Friday, September 27, 2013

Why innovation needs its own language

I've been fascinated recently by the role that language plays in an innovation activity.  By language I don't mean different languages (Spanish, French or English) but the language we use to communicate the rationale for innovation, we use to create the context for innovation, we use to define the tools, methods and outcomes for innovation.  There, I've done it.  Filled my quota for the use of the word innovation.

As I've written before, the word innovation is so abused and misused it has become almost meaningless.  Or worse, it means whatever the active speaker wants it to mean.  I've been in situations with clients where everyone is using the word innovation, but they have very different perspectives and definitions of what that word means to them, their teams and their products or services.  It's clear we need to start fresh and this shouldn't be a surprise.

When we as humans encounter any significant technological, demographic or social shift, it's common that new words or language enters our common vernacular.  We are undergoing a shift in new product and service development, which is causing us to sound a bit like a parrot who only knows one word - innovation.  What we need is a new innovation language.  We need to define words, phrases and meanings so that our conversations and plans have value, and communicate effectively.  Just as words like tweet, blog, and LOL have entered our common vernacular with the advent of social media, so to do words like incremental, disruptive and open, along with a number of other words and phrases, need to be nailed down, made consistent and used effectively.  Look at just a few commonly used words that are fraught with meaning when used in an innovation context.


If innovation is overused to the extent that it no longer means anything, the word "risk" when it comes to innovation is also misused.  There are many types of "risk" associated with innovation.  The largest risk is the one that is never mentioned.  The most important risk is the risk of doing nothing, of staying the course, of doing what is safe and reasonable.  When we talk about innovation "risk" we talk about the potential for failure of a new product, or missing key features or benefits, or creating products and services that don't have the profit margins that are expected.  There's just as much risk in doing nothing, or in thinking that taking "risk" out of a situation means that we should ensure the ideas are simple to understand and implement.  We can take risk out of the equation by simplifying the product to the point where it is indistinguishable from existing products and services, or we can retain a bigger, bolder image of what the idea can be and seek to eliminate risks or cultural barriers external to the idea.  Defining the notion of risk is vital in an "innovation" activity.


Another failing of our existing language is the narrowing of options.  So many times people will talk about the outcome of innovation in "product" language.  Innovation is capable of much more than simply developing new, tangible, physical products.  Innovation can drive new business models, new customer experiences, new channels, and so on.  When we talk about "innovation" in the context of "products" we are intentionally or unintentionally limiting thinking and potential outcomes.  If your intention is to limit the scope of the activity, then be explicit about that intention.  Don't allow sloppy language to leave your teams in the dark.


Everyone wants "open" innovation, and they are correct in their desires, but hazy on the definitions.  Open can mean anything from asking customers for ideas (a la Dell's IdeaStorm) to close partnering with highly vetted channel partners to working with firms like Nine Sigma to post blind RFPs.  What's typically missing in an "open" innovation activity is the strategy and defintion, not the tactics.  Open innovation, like innovation generally, means whatever you want it to mean.

These are just three commonly used words that have important meaning when used in relation to innovation.  There are plenty more which are misused, and there are instances in innovation where we have no good word to describe what we are trying to do.  Building and analyzing scenarios, there are always "themes" or "threads", but neither word adequately describes what we want to tease out.  During customer research, we hope to discover customer "needs" or desires or gaps, but even experienced innovators conflate "wants", which are aspirational, with "needs" which are more consistent and more basic. 

One other language problem

In business we've become accustomed to language as a precursor to decisions or actions.  That is, from emails to texts to instant messages to staff meetings, much of our communication and hence our language is about actions, measurements or results.  However, much of the discussion about innovation is more focused on platitudes (we need innovation, innovation is a vital part of our business, etc) or pure propaganda, language used to send messages that have no further intent.  Innovation language is often a signaling message to the market, to indicate that we understand innovation is important, but under the covers we'll continue to carry on as before.

This is how innovation loses its meaning, and introduces cynicism and doubt in an organization.  Far too much conversation and communication about innovation is for show, not for go. Words and language lose their meaning and effectiveness when they are used constantly but nothing changes. 


Any organization that hopes to innovate consistently and well has the following challenges with language and context that it must address in order to work more successfully:
  1. Lack of shared meaning
  2. Lack of systemic context
  3. No clear linkage to strategy or goals
  4. Ideas no longer hold their original meanings or the culture rejects their meaning
  5. Language limits or narrows discussion or thinking rather than encouraging and broadening it
  6. Words become filler or placeholders, not meant to encourage thinking or action
What is your innovation language?  Do the words you use have shared meaning?  Do they work within a common context?  Is there certainty and urgency in your communication about innovation?  If you can't get the language right, how do you expect to generate better thinking or improved products?  Everything that we do in a collaborative sense relies on excellent communication.  If you start with and foster poor communication, how can you hope but end up with poor products and services?

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:36 AM


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