When Innovation Meets the Language of the Corner Office

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

Reading Time: 5 min 


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. The case was the same, but one group (the innovation team) was guided to approach the problem from an exploratory method (e.g., insights → problem frame → idea generation → proposed concept), while the other group examined it through a strategy lens (hypothesis development → issue tree → recommendation). We then had the groups present to each other and discuss the two different approaches.

As we expected, the strategy team’s presentation focused on the key strategic issue of raising average revenue per user in digital models, and outlining how current models could be altered to achieve it.

The innovation team’s presentation differed significantly. It focused first on examining consumer habits and preferences, and then on using the insights to propose new offerings that consumers would likely respond to.

Other observations from the experiment:

Strategists thought: “We were the boring team.” Several of the innovation executives assigned to the strategy team felt constrained: Presenting in a structured, top-down approach left little room for conveying the excitement of the opportunity. For innovationists, the work of finding and conveying the “right problem” is a journey that is often the key to developing the ultimate solution. Presenting like a strategist, they said, felt like only reading the CliffsNotes version of a novel.

Innovationists commented: “Oh crap, why didn’t we talk about that?” On the flip side, the innovation team initially felt much more comfortable presenting, but after observing the strategy team, they immediately recognized the value of a top-down, structured argument in swaying executive decision making. The strategy presentations pinpointed a governing idea much more quickly and succinctly, which was more likely to convince executives to take action.

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. 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: Between meetings, a CEO may not have had a chance to give an innovator’s project any thought.

Presenting insights-to-date can be a useful tool. A thorny issue for innovationists is the “work-in-process problem.” As one of our design hosts described it: “In the middle of a typical project, we’re still playing with insights and ideas, but the strategy guys already want content for their slides identifying the answer.” While the top-down strategy method always has a central, guiding hypothesis, the exploratory method starts with a wide variety of possible problem statements and even more solutions — most of which are discarded along the way. Providing an update on activities at a mid-point can therefore be particularly distressing for both sides. One solution that surfaced during our workshop: Distill innovation work-in-progress into discrete, clearly valuable insights that more closely resemble updates shared by strategy firms. For example, identifying key consumer insights to date would be of greater impact to executives than describing the entire journey.

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.


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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.