Thursday, November 30, 2017

What your language says about your innovation

I've long championed the idea that to change the way people think, you've got to change the way they communicate.  If you want big ideas, you need to encourage them, yes, but also talk about them in ways that open up dialog, thinking and idea generation to a much larger dimension.  While language, word choice and conversation may not seem to have all that much impact on idea generation and innovation, in reality these are the building blocks of a corporate culture.  As a colleague of mine is fond of saying:  we need to switch from "I'll believe it when I see it" to "I'll see it when I believe it".

Your word choice

Think, for just a moment, about the conversations and communications you have every day with your peers, your direct reports and your boss.  When you talk business, what words or phrases immediately come to mind?  Words like cutting, efficiency, process, costs, management, effectiveness are bound to appear frequently in oral and written communications.  In fairness, I'm sure the words innovation and growth will show up occasionally as well.  But for the most part these are constrained words and phrases, focused on doing well what you do today, not focused on expanding thinking and relieving constraints.  Therefore, since much of how we think is governed by how we communicate, we have people and teams that have constrained language, which equates to constrained thinking.

Explore, Experiment, Discover

Now, imagine conversations that include words like explore, experiment, discover and other such words and phrases.  These words indicate an expansive way of thinking, they signal activities that require going beyond the existing scope or constraints.  We often talk about balancing "convergent" words and activities (those that move quickly to a solution and typically revolve around doing the day to day work well) with "divergent" words and activities (those that expand scope, remove constraints, encourage new thinking, exploration and so on).  If your words and communications don't signal the importance of these activities, then your culture won't reinforce them, and your thinking will be constrained.

In all forms, in all channels

This reliance on language, words and communication to shape and form our cultures goes beyond an occasional email from the CEO, exhorting the teams to more innovation.  It goes beyond a quarterly review that emphasizes efficiency and meeting quarterly objectives.  Changing language and culture requires the introduction and reinforcement of words and phrases, which begin to change thinking and behaviors, in all communication forms (written, oral, visual) and in all channels (presentations, emails, evaluations).  The two fastest ways to change a culture and have it embrace more innovation are to 1) change the compensation and reward schemes and 2) change what the culture talks about and how frequently key words and phrases are used.

Right now we talk about innovation but the sustained communications are overwhelming the need for cultural change and embracing innovation as a sustained capability.  Until and unless you introduce the types of thinking you want by changing the words you use, you'll get the same thinking you've always had.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:28 AM 0 comments

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Starting the innovation fire

I've been thinking, long and hard, about the correct analogy to describe a lot of corporate innovation efforts.  I'm sorry to say that the best analogy I can come up with is a campfire.  I hope you'll stick with me on this, because I think it can be illuminating (couldn't resist the pun).

Most of us who participated in scouts or went to a summer camp where they had a bonfire are familiar with the idea of a campfire. It's a must have for any outdoor event, and rarely complete without graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows.  It's a good place to tell ghost stories or have a sing along.  A fire, once started and with the right fuel, can burn well and hot for hours, and in some cases if not carefully tended can become dangerous.  But I digress...

How corporate innovation is like a campfire

If you think about the basic ingredients required for a campfire, they are relatively basic.  We need some type of fuel, typically small twigs which catch up quickly and larger branches and logs that don't burn as quickly but provide coals and sustain the fire over time.  We also need an ignition source, most typically a match or a lighter.  Some folks also cheat a bit and use an accelerant - gasoline or lighter fluid or "fatwood" which burns more easily and dependably.  Of course good fire etiquette (at least from my scouting days) would suggest that we clear a small patch of land so the fire is easily contained and doesn't spread to the woods.

Now, let's map what's going on in corporate settings to the ingredients for a campfire, to understand what's underway, what's working and what's missing in corporate innovation.

First, there's the desire to have a fire.  Every company wants innovation, so desire isn't always the challenge.

Second is understanding the ingredients.  For a fire this is simple:  ignition, accelerant, fuel.  In a corporate setting, these three factors are also important: ignition (what are the driving needs or burning platforms that require innovation), accelerant (what are the skills and insights that accelerate innovation) and fuel (what are the cultural and human capital capabilities to keep the projects running).  It makes sense to look at each of these in greater detail.


For a fire, ignition is easy.  You need matches, or a lighter, or some other mechanism to create a spark.  Often all you need is a momentary flame to get a good fire going.  The same is true for innovation.  A single executive's need can spark an innovation opportunity.  A significant product line gap or the introduction of a new product by a competitor can spark an innovation need.  Ignition simply isn't the problem, although many corporate innovation activities are ignited by the wrong issues and for the wrong reasons.  The old saying - play with matches and you'll get burned holds true for innovation as well.


As a scout, we always carried a few slivers of "fatwood", typically wood found in the trunks of old pine trees.  Fatwood is a great accelerant because it is loaded with turpentine, catches fire easily and burns hot.  Others might cheat with lighter fluid or gasoline, but just a few bits of fatwood really help accelerate a fire.  In a corporate setting, aspects like innovation tools and knowledge of those tools, past innovation experience, third party consulting help and other factors can accelerate an innovation activity.  At this point in the innovation life cycle, many companies have conducted some training on innovation for their teams, or have access to innovation consultants, so some acceleration can be achieved, but it always works against existing culture, which typically dampens the accelerant.


A good fire starts with small twigs and moves on to consume larger branches and logs.  These burn for a much longer time, making it easier to enjoy the fire and build a good set of coals.  The best wood is dry, not green but dead for some time, preferably hardwoods as pine or soft woods don't burn well.  The worst types of fuel are logs that are wet, or wood that is "green" - that is, just off the tree with sap still in it.  From a corporate innovation perspective, the best fuel is committed teams, working on important and relevant projects, working within a supportive culture.  As these factors mature, success builds on success, much like a good fire builds coals to sustain a fire over time.

Where does the problem lie?

The problems with corporate innovation don't like with ignition, although we could discuss for hours whether the "right" sparks are being used about the right problems.  But that's a discussion about problem or opportunity definition.

The real problems are with accelerants and fuel.  As we've described, there aren't enough accelerants in most corporations (trained people who are familiar with innovation tools and methods and a supportive culture).  In fact most corporate innovation activities look a lot like trying to start a fire in the rain:  it's easy to spark a flame with a lighter or a match, but difficult to get a real fire burning that can be sustained.  Too often the wood is too green or too wet to burn, so the fire simply smokes a bit and dies out.  The same is true for many corporate innovation activities:  easy to start, difficult to really ignite a large fire and far too quickly doused and rarely sustained.

How can we fix this problem?

Good firebuilders lay aside accelerants and prep or age the wood they hope to use in a fire, curing it and drying it to be ready when it is needed.  Likewise, corporations must improve the accelerants (training, process definition and skill building) and build the fuel (culture change and the ability to sustain innovation activities over time through strategic alignment, measures, metrics and building on success) in order to sustain a fire once it is started.  This means making an investment in innovation skills, people and tools before they are needed and keeping the skills up to date.

Today, an awful lot of corporate innovation looks a lot like starting a campfire on a cold, wet day with a good match and poor fuel: easy to start, difficult to build a real fire, and a quick, smoky end that no one wants to be around.  The way to change this is not to focus on the spark or ignition quite so much, but to focus on the accelerants and especially the fuel, which will sustain the fire long after it is burning well.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:38 AM 0 comments

Monday, November 13, 2017

Shared innovation language accelerates innovation

I was leading an innovation workshop recently with a company that invited in some of its customers to talk about the future.  We were interested in getting feedback from key B2B customers about the future of the industry, where things were heading and what strategies and programs my customer should begin to put in place.  I was hired to lead a trend spotting and scenario planning workshop, but I had successfully convinced my client that we needed to establish a common framework and language about innovation first.

The participants were senior executives drawn from several industries the company serves.  Each were leaders in their respective industries and several of them promote innovation as a core operating capability.  Nevertheless I felt it was important to establish a common definition and scope of innovation before moving ahead.  What surprised me was the response from the participants when I started defining innovation, and seeking their definitions so we could arrive at a common framework.

I'll know it when I see it

Like the Supreme Court justice called on to define pornography (I know it when I see it) the participants had very different, and frequently very narrow definitions of "innovation".  While they were casually tossing words around like "disruptive", they couldn't really describe what it meant.  Further, the narrow definitions extended to outcomes.  For the most part many of them were focused, when they were spending time on innovation, almost exclusively on product innovation.

Needless to say, I spent time talking about the difference between "incremental" innovation and disruptive innovation, their purposes and meaning, and the "three horizons" model of innovation, as well as a 70:20:10 portfolio plan.  Thinking about concurrent innovation across several goals and horizons was really new and interesting for these participants.

Ten Types

But we went further.  It's really a waste, I told them, to only focus on product innovation, when so many potential types are available.  I then introduced Doblin's Ten Types, which is basically received gospel to innovators but may as well be Sanskrit for most business types.  They've never seen it, never thought deeply about it, but when its deciphered they understand it immediately.  What was funny about this was several of the participants were talking about the importance of customer experience but never seemed to realize that CX could be an intent or outcome of an innovation exercise.

Freeing their thinking

By working collectively to create a shared (if just for the moment) definition of innovation, which seems like a constricting activity, we actually freed up some thinking because we were broadening the definitions of innovation, in several dimensions.  First, across a spectrum of incremental to disruptive.  Second, from discrete to continuous and often concurrent projects.  And third, from an overemphasis on product innovation to the realization that innovation can happen over a range of outcomes (products, services, channels, business models, experiences, etc).

Once you fully grapple with the opportunities and range of innovation activities and outcomes, the range of innovation possibility can seem a bit limitless.  Then will come the natural convergence to start choosing where or what you want to innovate, and a natural divergence as you start to explore the possibilities again.

Language and common definitions are critical to any interaction.  When each party has their own definitions of innovation and rather narrow definitions at that, little can be accomplished and many opportunities are left by the wayside.  Stopping to create a shared definition, expanding the range of opportunities and options, means we can explore more together.  Why we still need to do this - go back to the basics of key factors like definitions and language, exploring the range and potential outcomes of innovation - indicates that we are closer to the end of the beginning of innovation as a corporate capability, rather than at the beginning of the end.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:37 AM 0 comments