Friday, June 21, 2019

Language: the most challenging and trival innovation barrier

In my continuing series of lessons I've learned from 15 years of corporate innovation, I've tackled issues including the reasons ideas need sponsors, or why ideas are easy and good ideas are difficult.  In this episode I'm going to talk about my experiences as a translator and interpreter.  You see, one of the most important things I've learned is that no one has a standard language for innovation, and one of my most important tasks as a consultant (and least appreciated roles) is to create a language for innovation and act as an interpreter, often between people within the same company.

I'd like to discuss the problems with innovation definitions, labels and language and what you can do to avoid all this confusion.

Innovation Language

Unlike, say accounting, where assets are assets and liabilities are liabilities (I'm joking a little but there is a great amount of consistency in accounting) few innovation activities, deliverables or strategies are consistently defined.  For example, I regularly talk about and use the "three horizons" model for innovation, which defines incremental, breakthrough and disruptive innovation as three risk and technology driven horizons and potential innovation outcomes.  This is a fairly common innovation framework developed originally by McKinsey I believe.

In speaking with a prospect recently who has been in the innovation space for close to five years, I referenced the three horizons model.  Even though my prospect was using language like "incremental" innovation, he had never heard of the three horizons model.  What some of us take for granted as a proven and useful model, others who have been in the innovation space for some period of time have never heard of!

Common language simplifies communication and improves meaning, shortening work and improving understanding.  Where innovation is concerned, none of that statement above is true.  We lack standard definitions and labels, because we lack agreed standards.  Some of this is because innovation is a cottage industry.  Some of it is because different organizations want to own certain language or terms, while others don't want to use a competitor's language or framework.  Others try to over complicate innovation by introducing new, complex language and frameworks that make clients dependent on consultants.  The industry itself is guilty for some of the language issues.

Uncommon and infrequent

However, corporations also bear part of the blame.  Just like my Spanish usage comes and goes based on my trips to Cancun, many corporations have occasional visits to innovation land and need to learn the unusual jargon, then quickly forget it once they leave.  Since innovation is uncommon and infrequent, different teams in companies pick up different language or jargon based on who read what book or which team used which consulting partner.  Several times I've been in innovation meetings in corporations where different teams were arguing about the same thing, just giving it different titles or labels.

The tower of Babel had nothing on modern innovation speak.  Between competing frameworks and consultants with their own branded solutions and infrequent usage by internal teams, we spend far too much time on any innovation activity simply trying to arrive at a common language when we all happen to speak English.  But what we say, what we frame and what we define matters.

Disruptive or Transformational

One of my favorite definitional debates was in a corporation where the CEO wanted disruptive innovation and the team settled on performing transformational innovation.  To this day I'm not sure what the difference was, because disruptive means disrupting an existing market with a new offer, and it would seem transformational would "transform" a market or product, but the time spent getting the language right was, for the most part, time wasted because everyone eventually fell back on whatever labels and language they were comfortable with, which meant that we eventually adopted operational language, which narrowed the scope of work.

If you can't define something in a way that everyone understands exactly what you mean, you'll create confusion and others will rush in to create clarity based on their own understanding or biases.  That's what happens when the CEO requests innovation and gets small changes to existing products.

Nothing more important, nothing more trivial

However, not matter how important the right labels and language are to innovation work, trying to get teams to do this work and share their definitions is almost impossible.  First, you are trying to define something that people may believe is already defined.  Second, you were hired to create new products, not tinker with definitions.  Working on internal communications and language doesn't seem to create a new revenue producing product, so let's move on.

However, if you can't agree on "what" the outcome should be, you can't agree on "how" to do what you need to do and more importantly "why" you should do it.  Getting the language right, creating shared definitions and vocabulary doesn't seem important, but it is.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:59 AM


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