Monday, August 08, 2016

Do you speak my language?

I stumbled upon a nice article that deals with a very important issue for any corporate innovator:  how to communicate what you are doing, why you are doing it and why it matters to executives.  The article was published in the MIT Sloan Management Review and is entitled When innovation meets the language of the corner office.   The article notes that innovators often use different terminology when describing their work or tools (eg customer experience journey) and have different deliverables, project expectations and time frames than other, more traditional projects.  Because of these differences innovators may never succeed in communicating to their executive team or corporate executives or may simply sound like they are using new, unfamiliar languages when they seek financial investments or approval on new ideas.  Is communication a big deal?

I think so.  Paul Hobcraft and I built the Executive Workmat, which outlines 7 key factors for sustained innovation success.  While factors like Strategy and Culture were important, the factor that we found knit all the other factors together was communication.  Communication is a top-down and bottom-up issue, as well as a function to function horizontal issue as well.  Innovators, executives and others fail to communicate effectively in all of these dimensions.  The author of the article I referenced above is really only considering one aspect of communcation:  bottom-up, innovator to executive.  This communication is about planning, progress and accomplishment. Innovators must report regularly to executives, to identify projects, outline progress and report results.  Many times these communications are difficult, because innovators use new and unusual tools, have unusual deliverables.  Executives expect to hear about definitive outcomes and potential ROIs, so the two seem to talk past each other.  This communication failure is important.

Just as important, and not covered in the article, is top down communication, executive to team, which is about scope, priority, expectations and permission, communication that creates an opportunity for innovation and restraints or refocuses the culture.  This communication doesn't happen once, but should happen constantly if executives hope to build a culture and sustain innovation.  This means they need to be talking to innovation teams, of course, but also to the corporation at large.

The third type of communication that is important is what I'll call horizontal communication, team to team, function to function, which is often about setting expectations, getting help or assistance, understanding existing customer needs, helping to prototype ideas and attracting people to assist on an innovation activity.

Think about the plight of the corporate innovator.  It's a tough job, trying to create new things in an organization and process model that's honed to sustain existing things.  Expectations, language, rewards structures, strategies, personnel, everything is aligned for sustaining not inventing.  It may seem strange to focus on communication, but good communication is perhaps the most powerful motive engine.  What executives communicate, and follow up, changes what managers emphasize.  What innovators communicate (effectively) changes what executives invest in, regardless of other priorities.  Communication, top down and bottom up matters, because communication impacts culture, and culture influences both formal and informal decision making, resource allocation and a host of other activities.

When any team is doing something new and risky, they first perfect their language.  No one wants to be guessing about the meaning of a word or phrase in the heat of an important activity.  Clear, concise communication, readily provided and easily understood is critical.  Thus, if innovation introduces new language, innovators need to put their requests or communications into language that their executives understand.  Likewise, if communication influences culture, then executives must make clear where they stand on innovation and the risks and commitments they expect.  Good communication matters when setting the stage, establishing the need and communicating the results.

The problem with this is that no one "owns" language and everyone has their own interpretations about what words and phrases to use, and even their own definitions and expectations about what words or phrases mean.  If you doubt this, consider the last corporate meeting you attended.  Afterwards attendees picked apart the discussion and interpreted the meaning and nuance.  If this happens in the course of your regular, day to day operations, imagine how difficult good communication must be for innovation.  This diversity of opinion suggests that unless a company is INTENTIONAL about its language, unless it specifically sets out a way of communicating, defining channels, messaging and intent, language won't change, and communication will be less than adequate.

Good communication must be sponsored by the executive team, which is another bone to pick with the attached article.  Of course innovators must put their tools and methods into context, but there are many potential innovators and each faces a unique set of challenges.  One of the last things they are likely to think about is communication.  On the other hand there are few executives and they should be encouraging innovation.  Executives shoulder the larger communication burden when it comes to innovation, defining their expectations and outcomes, providing permission for people to try and fail.  If you want to know why executive commitment and involvement in innovation is so important, look no further than these three aspects of the Workmat:  Strategy, Culture and Communication.  If executives aren't engaged in these, they will not change.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:46 AM


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