Innovation jargon - we see it and hear it every day. For practitioners, it’s part of our vocabulary. But does our audience know what we’re saying? Maybe at a tech startup or in a Brooklyn coffee shop. But at an old-line manufacturer, it can sound like the babble of another new corporate initiative. Instead of creating excitement, it causes aversion because we’ve made something simple seem complicated.
My first innovation team started out as a disaster. I was fresh off my experience at the Certified Innovation Mentoring Program (CIMP) at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. I’d been provided tools to build a culture of innovation at my company. I thought I’d absorbed everything.
I was wrong.
An important lesson from the CIMP was to customize concepts to the context.
I missed that part.
Back home, I was ready to address management’s directive to “form an innovation team at manufacturing Site A”. That site had a reputation for problem solving and creativity, so it was a good place to start.
I was ready to go. We were going to make a dent in the universe!
Well, maybe not in the universe. But at least in our four-state region.
Site A is a heavy manufacturing plant. It is big, loud, dirty, hot and old. The parking lot has pickup trucks, no Hondas. It is not a place to share your opinion on the dangers of smokeless tobacco. It turns a profit every month, has a strong union and many employees are lifers. They take pride in safety, high quality and deep knowledge of the operation.
The GM identified the team members, twelve in all.
I sent an introductory email with a packet of materials to prepare everyone. It contained colored graphs, multi-columned charts and even some important-looking footnotes. It had words like “ideate”, “disruptive”, “co-creation”, “business centricity”, “framing”, “move-to-market”, and “iterate and pivot”. I felt good when I hit “Send”.
The next morning, I got my first dose of reality with a reply that said, “What the hell is this?”
What was this?
Oh well, things would be alright. I’d bring this guy around. I shook it off.
The next week, I traveled to the site for our first meeting where I was going to outline our mission and process. I felt great as everyone entered the room. Safety goggles and hard hats filled the table.
Then the rest of the reality came.
ME: “Hi everyone, I’m excited to have you on our Innovation Team. We’re going to do great things and have a lot of fun”.
TEAM MEMBER #1: “What’s this stuff you sent us last week?”
ME: “That’s our innovation process. It is our road map.”
TEAM MEMBER #1: “It wouldn’t print - your margins are too small.”
ME: “Thanks, I’ll fix that.”
TEAM MEMBER #2: “What’s 'discovery' mean?”
ME: “Here it means looking outside the company for things which we can apply here.”
TEAM MEMBER #2: “Sounds like Sherlock Holmes. ‘Watson, I’ve made a 'discovery'!’.”
REST OF TEAM: Laughter
ME: “Well maybe it’s a little like that.”
TEAM MEMBER #3: “Is this the ‘new Six Sigma’?”
TEAM MEMBER #3: Well it sure as hell sounds like some kinda Six Sigma b***s**t. I'm so sick of hearing about Six Sigma.”
ME: “No, it’s nothing like that. Innovation is bringing something new that can positively affect our business.”
TEAM MEMBER #3: “Well it looks like Six Sigma to me. Looks like ‘Seven Sigma’”
REST OF TEAM: Laughter
ME: “I understand it may look that way, but it’s not like that. It’s concepts we use every day.”
TEAM MEMBER #4: “Ideate? Ideate? No idea what that means. Whatever it is, it sure as hell ain't something I use every day. Ideate...jiminy christmas.”
ME: “Ideate is just taking things we learn in our discovery to generate potential ideas.”
TEAM MEMBER #4: “Well, it sounds like 'I eat eight'.”
REST OF TEAM: Laughter
TEAM MEMBER #5 (holding up a page from the packet): “I count 35 different activities on your chart. Do you really expect us to do all this? I mean, come on. I have a day job.”
ME: “No, but…"
TEAM MEMBER #6 (interrupts): “I remember this guy from corporate - came here about three years ago. He had this thing called ‘Play to Win’ he was all excited about. He brought a bunch of books and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”
TEAM MEMNBER #7: “That was five years ago. I remember ‘cause he was here in the middle of our ISO audit. I just remember him being in the way.”
TEAM MEMBER #6: “That’s right. I think his name was Frank and I don’t think he’d ever been in a plant before. Said he was allergic dust.”
TEAM MEMBER #7: “I heard he got canned.”
TEAM MEMBER #3 (to me): “Well don’t waste our time with that Frank stuff. I get that this ain’t Six Sigma. But I can’t be spending time learning some new program. I see stuff like ‘continuity’ and ‘lens smashing’ here and it looks like complicated b***s**t.”
TEAM MEMBER #2: “Your methodology is, what, a half day workshop?”
ME: “Well, no, it is not meant that way. The methodology is a guide for all our work. There will be workshops involved, but..."
TEAM MEMBER #2 (Interrupting): “Well how long will the whole thing take?”
ME: “It depends on our objective.”
TEAM MEMBER #6 (Interrupting): “No offense, but I think all this stuff is garbage. I read Steve Jobs’ biography last year.”
TEAM MEMBER #4: “Me too. Great book.”
TEAM MEMBER #3: “Do you still have your copy?”
TEAM MEMBER #4: “No it was a library book – returned it. Anyway, Jobs never went for all this ‘methodology’ or ‘network innovation’ or ‘migration path’ stuff. He said, ‘This is what I want. Go into that room and make it. I don't want to see you until it’s done. No excuses.’ He used his power of will to make things happen. That’s why Apple is successful. He didn’t talk about it. He did it.”
ME: “I understand what you’re saying. But we’re not Apple. We’re trying to innovate at a 170-year-old manufacturing company that makes products that last for decades.”
TEAM MEMBER #1: “I don’t like Apple anymore. They lost their edge when Jobs died. I moved to Android.”
TEAM MEMBER #4 (to TEAM MEMBER #1): “Check out my new Fitbit.”
ME (to myself): “I wish I were anywhere but here.”
TEAM MEMBER #5: “Do we get CE credits for being here today?”
I had become my worst nightmare - the idiot from corporate.
The problem wasn’t the concepts, it was my language. These were manufacturers. They made things from iron, steel and other metals. They didn’t talk about “ideating” or “conceptualizing”. They said things like “urgent”, “hot”, “truckload”, “safety”, “look out” and so forth.
Innovation has its own lingo. It helps us develop and guide our activities. But just like other disciplines, it is not familiar to everyone. By not adapting to the setting, I caused cynicism and hostility. To my team, the concepts sounded like rubbish.
The CIMP is a body of knowledge, not a script.
Here’s what I did:
- I stuck a Mark Twain quote on my monitor. It reads, "The more you explain it, the less I understand it."
- I guarded my written and spoken words. No more “paradigm shifting”, “outside the box”, “concept realization”, “capability transfer”, etc.
- I changed my approach with the team. Rather than presenting a methodology, I lead them in developing our own roadmap. I used the CIMP Unified Innovation Methodology as a guide, not a prescription.
- I became an innovation jargon filter. Even as my learning continues, it is my responsibility to present and teach concepts in a way everyone can understand.
From the ashes rose a Phoenix. The team became a source of ideas that changed processes, improved a product, and created a crisis response program. These people are great innovators.
My lesson: Always use clear language. As my company’s innovation champion, I must make the subject accessible to all.
Good luck and remember what a wise man named Mr. T once said: “Don’t gimme none o’ that jibba-jabba.”