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Are employees sharing the common language of innovation?

5 min read


At times, corporate communication can seem like learning how to shoot a bow and arrow.

That’s not because you’re trying to take your competitors out “Hunger Games” style (though you may be). Think of the last time you learned about a new hobby, like archery. Not only did you have to learn how to hold the bow, position the arrow, and release, but you also had to learn the terminology. To be able to engage effectively, you had to learn a new language. The language of archery isn’t the same as the language of woodworking; if you attempt to speak like a woodworker, you’ll fall wide of the mark.

While this is just a game, it’s a good example of what happens when everyone fails to be on the same page in an enterprise. For effective communication — and, therefore, innovation — everyone must be aligned. As a business owner, it’s up to you to set a common language for innovation among employees.

Embrace lingua franca

Any “language that is used among people who speak various different languages” is a “lingua franca.” Your business needs this to enable the communication necessary for innovation.

There’s an ocean of research on this subject, most of it extolling the virtues of considered communication and bemoaning its absence. “The Role of Communication in Successful Innovation” found that many challenges arise when employees don’t have a shared language of innovation.

Strategies to streamline

A best practice for innovation is to bring together people who don’t share a common expertise. But this can slow innovation unless a common language is introduced. Complexity of interaction, be it the area of inquiry or number of participants, demands that there’s a way to communicate effectively with a common frame of reference.

In addition, misunderstandings can be prevented — or more readily rectified — with a shared language.

Employ these five strategies to create, encourage, and streamline this language within your team:

1. Identify the essentials.

What are the key factors that must be present in your language of innovation? Start with the core of your strategy, and build your language from there. Consider the following common frames of reference:

  • Design thinking is the application of aesthetic design practices to human-centered design.
  • Observational studies are the application of ethnographic practices to conduct qualitative research to identify unmet user needs.
  • Users, stakeholders, and customers are the people design thinking is practiced for.
  • Industrial design is the process of designing the shape and features of manufactured products.
  • Ideation is the process of generating new ideas. This term is often used synonymously with brainstorming, but it’s actually a broader concept.
  • Abstract concept is an immaterial idea that exists as a feeling or quality.
  • An innovation ecosystem is a concept that makes use of a variety of resources to produce fresh ideas beyond a single product or service.
  • Multidisciplinary collaboration is when people work together to include different subjects of study in one activity.

Each of these concepts anchors key aspects of innovation while enabling diverse participants to work together to meet users’ unmet needs.

2. Equip your team for success.

It’s imperative that you provide training to those who are expected to use the language. The Business Innovation Factory, a progressive not-for-profit think tank in Providence, R.I., has adopted human-centered design as its language of innovation. BIF trains its partners and clients on this approach, ensuring all collaborative innovation efforts are effectively aligned.

3. Oil the machine.

Provide mechanisms that support the use of your language, such as clear expectations, environmental support (like signs and physical indicators), rewards for using the terminology appropriately, and feedback on the method’s use over time.

4. Set your eyes on the prize.

Make your language of innovation visible. Incorporate the language in all communications, from emails to town halls. In your office, use strategically placed signage to demonstrate use of the language in places where it’s expected. For example, at IDEO, all brainstorming rooms have guidelines for effective brainstorming displayed.

5. See how it measures up.

Conduct concept reviews by asking questions driven by the way you’re using the innovation process. For example, when using human-centered design principles, it’s good practice to ask, “Where is the user represented?” By continually tracking your company’s progress, you’ll be better able to identify areas that could use a language refresher or opportunities to tweak the way you communicate the approach.

We’re already seeing the next generation of entrepreneurs get primed for innovation. The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford has built its academic program around using a common language. That effort will seed the common language of design thinking for innovation across nonprofits, agencies, and enterprises around the world.

In the end, innovation benefits from shared concepts and terminology. A common language of innovation prevents misunderstandings, aligns leaders and employees, and breaks down barriers to good thinking. Most importantly, it ensures that everyone is aligned with your business strategy, meaning your arrow will hit its mark every time.

Andrew (Drew) C. Marshall is the principal of Primed Associates, an innovation consultancy. He is a co-host of a weekly innovation-focused Twitter chat, #innochat; the founder, host, and producer of Ignite Princeton; and a contributor to the Innovation Excellence blog.