Monday, July 30, 2012

Getting Beyond the Jargon

Planning for entrepreneurial opportunities and innovation frequently requires the active participation of experts from diverse disciplines. Opportunities and innovations themselves often surface from the combination of the tacit and technical knowledge deeply embedded in each discipline. Consequently, how those insights are communicated can make or break the effectiveness of a planning effort.

As Voltaire said, “chance favors the prepared mind.” In other words, opportunities and innovations come earlier to those who, because of their preparations, put themselves in a position to see and understand the opportunity well before those who are less prepared.

Innovations are often conceived in the intermingling of technical insights and customer needs.  Ironically, however, many entrepreneurial opportunities are prematurely abandoned due to an inability to communicate them without the technical jargon in which they were originally conceived.  A Forbes magazine article (September 10, 2001, page 24), estimates that 30% of technology projects begun by companies in the U.S. are cancelled before completion, for just this very reason, costing the American economy more than $75 billion per year!

Every discipline develops its own jargon or “techno-speak.” Marketing has its own idioms, as do market research, finance, research, design, engineering, etc. Jargon can be a useful shorthand for communication among those in the discipline. Jargon allows people to discuss technical matters in a more efficient manner because of the tacit (and sometimes explicit) agreements made as to the connotation of the words and phrases they use. However, this tacit understanding is frequently not shared outside the boundaries of that discipline, function or department. As a result, jargon can create challenges, obstacles and erosion in the trust so basic and necessary for productive planning cycles and discussions.

Even commonly used words can become easily “jargonized” and endowed with a connotation that can trip the unsuspecting.  Last week I was in on a conference call discussing an upcoming meeting with a remote division of the company whose expertise, perspective and collaboration are essential to my client’s entrepreneurial planning efforts. Interestingly, the word “innovation” was used in the teleconference. It became clear from the voice at the other end that the intended meaning of the word was producing an opposite effect in the mind of the listener.

After the conference call we debriefed the conversation and re-awakened ourselves to how different the cultures were between this division (a recent acquisition) and that of the acquirer. This enabled us to redesign the approach to the meeting which, as a result, went far better than had we not gone through this “de-jargonizing” step.

In a former vocation, I learned an arcane distinction theologians make between two different modes of communication. One they refer to as dogmatikidiom-laden language used by clerics when speaking with other “theocrats.” Dogmatik is best reserved for occasions when clerics get together and talk shop. The other mode—apologia—refers to a vernacular manner of communication employed when the theological experts speak to those who do not share their training, perspective or vocabulary.

Unnecessary trouble can arise when either of the two modes is used in context better served by the other. A person may be perceived as a raving fundamentalist (when using dogmatik to communicate with the uninitiated), or one may be viewed as naïve, paternalistic or even trivial (when using apologia when speaking to the experts). In either case, trust and authentic communication break down among the participants.

Plans are only as good as the organization’s ability to carry them out. Effective execution requires trusting (i.e., functioning) relationships between all participants, and trust lives or dies on the “currency” of communication (i.e., the “communion” in the communication). Therefore, for the sake of the strategy and its execution, it helps to find a language and vocabularyan apologia of sortsthat works across disciplines. Innovations that work require it.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in November 2001. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Innovation in Full Sentences

How people use the term “innovation” can vary a great deal. Too often, the connotation of the innovation gets distorted by “partial sentences.”

After reading a view of Whirlpool Corporation’s journey with innovation since 1999 in the book Strategic Innovation, we are reminded how the term innovation itself can take on subtle, but importantly different connotations, depending upon whether innovation is thought of as a “noun,” “verb” or “adjective.”

For example, in the case of Whirlpool Corporation, at least as described in Strategic Innovation: Embedding Innovation as a Core Competency in Your Organization by Nancy Tennant Snyder and Deborah L. Duarte, the word innovation is being used to describe an organizational quality, character or “competence”—an organizational “adjective.” This orientation to innovation is about innovativeness—a characteristic and orientation of the organization and enterprise—which Whirlpool has attempted to “embed” in its culture.

In contrast, others (Clayton Christensen, James Utterback, et al) approach innovation primarily as an economic “noun,” leading to an interest in and emphasis on embodiments, particularly those value propositions that have significantly higher profit margins and/or change the basis of competition. This orientation to innovation emphasizes innovations—new value propositions that bring new value to customers and/or users.

Still others use innovation primarily as an entrepreneurial “verb,” leading to an interest in and emphasis on actions that encourage successful development of new, embryonic value propositions, into robust, profitable businesses. This orientation is about innovating—doing the right thing at the right time to accelerate the development cycle and shorten the time-to-market (or break-even, positive cash flow, profitability, market share) and even discover a new, emerging need before it is generally recognized.

This leads many to think about who the actors are in the “sentence” of innovation. This is the people side of innovation—entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, champions, mavericks, mentors of mavericks, midwives, sponsors, gatekeepers, etc.—the “subjects” who are involved in making the innovation come to life.

As innovation practitioners, when we reflect upon our experiences, some emphasize the subject of the sentence—i.e., who is innovating—while others emphasize the predicate of the sentence—i.e., how is the process being conducted and what is being conducted “on” (the object, or the ‘innovation’).

Neither one of these perspectives is necessarily better than the other. However, it may make sense to be aware of the differences and to speak (and think) in complete sentences when it comes to innovation in general. It may help in nurturing innovations that work•.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in January 2004. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why Innovate?

Over the past several decades I have heard a variety of reasons to justify innovation efforts and the investments required. Implicit in Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Solution, are several of the more prominent ones. “Sustaining” (versus “disruptive”) innovations are driven as much by the needs of their innovators to competitively differentiate their products or services. For example, this is one of the primary reasons Tier 1 or Tier 2 suppliers in the automotive industry use to explain their need to invent and create patentable positions.

“Disruptive” innovations, on the other hand, are driven by the emergent needs of customers to “do ‘jobs’ those customers need doing.” These innovations may be disruptive to incumbent competitors; but to customers, these innovations are actually more welcome than disruptive.

Increasing shareholder value is a third rationale used to justify innovation efforts—though this rationale is often a more difficult case to make—of which Christensen does an admirable job in his very first chapter.

Between these three reasons for a company to innovate—competition-driven innovation, shareholder value-driven innovation, and customer-driven innovation—there is something qualitatively distinct about the last one. As important as it is to differentiate your products and services from the competition, and as important as it is to increase shareholders’ value, isn’t it actually a bit more important—or more fundamental—to create customers?

That perennial piece of management wisdom: “pay attention to motivations and related patterns of behavior,” may be pertinent here. Not all motivations are created equally. Customer-driven innovation may be the first among equals, relative to the other possible motivations for innovation. A.P. Giannini, the founder of the Bank of Italy in San Francisco (later called Bank of America), reflects this fundamental understanding in his words engraved on the marble wall of the lobby in the Bank of America Building: “To service the needs of others; the only legitimate reason for a business.”

My hypothesis here is that the success of any innovation effort, particularly to the enterprise hosting the effort, depends to some degree on the nature of the motivation to innovate in the first place.  When that motivation is driven by competition or even by shareholders’ interests (e.g., growth, profitability, etc.)—as legitimate as those reasons may be—the patience required of the innovator for the necessary gestation efforts may not be long or strong enough to endure the “wait.” Whereas, when the motivation is to create a customer, the “wait” may be more easily understandable and worth it. “Good money” before it goes “bad,” as Christensen states.

In his classic style, Peter Drucker alluded to this point when he wrote in his tome Management (1973). “Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two—and only these two—basic functions: marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results: all the rest are “costs.”

The best “sponsor” of our innovation efforts may be the clarity of the need of a customer (new or existing) the innovation is designed to meet, reduce or eliminate.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in March 2004. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 387-1270.