We all know innovation has its own language conventions, rich with revolutions, evolutions, ecosystems, and more. This may seem like a harmless dialect that simply reflects the nature of the work. Innovators, after all, are trying to communicate the promise of something that may not exist yet, and sometimes that requires some optimistic adornment.
But maybe the metaphors and hyperbole signal something more important. Maybe the language is used because of a lack of quantitative data, or the fact an idea isn't as completely formed as it needs to be. And if we could recognize that, we could use these communication tools only when they're effective (or, put a better way, never when they're not effective). We may be able to get buy-in on important innovations that would otherwise be denied.
We wanted to learn more. In a cross-industry survey of 8 firms, we asked over 200 innovation-focused practitioners to review a list of established and emerging technologies (a list that included Apple products, Netflix, eBay and several others) and then tell us why any item on the list eventually became successful.
We were particularly interested in how respondents talk about innovative ideas in the absence of quantitative market or company data, which was the case in this exercise. With only their own informal observations and intuitions, how would they communicate why an idea flies or flops?
Analyzing the data, we found that, when they lacked quantitative analysis, people resorted to three linguistic tools to describe innovations.
- Metaphor is the substitution of figurative language for literal language. For instance, one respondent attributed eBay's success to the fact that it "added spice" to the bland concept of auctions by employing exploiting the Internet and online communities.
- Hyperbole is exaggerated language used for emphasis or effect. "[The Apple product] reinvented an entire industry" one respondent told us, while another noted in similarly grandiose terms how the same technology "is impossible to stop."
- Revisionist rhetoric is the simplistic, inaccurate, or self-serving characterization of events to create or support an argument. We encountered many varieties here, though a common form includes a vague reference to "an evolution" or "a revolution." For example, "this product was part of a natural evolution..." or "...an intriguing concept, but failed to create a true revolution in consumer behavior."
You can see below in the wordle some of the most common uses of these tools from our research. Given the prevalence of these approaches in our sample, is it possible that you too might also embed them in your own communications?
Below we offer four suggestions to anyone interested in communicating the power or potential of an idea:
Recognize how you are using metaphor. Previous research shows that the use of metaphor in innovation-focused contexts can help focus attention or highlight key aspects of an idea in a universal way. But be careful: a metaphor can also signal to others that you haven't made the idea concrete enough--or that you lack solid data. On the latter point: We were intrigued to find that the same respondents that so frequently used metaphor and the other two descriptive approaches also reported frustration in creating buy-in for their ideas.
At a multi-national engineering and construction firm, for instance, nearly three-quarters of respondents (73%) said that their best idea failed to convince either an executive or a review committee that it deserved further resources or consideration. This finding was fairly typical across the firms we surveyed. In follow-up research will look into our suspicion that they were using metaphor as a substitute--rather than as a supplement--to tangible data.
When you have a potentially good idea but not good evidence, begin with experimentation or prototyping. Our research suggest that respondents too-often begin instead by putting their energy into speculative communications (containing the descriptive approaches described above), and lose the personal will or organizational support necessary to push the idea to a testing phase.
Even the motivated respondents that did eventually develop tests met discouraging results since the data came in too late. At one large company, for instance, almost one-quarter (23%) of respondents went ahead and built a useful prototype of their idea only after they failed to generate interest through pitches and formal communications. While several respondents report that they still personally use the prototype today, their colleagues and customers don't. In our follow-up research we will investigate our inference that reversing this sequence--by prototyping ahead of communication--will result in more compelling pitches.
Learn when to use metaphor effectively. At organizations we studied, practitioners often informally bounce ideas off colleagues far and wide. For instance, at one global professional services firm, a strong majority (57%) of employees say their innovation-focused communications are multi-directional--reaching across seniority levels and departments. In these boundary-spanning communications (that should occur after you find data or generate it through a quick experiment), an easily understood metaphor can sometimes improve an idea's ability to travel efficiently around a large organization.
Moreover, even the most quantitative organizations will still have a cohort who appreciate and evaluate new ideas through an aesthetic lens. At one engineering firm, 44% of respondents see innovation as equally art and science, while 32% of respondents see innovation as more art than science. (And only 1% see innovation as pure science.) In such a culture, pitching an idea with apt metaphor in combination with hard-evidence would be welcomed, and perhaps expected.
Put hyperbole and revisionist rhetoric in their place. When communicating why your idea has potential, it might seem obvious that you should avoid hyperbole or revisionist rhetoric. Though surprisingly, there's one important organizational context in which such flourishes might occasionally be constructive: informal team meetings where colleagues implicitly understand that certain statements aren't intended to be taken literally. Our research suggests that at least one-third of ideas that are eventually commercialized originate in team settings, where trust and contextual awareness is high, and where an occasional "this idea could revolutionize everything!" can provoke thought and discussion.
Are your best ideas welcomed and implemented? Or do they tend to fall short?
H. James Wilson (@hjameswilson) is senior researcher at Babson Executive Education. He is co-author of the forthcoming book, The New Entrepreneurial Leader: Developing Leaders Who Shape Social and Economic Opportunity (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011).
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