Many years ago, when I managed the communications function for a leading digital innovation agency in London, we were engaged on a project for Sony. At the time, they were bringing out some exciting consumer technology, and the design for the website element featured glamorous photography of people using their hardware: so for a while the office was awash with devices and photographers and beautiful people.
My desk was in the thick of the development team on the fourth floor, surrounded by developers and testers and Flash programmers (and between you and me, a huge amount of fun). One day, one of the developers returned from a lengthy trip to reception (the lift was small and unreliable, and the stairs were steep) with a face like thunder. When I asked what was wrong, he told me angrily: ‘I was told the new Sony models were in reception, so I went all the way down there to have a look at them!’
‘And?’ I prompted.
‘And it was just a bunch of pretty people!’
The utter contempt he packed into the word ‘pretty’ is hard to convey in print, but take it from me that he was not happy.
When I’d finished laughing at the poor developer, disappointed that ‘models’ meant beautiful people instead of beautiful technology, I realised this was a great lesson in communications: the importance of a shared language. And nowhere is this lesson more important than in communicating about innovation.
Building innovation culture with shared language
Many articles have been devoted to the importance of building a culture of innovation in your business, and there are a number of elements that can contribute. Unsurprisingly, I think effective communication is one of the most important – and I’m not the only one. As Alex Goryachev, Cisco’s MD of Innovation Strategy, says: “in two decades of experience creating my own solutions and leading co-innovation programs, I’ve found that the most critical factor is communication.” Communicating effectively requires shared, consistent terms and meanings, and defining the language your organisation uses can kick start the process of building your innovation culture. As an example, the innovation arm of Alphabet, Google X, calls its projects ‘moonshots’, which not only gives an immediate insight into the kind of project they’re looking for, but also binds its people together with a shared terminology.
A word of caution, however: for a shared language to bring people together, it must be shared by everyone in the organisation equally, so it’s important to avoid using jargon that might exclude or alienate people. (I like the examples given in this Medium post The Secret Language of Innovation.)
What is innovation, anyway?
A good place to start with building a shared language is to establish what you mean by innovation. From interviewing many different people working in innovation, I’ve found that there are as many definitions of innovation as there are ways of creating and managing it. For some people it’s about commercial value, for others it’s about novelty, while a number of definitions involve some sort of social impact. And that’s ok: but within a single organisation, you need a consistent understanding of what innovation means to you. This will be defined in large part by the strategic goals you want your innovation efforts to help you achieve.
For example, are tweaks to existing processes innovation, or are they continuous improvement (and therefore handled differently)? Does innovation have to involve technology, or a new product, or can it be a new business model or service? Is it always digital? You might think that this is pointless noodling about semantics, but a shared understanding of what your innovation team, department or skunkworks is here to do is important. And it becomes vital is when you ask your people to contribute their own innovation ideas. Unless you have defined what you mean by innovation, how will your people know what you’re looking for?
Innovation stories, metaphor and the future
When you look at the language your organisation currently uses, you’ll often find it’s the language of certainty – especially in large, bureaucratic organisations. Facts, figures, projections are all couched in terms that reflect logic and rationale, and even risk is assessed in finite terms.
Innovation, however, is often about uncertainty and ambiguity: about gut feelings, hunches, and taking a punt on the long-term, and these require a different approach to language. How can you convince a boardroom of executives to fund a radical innovation when the market for it does not yet exist, and you can’t provide any data? An old but useful study reported in Harvard Business Review (Understanding the Language of Innovation) asked innovation practitioners to discuss various technologies – emerging and existing – without access to any quantitative data, and found that they frequently used metaphors to describe the technology and its effect on the market. Metaphors and stories are highly effective in painting a compelling vision of the future you are aiming to build, so learning how to use them – and when – is a skill worth having. There are at least nine different points in a standard innovation process at which stories can play a part in winning support, influencing culture and stimulating creativity.
And finally…. keep it simple
It’s one thing defining an innovation language, but embedding it in your organisation is quite another. You
could follow Jobs-To-Be-Done pioneer Antony Ulwick’s example and publish your own innovation vocabulary, but beware of drifting too far from commonly accepted definitions for particular words. ‘Disruptive innovation’ is a classic example of a phrase that is now used in ways that deviate far from its original meaning as defined by Christensen. In my experience, you will have the greatest chance of success with your language of innovation if you keep it simple and jargon-free; are utterly consistent in how you use it (and use it everywhere); and weave exciting visions of the future into it at every opportunity. And – of course – never ask someone to go down and up four steep flights of stairs unless you’ve been very clear about what they’re going to find as a result.