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


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