When I’m out on the road speaking to audiences about innovation, it is reinforced again and again that innovation has become a buzzword, and much in the same way that people struggle to define love – there is no commonly accepted definition for innovation. Try asking someone:
“What is love?”
And then see if their definition matches your own. Chances are it will be completely different. Then ask them:
“What is innovation?”
Try this with a group of people and then the fun really begins.
In many cultures people talk about a language of love, mostly because the subject baffles most of us and we are always failing to truly communicate our love to the special people in our lives. And, if you think about it, often the most successful love language is non-verbal. I’m afraid this won’t work for innovation.
From the Language of Love to the Language of Innovation
So, let’s examine the importance of the language of innovation, or to be specific, the importance of creating and sharing a common language of innovation in your organization. This begins with actively defining in cross-functional groups (multi-level if possible) what you want innovation to mean in your organization. It may sound like a silly or pedestrian exercise, but my experience working with organizations looking to commit to innovation has shown repeatedly the necessity of getting everyone speaking the same language before an innovation effort begins. And you know what?
Most organizations skip this step.
You may think that everyone in your organization knows what innovation means, or that it should be obvious what you want your innovation efforts to achieve and that you can just skip this step. But, how many of you would build a product without at least a business, marketing, product or technical requirements document?
An Exercise in Perspective
I don’t want to give away the exercise I do in my speeches, so here is a new one for this article. Imagine that you work for an automobile manufacturer and I were to task you with the solving the following technical challenge, and think about what your approach would be:
“How would you make our automobiles use less gasoline?”
Now, some of you might focus on making the automobile lighter, others might focus on making the engine more efficient, still others would focus on making it more aerodynamic, and a few of you would think about ways to make an automobile that ran on something other than gasoline altogether.
Ask the innovation question in the wrong way and you will get different innovation results than you expect.
While it may be good sometimes to have people going off in lots of different directions, that needs to be a conscious choice, otherwise the innovation energy of your organization will dissipate and little will be achieved. You must focus the innovation energy of your organization and that is done by defining what innovation means to your organization and what the common language around innovation will be.
As I described in Innovation is No Accident, a formalized approach to innovation begins with defining what innovation means for your organization and by creating a common language for the organization . So, how will you define innovation in your organization?
As a thought-starter, here is my definition of innovation:
“Innovation transforms the useful seeds of invention into solutions valued above every existing alternative – that are then widely adopted.”
For me, value is the key. To truly be successful at innovation, you must increase the value enough to overcome the pain of switching from their existing solution (even if that is the ‘no solution’ solution).
But, you must decide with those in your organization what innovation means to you, what your common language of innovation is, and make a plan to communicate these things out to the entire organization. Creating a language of innovation is more than just defining what innovation means to your organization. It also requires you to agree how you are going to talk about innovation in your organization and often it is wise to combine these with communications of your innovation vision, strategy and goals – but that’s a topic for another day.
For now, I leave you to explore the important work of creating your own shared innovation language.
Parlez vous innovation?
Braden Kelley is the author of Stoking Your Innovation Bonfire from John Wiley & Sons. Braden is also the editor of Blogging Innovation and founder of Business Strategy Innovation, a consultancy focusing on innovation and marketing strategy, and @innovate on Twitter.