When Innovation Meets the Language of the Corner Office

What are the best ways to tailor the language of innovation to the executive suite?

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At The University of California Berkeley, our Haas@Work program regularly works with corporate partners on innovation challenges, design literacy, and the tools and processes that support vibrant innovation functions inside large companies.

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.

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.

Effective innovation emphasizes divergent thinking to generate a variety of options in a relatively open-ended and unstructured way before determining the ultimate opportunity to pursue. Innovation executives will refer to this methodology as “bottom up,” “exploratory,” or “customer-centered.” (See “The Innovationist” graphic.) The innovation journey is sometimes represented visually in an even less structured way, as part of a “fuzzy front end” of learning, experimentation, and exploration. (See “The Innovation Journey” graphic.)

In contrast, strategy firms frequently use a highly structured approach to identify mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive — “MECE” — options, often based on a senior leader’s hypothesis. This is called “top down,” “hypotheses driven,” or “answer first.” (See “The Strategist” graphic.)

We recently held a workshop to explore the power — and constraints — of language and processes. Attending were San Francisco Bay area innovation executives, the consulting company McKinsey & Co., and McKinsey’s design partner LUNAR. The goal was to look at how the languages and process of innovation and strategy consulting differ, and what the implications were for innovation leaders in communicating their work and making “asks” at the executive level.

We split the group in half and gave each team a case on digital transformation in the music industry, focused on the implications of the rise of streaming and subscription models.

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Comment (1)
Rosemary Hossenlopp
This article should be required reading for all Project and Product Managers.  I live in California and speak several languages: 
- Valley Girl talk
- Silicon Valley speak 
- Lean Startup Lingo

Just because I am talking, it doesn’t mean that I am communicating.