, CEO of The Work Itself Group, apply decades of experience in facing the dysfunctions of modern business and diagnosing the problems of wasted effort. They estimate that over half of all work is meaningless, or “fake work”–work that is not related to the objectives of the business and does not help a business to survive. Fake. Meaningless. Wasted. These are terrible adjectives to apply to the exhausting efforts we go through, but they are accurate much of the time. As I’ll suggest later, insights into “fake work” can illuminate a related problems in innovation: “fake innovation.”

Real work, as we define it, is work that is critical and aligned to the key goals and strategies of an organization–any organization, corporation, nonprofit company, government agency, church, school, or family.”  (p. 4)

Examples of fake work include:

  • Writing of reports that are not used. (For example, many monthly reports are simply ignored or even discarded without so much as a glance by those they were supposedly written for.)
  • Massive studies or research efforts whose sole purpose is to prop up a decision that has already been made by management. (I’m still sore over some experiences of this nature in past lives.)
  • Meetings that have no purpose.
  • Efforts to improve or redesign a product that is being dropped from the market, regardless of what comes out of your efforts.
  • Projects aimed solely at spending money to use up a budget and justify a budget increase.
  • Training initiatives that serve political or personal objectives without helping the company.
  • Complex performance management systems requiring hours of peer review and document processing, much of which may merely serve as a smokescreen when management makes its own decisions based on other criteria.

When an organization has serious problems with fake work, there will often be rewards to people based on effort, passion, hours spent, and the appearance of activity, regardless of the actual results delivered.

Fake work is more than just lost time and money. It has a toxic effect across an organization, breaking bonds of trust and loyalty and encouraging the bad behaviors that are rewarded. Employees who learn that their work is meaningless become cynical and less willing to do real work. Fake work uproots many of the intangibles that hold an organization together.

Fake Innovation: Fake Work in New Product Development or R&D
The work of innovation inherently involves work on projects that will not succeed, but this does not make the work “fake.” A biotech scientist may explore thousands of compounds that never become commercialized due to the inherently unpredictable nature of pharmaceutical research. Innovation efforts become fake, however, when they aim to solve a problem that doesn’t really matter to the company or its customers, or when there are impassable legal or other barriers to commercialization that have not been considered or have been ignored, or when the solution obtained simply has no chance of being commercialized.

Research projects launched for political reasons are generally fake. For example, a company may be spending money on “green” R&D solely to create a hollow PR claim (“look at our green commitment”) without a commitment to do anything with the results. Sometimes a project is pursued to justify the existence of a group someone manages when their talents would be better applied elsewhere. Sometimes the goal is to reward a friend or favored organization with a contract for joint development when they are not the best ones for the job, meaning that the results of the job matter less to the decision maker than personal rewards or ties. When doing the right work for the right reason is not the driving force in decision making around R&D or new product development, then fake innovation is most likely at hand.

As with fake work in general, a key problem with fake innovation is the discouragement it provides to those in the innovation community. Fake innovation is inherently an innovation fatigue factor, one that fits within the category of “Flaws in Judgment and Decision Making.” When the innovation effort doesn’t really matter, when results don’t count (and there is no accountability for results), when the chances of making a difference are essentially zero, innovators experience fatigue. Why bother trying under such circumstances?

Managers and those in the innovation community need to step back and consider the reality, or lack thereof, of what they are doing. Does this project matter? How does it align business needs and with the survival of the company? Are there reasons why the output may not matter, no matter how good the work is? Have dangerous shortcuts been taken that could jeopardize the meaning and relevance of the work? Is this work driven by political or personal agendas?

One of many ways to make innovation become fake work is to have the innovators isolated from the pulse of the business and the market. Innovators need to understand market needs and customer insights to ensure that the right problems are being solved and that solutions being pursued properly fit into the market place. Isolated researchers handing off their concepts to a business unit will generally be discouraged in many ways. They will find that the business unit rejects most of what they do as irrelevant, or they will find (or feel, right or wrong) that the business unit makes changes in the product or its implementation that destroy the opportunity because they did not share the vision. Handing off projects often results in lost vision and lost opportunity–there needs to be a mechanism to maintain continuity of vision and connectivity of mind, not just from the innovator to the marketplace, but also from the marketplace back to the innovator. There needs to be a great feedback loop for iterative development with the innovators fully included, not isolated.

One energizing factor that we introduce in Conquering Innovation Fatigue is the “Horn of Innovation™” paradigm for targeted innovation. Drawing upon the physics of, the history of, and modern techniques for playing the French horn, we relate a horn player to an innovator, and show how the innovator needs to experience the output of the horn and even have a hand in it (referring to the technique of “handstopping”) in order to deliver in-tune innovation. It’s an extended analogy that occupies an entire chapter, one of my favorites. (Many thanks to my son, Daniel Lindsay, an outstanding horn player, for inspiring the development of the analogy.) The “Horn of Innovation™” may not apply to all innovation, but it does offer help for many industries where far too much innovation is destined to be discarded from the inefficient “innovation funnel.” Not that it’s all fake work, but much is needlessly wasted when it’s not in tune with the marketplace and the corporation, as often happens for R&D at the early stages in the innovation funnel. Without a feedback loop that includes innovators throughout the process and links them to the market, much of the their efforts to innovate will be wasted unnecessarily, almost by design. That has the flavor of fake innovation.


  1. Jenna says:

    Pretty cool post. I just came by your blog and wanted to say
    that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. In any case
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  2. Dale says:

    Very well said.

  3. Bookslinger says:

    From The Game of Work — How to Enjoy Work As Much As Play by Charles A. Coonradt:

    “In the absence of clearly defined goals, we are forced to concentrate on activity and ultimately become enslaved by it.”

    It goes on to say: “Most businesses pay for attendance when they need to be paying for performance and productivity … Most business people don’t keep score; they don’t measure performance as effectively as they do in recreation.”

    A related quote I like to keep in mind: “Whatever you vividly imagine, ardently desire, sincerely believe, and enthusiastically act upon must inevitably come to pass.”   Paul J. Meyer.

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