Developing a Shared Vocabulary for Innovation


Innovation has become the most pervasive meme in business today. Mission statements, strategic objectives, and press releases are dominated by the word, “innovation.” Why is it, then, that many organizations are unable to clearly articulate a coherent, consistent innovation strategy that soundly aligns with their business objectives?

The difficulty arises because innovation is such a broadly encompassing concept. Rarely is the time spent to clearly define what innovation actually means for the organization and then properly socialize it across the organization. Ask a room of 10 execs to define innovation and you’ll get 10 different definitions. Therein is the root—and frequent frustration—of why large organizations always seem to be at odds over what their innovation strategy should be.

There is no single, correct model or definition of innovation. It is highly context-sensitive and highly influenced by the needs and objectives it serves. All the more reason that developing a shared vocabulary is a critical first step in articulating a sound innovation strategy.

Here we will discuss four vectors to begin building that shared vocabulary for innovation: scope, mandate, curation, and resourcing. As we begin this exploration, one thing to keep in mind is that we will be discussing a spectrum for each vector. An innovation program will fall somewhere along that spectrum and may shift its emphasis over time. In fact, some organizations will have several innovation channels that have a different composition profile for each vector. This diversity helps enrich an overall innovation ecosystem. The important thing is to understand how each channel is different and how that manifests in its objectives and approach.

SCOPE: Incremental to Disruptive

This is often the primary focal point of innovation discussions. Will our organization pursue incremental or disruptive innovation? The challenge is the blurry line in between. Disruptive innovations are celebrated and get press coverage. They capture the public's imagination. It's what many executives look upon with envy. It's what they proclaim to their organizations they want to see. The problem is, few are willing to do what is necessary to pursue disruptive innovation.

Disruptions are big bets made by those willing to take the risk and understand that most bets will be losers until that one winner pays them all back, and with interest. Problem is, most organizations are extremely risk averse. After the hype dies down and the business of getting down to business takes over, most organizations fall more towards the incremental end of the spectrum. That is not a bad thing, but it is important to be honest about what appetite for risk your organization has. Embrace the incremental if that is more true to your core.

It's easy to point out disruptive tech...autonomous drones, neuroreality, 3D organic tissue printers, and the like. It's the smaller innovations that quietly go unnoticed. The magic happens when those incremental and adjacent concepts turn into disruptions. Consider how packaging pre-measured coffee into tiny capsules has led Nespresso to more than 27 billion--yes, that's a "b"--capsules sold since their introduction. Examine how Gilt made 12 p.m. EST a can't-miss appointment for its legions of customers. What has been the greatest business innovation in the past 60 years? It's not computers. The humble shipping container, developed by Malcolm McLean. *fight me*

As your organization considers the scope of innovation it will pursue, be clear on the investment that it will require and if you are willing to pay it.

MANDATE: Chief to Tribe

Name the most innovative companies in the past 10 years. Most consumers will name the usual suspects: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and myriad, brilliant startups. What all of these companies have in common is that they are all (or were) led by founders who set the innovation agenda. When the CEO of a company says, "Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!" there is little doubt about the direction that company is going. There is no room for equivocation on the kinds of innovation they will pursue. It is the Chiefs who lead their people and weather the storm when their bets don't quite pay out.

But what about Corning, IBM, Samsung, Procter & Gamble, and DARPA? They don't currently have a single, charismatic founder setting their innovation agenda. And yet few can doubt their contributions to innovation. What these companies have done is that they have developed cultures and processes for sustained innovation. They have built a Tribe of innovation.

Your organization falls somewhere in this spectrum between Chiefs and Tribes. How your innovation agenda proceeds has to take into account where you are as a company. In the beginning, Chiefs are necessary to get things started. They build the confidence of the organization and take the heat in the unpredictable world of innovation. But as an organization matures, it has to find a way to bring that innovation into the Tribes or it dies with the Chief. Consider the words of Charles de Montesquieu, "In the infancy of societies, the chiefs of state shape its institutions; later the institutions shape the chiefs of state." So the question for your organization is whether it has need of a Chief to set the course or is it ready to tackle the far more difficult task of building the Tribe.

CURATION: Farmer to Ranger

If you plant corn, you will get corn. If you pay attention, dedicate yourself to your craft, and work hard at it, you can become the greatest corn farmer in the world. But all you will ever raise is corn. You will not, all of a sudden, find carrots or orchids growing your fields. Sometimes, corn is exactly what your organization needs. Consider Corning. Most modern glass is made primarily of silica. Yet Corning has taken those tiny grains of sand and made glass strong enough to defy belief, stunning interactive displays, and even speakers. Yes, all that from glass. Corning is phenomenal at what it does and is driving innovation.

A ranger, on the other hand, cultivates an ecosystem. The ranger understands that for the apex species to survive they are dependent on other species, vegetation, and insects. So it falls on the ranger to ensure the ecosystem is healthy and thriving. Somewhere in that forest, under a rotting log is growing a fungus that can treat cancer. The ranger didn't plan for it and couldn't have even predicted it. But the ranger ensures that the conditions are optimal for such discoveries to be made. Sure, the ranger might have a responsibility to favor the care of certain trees for lumber or protecting endangered species to ensure their survival. So too might your organization need to favor specific domains, all the while ensuring the ecosystem is rich and diverse enough to support unexpected innovation.

So the question of curation falls to whether your organization wants to specialize on a few very select crops or whether it wants to tend to a rainforest.

RESOURCING: Sponsored or Crowdsourced

Want innovation? You're going to have to pay for it. The question is, how? Some companies, like Google, have put in place programs that allocate dedicated time for their employees to work on innovation. Others create mechanisms that behave like crowdsourcing, where employees freely give of their time, fueled by their passion for a concept. These grassroots campaigns drive a concept to maturity until it gains enough support to get additional funding.

This is the vector most organizations have difficulty discussing openly and honestly. This is because few organizations have mechanisms in place to deliberately and thoughtfully manage the graduation path of concepts. In the beginning, many organizations depend on the passion of those rarified individuals who will drive their innovation, support or no. Thus, many innovation programs begin as grassroots efforts, with employees pursuing concepts in their own free time. This is not sustainable and eventually that work needs a path to dedicated funding and resourcing. Organizations that are willing to make that investment early and consistently have the strategic and decisive advantage over those that do not. You cannot starve an innovation program and then expect world-changing innovations from your people. Eventually, organizational stamina wears out.

The question for your organization is, to what degree will you resource innovation. How difficult will you make it for crowdsourced concepts to jump that gap? How much stamina do you think your organization has for exploring innovation in their own free time...time away from family and loved ones, nights, weekends, and holidays...before they question the ROI on their personal effort?

AN EXAMPLE: Open Source

Let's take these vectors and consider something like open source. On paper, open source shouldn't work. Wait, legions of Developers worldwide will work on code that they give freely, that anyone else can take and copy and profit from? No way that works. Yet the most popular operating systems, web servers, and databases are open source projects.

Open source falls somewhere closer to incremental than it does to disruption, though the collective application and extension of that work can certainly move into disruption. It is driven by a Tribe and crowdsourced (though at times Chiefs have been necessary to start it). Rangers help care for the ecosystem. Now, if your organization lusts after the benefits of open source then it can't very well behave in ways counter to what makes open source possible and expect the same results. I oversimplify here, of course, as there are many other considerations that help open source to thrive. But I hope you will see how having a shared vocabulary can begin more productive conversations and can highlight how your organization is positioning itself for its desired outcomes.

This is just the beginning of the dialogue and certainly a more comprehensive vocabulary will be necessary. You may need to develop your own dialects and idioms as befits your organization, market, or industry. Framing your discussion in these shared terms will at least help you set some clear definition around what is being discussed and how to understand each position in context.

Oh, and I used the word "innovation" 40 times in this article. Sorry about that.