Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Innovation: It's inconceivable

When I was in graduate school, a number of my friends became aficionados of the move The Princess Bride.  At first, for me, it seemed a lot like many other swashbuckling movies.  It has the requisite hero who has been cheated, a damsel in distress, some swordplay, and so on.  But what I missed initially are all the tongue in cheek gags, the funny lines.  One that has stayed with me for a long time is what Vizzini says quite often in the film.  Anytime a plan or a plot goes wrong, or something doesn't work out the way he planned, he exclaims:  It's inconceivable.  When Montoya, the wronged hero, meets Vizzini, and Vizzini's tricks don't stymie Montoya, he blurts out:  It's inconceivable!  To which Montoya replies:  I don't think that word means what you think it means.

Inconceivable, according to the dictionaries online, means unimaginable, unthinkable.  Yet in every instance what Vizzini claims is inconceivable is currently happening.  He's using a word either without the proper knowledge of the word, or perhaps simply underestimates his competitors.

The problem with language

This is a problem, and a possibility, with language.  When words have common, shared meanings, communication flows easily.  When I use words and use them with the same context and definition as the people who hear or read my words, good communication results.  On the other hand, if I choose my own definitions for words that appear common and have other accepted definitions, I may confuse my listeners or readers.  For example, if I decided that the word sword would now take on a new definition, say peace for example, I might confuse my listeners when talking about swords when I am advocating peace.  People can't choose their own definitions and people should agree on common language when trying to communicate important ideas.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a senator in the US, had a relevant saying:  everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but everyone is not entitled to his own facts.  Facts are common, shared and provable.  Opinions are often unique, formed from perspective or experience, and subject to judgment.  Likewise, language can be shared in common, or it can be personal or contained within small groups.  When it is shared, good communication flows and meanings can be understood.  When language is private or not shared, communication is difficult and intent may be misinterpreted.

The problem with innovation language

The problem with innovation language is that there is no standard.  Every team, every academic, every expert uses words like "innovation" in their own context, assuming that the readers and listeners share the same context.  What innovation means to one individual in a small company may be very different than the meaning in an academic or governmental setting.  Just trying to define the word "innovation" can be a challenge. 

Then, realize that innovation is full of nuance.  When we speak about innovation, are we talking about continuous improvement or "disruption".  Disruption by itself is poorly defined and recently called into question.  Or, instead of disruption, should we use "gamechanger" or "radical" as adjectives to describe innovation?  What's the difference between "gamechanger" innovation and disruptive innovation?

Or take another often abused and misused innovation phrase:  "open" innovation.  At OVO we like to say that open innovation is simply the exchange of ideas, intellectual property or technologies between two entities.  Yet many people have adopted "crowdsourcing" ideas and will tell you that their internal program to gather ideas from their employees is clearly open innovation, since it looks like crowdsourcing.  And who can argue, since I haven't yet stumbled over an approved innovation dictionary lately.

Why innovation language becomes a barrier

The problem with incoherent and imperfect innovation language is that innovation is difficult and risky enough, creating new products and services in business models attuned to consistency and repetition, without adding in a layer of imperfect communication to garble intent, plans or outcomes.  Yet in the absence of shared definitions, directions about innovation from executives are interpreted and implemented far differently than the executives expect.  Each listener applies their beliefs and expectations to a request for innovation.  At the end of the experiment, no one is happy, because the executive expects interesting, new and valuable ideas, and the employees created a look-alike product.  Both are working from their own definitions and expectations.  Both believe they communicated clearly.  Neither took the time to determine a common definition.  George Orwell, perhaps one of our best writers on the subject of language and its uses, put it this way:

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow.

Notice that language corrupts thought.  Poor language leads to poor thinking, and poor thinking leads to inadequate or disappointing outcomes.  Innovation is difficult, uncertain and risky when the strategy and communications are sound.  It is almost impossible when the words, meaning, definitions, language and intent are garbled, insincere or simply not aligned.  Innovation is inconceivable without good language, common definitions and share context.  What are you doing to create shared definitions and context in your organization?

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:11 AM


Blogger Kerry said...

"What are you doing to create shared definitions and context in your organization?"

First, I tell them the definition I bring to the table - innovation is any project new to you with an uncertain outcome. Then I share why I care about that definition. The uncertain outcome is my litmus test for an innovation project. If you have a certain outcome, it's likely an execution project. If you have a preconceived notion of the outcome, you're likely not properly managing the complexity inherent in trying something new to your organization. And if you're trying something new to your organization, it doesn't matter if someone else has done it before - they haven't done it with your people, your budget, your technology, your context, your culture. In this scenario, you use different techniques and methods that you would for an execution project. For innovation to be successful and sustainable, you need a new how. Then we have to work on building common language that describes this new "how" in our context. This is an evolving bit of work, and what's required for it to be successful is to honor that even though we seem to speak the same language (English), we often times don't speak the same language, so be sure to clarify your meaning intentionally.

Of course, no one really like to talk about a new how. So then I reiterate my message by forwarding articles like this from Innovate on Purpose to key colleagues. Thank you for your work here!

6:09 AM  

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