Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The language of innovation: whose responsibility is it?

"When Innovation Meets the Language of the Corner Office", posted by Berkeley academic Dave Rochlin on the MIT Sloan Management Review [available here], asks a question on which many of us have pondered: "What are the best ways to tailor the language of innovation to the executive suite? In this piece Rochlin describes the fruits of a highly revealing innovation communication workshop and makes a number of fascinating points. Among other things, he says:
"We have learned that innovation executives often feel poorly understood by their fellow executives. In turn, functional executives are often baffled by what they see and hear from their innovation teams.

This isn’t a big surprise. As with other business disciplines, innovation experts have their own language. Innovation processes now include journey mapping, need-finding, technology-scouting, business model canvasing, prototyping, design sprints, and more. While these processes and terms are becoming more widely used across organizations, they are not always fully embraced at the executive level [But those terms are generally used for convenience or precision when talking to each other, not when pitching to the C-suite. In the same way, surgeons may refer to terms such as "knee" or "tummy" when speaking to patients but draw on terms of art when mapping out the parameters of an operation together].

At the same time, executives have their own unique language and tools, often derived from the strategy consulting firms embedded on the ‘executive floor’ of organizations.
... 
It’s the innovators’ job to translate the conversation. Communicating across languages almost always requires significant work. While meeting in the middle or encouraging CEOs to cross-train in the language of innovation is a noble thought, asking executives to switch mindsets is not likely to fit the cadence of their workday [Not sure. We are talking about CEOs, not dummies. Most CEOs today were born in an era when concepts and terms such as 'browse', 'download', 'app', 'open innovation', 'cookies', 'cloud', 'tweet', 'spam' and 'surf' had yet to enter their lives, but managed to adapt to them pretty well in their ordinary lives. Why should their places of work be different?]. This means that it is innovationists who need to become more bilingual and strategy fluent — able to present in the style that management consulting firms use when making formal recommendations, updates, or requests. 
No matter how the work is generated, the final read out should include concrete problem statements and recommendations up front, backed up by supporting arguments and data. Innovation bilingualism also means being sensitive to the large amount of other activity on a typical executive’s plate [absolutely right, and all too often forgotten]: Between meetings, a CEO may not have had a chance to give an innovator’s project any thought [One might argue that it is for the CEO, as the person  has to act on the information and analysis provided by innovationists, to take the initiative by asking questions and seeking clarification if the terminology of the responses is unhelpful. This is what he or she would do in a private capacity when engaging the services of a doctor, dentist, accountant or lawyer. Why should it be any different here?].
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Is there room for storytelling in making a compelling case for a new direction? Absolutely. The language of customer need is one that everyone speaks. But the structure and language of the story should match the audience. When speaking to executives, innovation leaders should make sure they are not only heard, but understood [True, but more can be expected of CEOs since they are more than merely an "audience". They are not parachuted into their positions of leadership and responsibility from planet Mars.  Nor are they picked at random from the street.  They may be expected to have obtained a substantial degree of knowledge, understanding and discernment regarding the companies they run, the markets in which those companies operate and the nature of the products, services and technologies that concern their companies].
..."
In short, while Rochlin makes a number of important points, he may be expecting too little of the CEO -- who should be expected to show the same degree of intelligence, initiative and flexibility in the discharge of business responsibilities as he or she can be more or less guaranteed to display when at home, on holiday or out shopping.

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