Language That Unleashes Innovation: 4 Steps -

Language That Unleashes Innovation: 4 Steps

Last week, the Outthinker Strategy Network (OSN) hosted our first in-person roundtable of the year at Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island in New York City. The island, located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, once a site of abandoned prison buildings and mental institutions, has been transformed into a hub of innovation.

Opened in 2017, the Cornell Tech campus and its Tata Innovation Center are strikingly futuristic. Verizon completed construction on its executive education center on the campus last year. As we walked up to the conference center, the metamorphosis was clear—young professionals lounged on grassy hilltops and students buzzed in lively conversation beneath a glimmering skyline backdrop.

Floor-to-ceiling windows around campus revealed thinkers and executives deep in discussion inside modern conference spaces and open floor plans. At the campus’ Graduate Hotel, the OSN event attendees – 24 chief strategy officers and heads of strategy for leading companies – gathered to share the trends and challenges at the top of their agendas. In such an environment, naturally, topics related to innovation came up for everyone in attendance.

These were some of the questions and challenges we heard from chief strategy officers that day:

  • How do you balance innovation investment with maintaining a healthy bottom line?  
  • What initiatives have you successfully attempted to establish a culture of innovation and experimentation?  
  • How do you innovate in a conservative corporate culture where innovation projects will not move the needle against the core business until 2-3 years down the line? 

Hacking the short-term/long-term dilemma

The priority struggle between “core” and “explore” has been a question in strategy for decades, but with today’s climate of ongoing uncertainty and new emergent technologies that promise future disruption, a company’s focus on innovation is becoming even more essential.

Strategy leaders face the challenge of diverting executive leadership teams’ attention to look further into the mid-term (2- to 3-year) and long-term (5-year) horizons. And when it comes to building a culture of innovation throughout the organization, strategists are finding that your innovation messaging matters.

Small shifts in language can drive major accelerations in innovation

In any organization, the language people use shapes the possibilities that employees see and choose. A shared language used to create strategy can either encourage or stifle a culture of innovation. As a strategist, the way you present your message around innovation will have an impact on its adoption.

Ed Knapp, chief technology officer of American Tower, shared a story: “A few years back, we embarked on an innovation growth initiative. The core business is very strong and decentralized with most of our team members locally focused. We initially called these new investments ‘innovation,’ and it made people concerned that every idea was fair game. So, we changed the name to ‘platform extension’ and focused the attention to core business adjacencies. It definitely made people more comfortable that investments would succeed. Wording matters.”

Robert C. Wolcott, friend of Outthinker and co-founder and chair of The World Innovation Network, also joined the discussion. For future-focused conversations and innovation advocacy, he recommends looking outside of your organization.

Paraphrasing The Bible, Wolcott advises, “Never a prophet in your own land. Don’t try to make the case on your own. A great slide deck and Excel spreadsheet won’t sell the future.” Seek external “prophets” from startups, corporations, universities, and/or investors. “Most of all, make sure they’re people your colleagues are likely to respect.”

Delivering your innovation intentions in the right way can ensure that your leadership teams and employees receive the message. At Outthinker, we use a simple framework called the Influence “GAME” that can guide and shape the innovation culture you desire for your organization.

The Influence “GAME”

Corporate innovators often face the obstacles of going up against the core business and influencing culture without having the official authority to do so. But the most successful among them view this political challenge as part of the fun—hence why we call the following framework the Influence “GAME.” It stands for Goal, Audience, Message, Expression.

  1. Goal: What goal do you want to achieve? In this case, your goals are to convince your organization to shift its focus toward innovative ideas, projects, or investments.
  2. Audience: Whom do you need to influence or get input from? OSN strategists recommend involving executive sponsors early in the process. A CSO for a leading construction company said her organization formed a second executive team that would make decisions on innovation projects and put its focus beyond the core business.
  3. Message: What do you want to say—or learn? This is where you’ll want to explore naming options, like the earlier example of switching from “innovation” to “platform extension” as a title. Equally important is setting separate innovation metrics. Innovation accounting expert Dan Toma is an excellent resource for determining the right metrics to track.
  4. Expression: How will you deliver the message? Remember Wolcott’s advice: Never a prophet in your own land. Who is the right person to get your message across? If not you, is there an up-and-coming startup, a company outside your industry, or an intrapreneurial team that is already experiencing wins in the area? Outthinker CSOs also recommend co-funding projects with academia as well as keeping a close eye on venture capitalist investments.

Conclusion

Working in an organization, you are constantly involved in two “games.” At a high level, you play a part in the strategic GAME. This is the big-picture, long-term mission—the innovation projects that could have a major impact a few years down the line. Whether you achieve that mission is determined by the everyday game: the habits, routines, and language that make up the tactical side.

If you can strategize and focus your innovation messaging for the everyday game, you improve your chances at winning the long-term game.

Photo credit: Tata Innovation Center at Cornell Tech, Weiss/Manfredi 

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