Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

obstacles to innovation

Innovation’s Speech Impediment

It's not a good idea if I don't understand it.

It’s not a good idea if I don’t understand it.

One of the most important obstacles to innovation is the cultural rift between technical and non-technical managers. The problem is not the technology per se, but the communication of the technology. Simply put, technologists often baffle non-technical executives and baffled executives won’t support change.

To promote innovation, we need to master the art of speaking between two different cultures: technical and non-technical. We need to find a common language and vocabulary. Most importantly, we need to speak to business needs and opportunities, not to the technology itself.

In my Managing Technology class, my students act as the CIO of a fictional company called Vair. The students study Vair’s operations (in a 12-page case study) and then recommend how technical innovations could improve business operations.

Among other things, they present a technical innovation to a non-technical audience. They always come up with interesting ideas and useful technologies. And they frequently err on the side of being too technical. Their presentations are technically sound but would be baffling to most non-technical executives.

Here are the tips I give to my students on giving a persuasive presentation to a non-technical audience. I thought you might find them useful as well.

Benefits and the so what question – we often state intermediary benefits that are meaningful to technologists but not meaningful to non-technical executives. Here’s an example, “By moving to the cloud, we can consolidate our applications”. Technologists know what that means and can intuit the benefits. Non-technical managers can’t. To get your message across, run a so what dialogue in your head,

Statement: “By moving to the cloud, we can consolidate our applications.”

Question: “So what?”

Statement: “That will allow us to achieve X.”

Question: “So what?”

Statement: “That means we can increase Y and reduce Z.”

Question: “So what?”

Statement: “Our stock price will increase by 12%”

Asking so what three or four times is usually enough to get to a logical end point that both technical and non-technical managers can easily understand.

Give context and comparisons – sometimes we have an idea in mind and present only that idea, with no comparisons. We might, for instance, present J.D. Edwards as if it’s the only choice in ERP software. If you were buying a house, you would probably look at more than one option. You want to make comparisons and judge relative value. The same holds true in a technology presentation. Executives want to believe that they’re making a choice rather than simply rubber-stamping a recommendation. You can certainly guide them toward your preferred solution. By giving them a choice, however, the executives will feel more confident that they’ve chosen wisely and, therefore, will support the recommendation more strongly.

Show, don’t tell – chances are that technologists have coined new jargon and acronyms to describe the innovation. Chances are that non-technical people in the audience won’t understand the jargon — even if they’re nodding their heads. Solution: use stories, analogies, or examples:

  • Stories – explain how the innovation came about, who invented it, and why. Put real people in the story. Explain what problems existed before the innovation arrived. How is the world better now?
  • Analogies – compare it to something that the audience knows and understands. A Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), for instance, is remarkably similar to a modular stereo system.
  • Examples – tell the story of other companies that are using the technology. What benefits have they gained?

Words, words, words – often times we prepare a script for a presentation and then put most of it on our slides. The problem is that the audience will either listen to you or read your slides. They won’t do both. You want them to listen to you – you’re much more important than the slides. You’ll need to simplify your slides. The text on the slide should capture the headline. You should tell the rest of the story.

If you follow these tips, the executives in your audience are much more likely to comprehend the innovation’s benefits. If they comprehend the benefits, they’re much more likely to support the innovation.

(If you’d like a copy of the Vair case study, just send me an e-mail. I’m happy to share it.)

Innovation Assimilation



In 1983, when I was a product manager at NBI, we were second only to Wang in the word processing and office automation market. Then along came the personal computer and disrupted Wang, NBI, CPT and every other vendor of dedicated word processing equipment.

I’ve written about this previously as an example of disruptive innovation. But I could also describe it as assimilative innovation. NBI’s products did one thing – word processing — and did it very well. The PC, on the other hand, was multifunctional. It could do many things, including word processing (although not as well as NBI). The multifunction device assimilated and displaced the single function device.

We’ve seen many examples of assimilative innovation. When I bicycled across America, I bought a near-top-of-the-line digital camera to record my adventures. It took great pictures. It still takes great pictures. But I hardly ever use it. My smartphone does a lot of things, including taking great pictures. Though my smartphone’s pictures are not as good as my camera’s, they’re good enough. Additionally, the smartphone is a lot more convenient.

Years ago, the automotive industry produced an odd example of innovation assimilation. American cars had a big hole in the dashboard (fascia) where you could slot in a radio and cassette player. You were supposed to buy the audio equipment from the car manufacturer but consumers quickly figured out that they could get it cheaper from after-market vendors.

So, did the auto manufacturers lower their prices? No way, Instead, they re-designed their dashboards so that the audio equipment came in several pieces that an after-market vendor couldn’t easily mimic. In other words, the manufacturers tired to assimilate the competition.

In this case, it didn’t work. The after-market vendors sued, claiming illegal restraint of trade. The courts agreed and ordered the manufacturers to go back to the big hole in the dashboard. I suspect this was a precedent when Nestlé sued to stop third-party vendors from selling coffee capsules for the popular Nespresso coffee maker. Nestlé lost. The courts ruled that Nestlé had created a platform that allowed for permisionless innovation.

What will be assimilated next? I suspect it’s going to be fitness bands. I wear the Jawbone band on my wrist to keep track of my activity and calories. It’s pretty good and seems to compete well with three or four other fitness bands on the market. The new Apple Watch, however, appears to have similar (or even better) functionality built into it. The Apple Watch is, of course, multi-functional. If history is any guide, the multi-functional and convenient device will displace the single purpose device, even if it doesn’t offer better functionality.

What’s the moral? When you buy a single function device, be aware that it’s likely to be assimilated into a multi-function device in the future. That’s not a bad thing as long as you’re aware of the risk.

Innovation and Diversity

I should have studied liberal arts.

Do you have an MBA? So do most of the people I work with at my client organizations. One of the ways I add value is merely by the fact that I don’t have an MBA.

It’s not that having an MBA is a bad thing. It’s that so many companies are run by people educated in the same way — they all have MBAs. The fact that I don’t have an MBA doesn’t mean that I think better than they do. But I do think differently. Sometimes that creates problems. Oftentimes, it creates opportunity.

If all your employees think alike, then you limit your opportunity to be creative. Creativity comes from connections. By connecting concepts or ideas in different ways, you can create something entirely new. This works at an individual level as well as an organizational level. If you read only things that you agree with, you merely reinforce existing connections. If you read things that you disagree with, you’ll create new connections. That’s good for your mental health. It’s also good for your creativity.

At the organizational level, connecting new concepts can lead to important innovations. Indeed, the ability to innovate is the strongest argument I know for diversity in the workforce. If you bring together people with different backgrounds and help them form teams, interesting things start to happen.

In this sense, “diversity” includes ethnic, economic, and cultural diversity. It especially includes academic diversity. As a leader, you want your engineers, say, to mix and mingle with your humanities graduates. Perhaps your lit majors could improve your MBAs’ communication skills. Perhaps your philosophers can help you see things in an entirely new light. In today’s world, innovation requires that you bring together insights from multiple disciplines to “mash up” ideas and create new ways of seeing and doing.

Most companies keep data on ethnic diversity within their workforce. However, they don’t usually keep statistics on the different academic specialties represented among their employees. You may well have enough MBAs. But do you have enough linguists? Philosophers? Sociologists? Anthropologists? Artists? If not, it’s time to start recruiting. The result could well be a healthier, more innovative company.


My Social Media

YouTube Twitter Facebook LinkedIn

Newsletter Signup