Why a common language matters for innovation
The modern tower of Babel
For those of you who don't know your old testament, complete with the angry, vengeful God, let's return to the story of Babel. In their hubris, people decide to build a tower that will reach for the heavens. God, in a fit of pique, commands that they all speak a different language. Chaos ensues. Innovation is a lot like the tower of Babel, only in reverse. A god-like leader, typically the CEO, requests, no demands, more innovation. And everyone in the organization runs off to "innovate" interpreting what innovation means and applying to their situation. This means that in any company several "innovative" things happen simultaneously:
- Old, tired ideas long in limbo are reframed as "innovative"
- Any small change to an existing product or service is labelled "innovation"
- A completely irrational, disruptive idea is justified on the basis that it is "innovative"
- Soon every thing is "innovative" and nothing is
Everything is based on language and communication
Scientists believe that humans evolved much more rapidly once they began to use complex communication, and that learning accelerated as language became codified. Why do we constantly need to relearn in business what is obvious in the rest of our lives? As young children we are taught the definition of words, and as middle schoolers and high schoolers we are taught to understand and parse great literature, to understand how to communicate. Yet business communication is terrible (if you doubt this, read Why Business people speak like idiots) and the culmination of terrible language and communication is when we mix regular business communication with the new and unusual practice of innovation, which has its own language and definitions. It doesn't help that innovation is really a catch-all for a number of methods, activities and tools, and that innovation has a potential range of outcomes, from incremental products to disruptive business models. But we blithely toss around the word "innovation" as if there is a common definition, and as if everyone will interpret the word in the same way. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If innovation is new, unusual and uncertain, fraught with change and risk, shouldn't an organization do all in its power to reduce the uncertainty, remove the risk through clear definition, consistent language and constant communication? You'd think that would be a likely approach, but most organizations attempting innovation view these actions as unnecessary overhead, rather than understanding how much good communication will impact innovation barriers, like risk, uncertainty, the existing way of doing business and the powerful but intangible corporate culture.
How can you define the indefinable?
Can you create a definition of innovation that provides insight, gives guidance and instructs the organization? We've noticed that a number of firms have attempted to create a common definition for innovation. 3M uses the following definition: The use or application of creativity to generate a new or novel output having value for customers. Note that this definition identifies creativity as a central input to creating new or novel products and services. Note also that innovation is focused on creating value for customers, so in this definition 3M doesn't emphasize internal process improvement as innovation. But simply creating a definition creates scope - what to leave in, and what to leave out.
But go further, because innovation has as many contextual meanings and uses as plastic. Should innovation engage external parties or should it be constricted to internal teams (Open/Closed)? Should we focus on small changes to existing products and services, or aim for entering new markets with new to the world products (Incremental/Disruptive)? What is the intended outcome (Product/Service/Channel/Business Model/Customer experience)? Until these concepts are clarified, every innovator defines and scopes innovation for him or herself.
Even when a definition, goal or language is specified, most organizations do a terrible job of communicating their innovation requirements, definitions and rationale. Communication experiences what I call the "waterfall" effect. That is, a senior leader communicates to the next management level in the hierarchy, and so forth in a series of waterfalls where the message is watered down, tempered and redirected. By the time the messaging reaches the main body of the organization, they have no idea what they are supposed to do, or how they should react. Rather than actively embracing innovation through powerful and consistent communication, most senior leaders demand it on a quarterly basis and never return to the messaging. These half-hearted messages bounce off the impervious cultural hide of the middle management like a bullet off of Superman. Until executives engage in active communication and assess their reporting structures to understand if the messages are received, heard and acted on at all levels, communication about innovation doesn't matter, because the overwhelming power of business as usual remains.
Definition, Language and Communication in the Workmat
Paul Hobcraft and I wrote and developed the Innovation Workmat, a guide to what executives need to know, and do, when building a framework for innovation. In the workmat, there are seven domains that must be enriched for innovation to take root in an organization. Definition, language and communication is the central tenet and the "glue" that binds the workmat together. In an effort to get started quickly, most innovation teams never think about defining what innovation is, what the acceptable outcomes are, and how to communicate the purpose, goal and rationale throughout the organization. Without the common frameworks, pretty soon any and every initiative is "innovative" and frustration reigns. This is yet another case where a careful and thoughtful approach to innovation, taking time to think about the definition, language and rationale, without simply plunging in, can make all the difference.